Tuesday, November 9, 2010

10-11-07: 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Thirty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Maccabees 7:1-2,9-14 / Psalm 17 / 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5 / Luke 20:27-38
The Bible can be very relevant – even when it doesn’t mean to be. Take today’s gospel, for instance. Or, as Henny Youngman might put it: “Take my wife…please.” For those currently concerned about perceived threats on the institution of marriage - from gay marriage initiatives to Mormon polygamy (one man, many wives) - today’s gospel adds polyandry to the mix (one woman, many husbands). Those who pose the conundrum to Jesus aren’t really in favor of a woman having many husbands. Those Sadducees, ironically, are the conservatives in the debate; they’re fighting against the infiltration of foreign ideas and heathen practices into the lives of the ordinary Jew. Far from promoting polyandry in the next life, the Sadducees are arguing against the notion of any afterlife at all: no heaven, no hell – when you’re dead, the conservative Sadducees are saying, you’re dead. The Sadducees accepted only the first five books of what we call the Old Testament where there’s no mention of an afterlife. Matter of fact, the only explicit mention of an afterlife is found in the books of the Maccabees and Daniel, not part of the Jewish Bible – then or now.

Afterlife is something that you would assume to be a standard belief, across the board, from Egyptian pharaohs to Siberian shamans. Christianity, likewise, seems imbued with the notion of an afterlife, from the are-you-saved rantings of TV evangelists to old-fashioned Catholics lighting candles for souls recently deceased or long-ago departed. So, it’s more than a bit ambiguous why the notion of an afterlife wasn’t part of Israelite religion or mainline Judaism until a short bit before Jesus’ time. The Pharisees were into it, but the Sadducees thought it a pagan idea. That’s why the Sadducees pose the question to Jesus about the woman married seven times in this life: So, you can just about hear them say - with a bit of a proto-Yiddish inflection, whose wife will she be in the afterlife?

The Sadducees, ardently religious in their own rite, would ironically find modern day allies in the likes of Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, militant atheists who think religion, especially the bit about an afterlife, just part of a childish wish list. Yet, while there are a growing number of agnostics and atheists in this post-Christian era, there has never been such a persistent interest in the possibility of an afterlife. From Dinesh D’Souza’s just-published best seller Life After Death: The Evidence to Clint Eastwood’s recently released film Hereafter – fascination about what might happen to us after we die is not losing, but gaining adherents.

Jesus and the Pharisees were part of a movement that wanted to bring to Judaism a fascination with the afterlife, even though it may have been a foreign import (paradise, after all, is a Persian word). They were not afraid to entertain the possibility that God reveals his truth and his promises through other religions as well. While it may indeed be true, as some notable theologians have recently pointed out, that Catholics have abandoned talking about “the four last things” (death, judgment, heaven and hell) as tenets of the faith, we are as mesmerized as everyone else by those mysteries when they’re presented through the popular imagination. To my mind the best, most recent, case for the uniquely Catholic doctrine of Purgatory was made (albeit unintentionally) by M. Night Shyamalan in his 1999 film The Sixth Sense. Our adventure doesn’t end with death, the film seems to be saying: we still have things to do and places to go, our connections with each other may indeed be eternal.

November (from Halloween to El Día de los Muertos to All Souls’ Day) is the month when many are reminded of the dead and what might have happened to them. Those mysteries concerning consciousness and awareness after death continue to fascinate us and engage our imagination which, in the end, may be the realest thing of all. For instance, you might imagine that, at this very moment, in some other dimension of existence, those argue-some Sadducees are sitting ‘round the karaoke machine with John Lennon singing Imagine – as in “imagine there’s no heaven…” Still arguing against the notion of an afterlife unaware they’re in the midst of it. Sort of like many of us here and now, on this earth, in this life, remaining oblivious to the mysterious connections we share with those on the other side of that chasm we call death, unmindful of the many graces we have already received from that unseen yet merciful providence: having been blessed, as the poet put it – unawares.

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