32nd Sunday of the Year 2 Maccabees 7:1–2, 9–14; 2 Thessalonians 2:16–3:5;Luke 20:27–38
Life after death That there is life after death is clear.What that life is like is known only in general terms. Colonel David Marcus was killed in battle during the Israeli War in June 1948. In his wallet was found a card that spoke poetically of death. It read: “I am standing upon the seashore.
A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the ocean. “She is an object of beauty and strength. And I stand and watch her, until at length she is only a ribbon of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other. Then someone at my side says, ‘There! She’s gone!’ “Gone where? Gone from my sight—that is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side, and just as able to bear her load of living freight—to the place of destination. Her diminished size is in me, not in her. “And just at the moment when someone at my side says, ‘There! She’s gone!’ there are other voices ready to take up the glad shout, ‘There! She comes!’ And that is dying.’’ That poetic description of death fits well with the Bible’s teaching on death. Death is not the end of life. It is merely a change of life. It is the beginning of the life that God ultimately had in mind for us when he created us. The Bible is absolutely clear on the fact of life after death. But the Bible is less clear on what life after death is like. It talks about it only in general terms. We see that, for example, in today’s Scripture readings. Take the gospel reading. Jesus affirms the existence of an afterlife, but he does not say what it is like. Elsewhere Jesus speaks of two different states in the afterlife: heaven and hell. Let’s look briefly at each of those states. First, heaven. In John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of heaven as being eternal life, saying: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever.” John 6:51 And later on in the same Gospel, he says: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me, and I live in him.” John 6:56 And so Jesus speaks of heaven in general terms. It is a state in which we share his life forever. Paul said of this state: “What no one ever saw or heard, what no one ever thought could happen, is the very thing God prepared for those who love him. But it was to us that God made known his secret by means of his Spirit.” 1 Corinthians 2:9–10 That brings us to the second state: hell. One of the many places where Jesus talks about hell is in the parable about the sheep and the goats. It says that at the last judgment people will be divided into two groups. To the one group the king says: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world.” Matthew 25:34 To the other group the king says: “Away from me, you that are under God’s curse! Away to the eternal fire which has been prepared for the Devil and his angels!” Matthew 25:41 The parable makes it clear that hell is eternal separation from God. The parable also talks about fire, but this cannot be fire in a physical sense, because it is talking about a spiritual reality. The impression we carry away, however, is absolutely clear. We should avoid the state of eternal separation from God as rigorously as we would avoid being cast into fire for all eternity. And so Jesus affirms the existence of a state called hell. But he describes it only in general terms. Finally, there is a third state in the afterlife called purgatory. It is a state of purgation, or cleansing. There’s an insightful remark about purgatory in James Boswell’s famous biography of Samuel Johnson, the great British writer. When Boswell asks Johnson his opinion on the Catholic teaching about purgatory, Johnson surprises him by saying that the teaching makes excellent sense. His reasoning is that most people who die are not so bad as to deserve hell, and not so good as to deserve immediate entry into heaven. So there must be an intermediate state where some sort of purgation takes place. When asked about praying for those in purgatory, Dr. Johnson surprises Boswell again. He says it’s as proper to pray for them as it is to pray for our brothers and sisters who are still alive. In this, Johnson echoes the teaching of the Second Book of Maccabees, where a man is praised for offering sacrifice that the dead may be freed from their sins. (2 Maccabees 12:43–46) The idea of purgatory surfaced, in a popular way, in the film The Heavenly Kid. The movie deals with a young man who is killed in a car wreck. After his death the man is sent to a place called midtown to work off the evil he committed during his life. The task that the man is given is to return to earth and help someone who needs assistance. The person he is assigned to help turns out to be his own teenage son, whom he fathered out of wedlock. At this point the man learns that his son is scheduled to die at a young age in a car wreck, just as he did. He is shocked and pleads for his son’s life, offering himself in exchange. It is this generous, perfect act of love that cleanses him of the sins of his past life. It is this generous, perfect act of love that prepares him for entry into eternal life. Purgatory is something like that. It is a state that purifies and prepares us for entry into eternal life. This brings us back to our starting point in today’s gospel. Jesus affirms the existence of life after death. But he describes it only in general terms. For a clear knowledge of what afterlife is like, we’ll have to wait until we experience it firsthand after our own death. Let’s conclude by quoting again the words of St. Paul concerning heaven. They are a beautiful summary of our faith and our hope concerning life after death. Paul says: “What no one ever saw or heard, what no one ever thought could happen, is the very thing God prepared for those who love him. But it was to us that God made known his secret by means of his Spirit.”
32nd Sunday of the Year 2 Maccabees 7:1–2, 9–14; 2 Thessalonians 2:16–3:5; Luke 20:27, 34–38 The twins We should live in this life in such a way as to be assured of the promise of eternal joy in the next. One day a mother conceived twins. One child was a girl; the other a boy. Months passed, and they developed. As they grew they sang for joy: “Isn’t it great to be alive!’’ Together they explored their mother’s womb. When they found their mother’s life cord, they shouted for joy: “How great is our mother’s love, that she shares her life with us!’’ Soon the twins began to change drastically. “What does this mean?’’ asked the boy. “It means that our life in the womb is coming to an end,’’ said the girl. “But I don’t want to leave the womb,’’ said the boy. “I want to stay here forever.’’ “We have no choice,’’ said the girl. “But maybe there is life after birth.’’ “How can there be?’’ asked the boy. “We will shed our mother’s cord, and how is life possible without it? Besides, there’s evidence in the womb that others were here before us, and none of them ever came back to tell us that there is life after birth. No, this is the end.’’ And so the boy fell into despair, saying, “If life in the womb ends in death, what’s its purpose? What’s its meaning? Maybe we don’t even have a mother. Maybe we made her up just to feel good.’’ “But we must have a mother,’’ said the girl. “How else did we get here? How else do we stay alive?’’ And so the last days in the womb were filled with deep questioning and fear. Finally, the moment of birth arrived. When the twins opened their eyes, they cried for joy. What they saw exceeded their wildest dreams. That story is a parable, of course. It compares life in this world to life in a womb. Just as the twins wondered about life after birth and what it is like, so we sometimes wonder about life after death and what it is like. And just as life after birth exceeded the dreams of the twins, so life after death will exceed our dreams. In the words of St. Paul: “What no one ever saw or heard, what no one ever thought could happen, is the very thing God prepared for those who love him.” 1 Corinthians 2:9 The parable of the twins fits in with today’s Scripture readings. For both the gospel and the first reading deal explicitly with life after death. And so it might be fitting for us to reflect briefly on that subject. Specifically, we might reflect on a very practical question: How can a busy person in this world live his or her ordinary life in such a way as to be assured of eternal life in the next world? This question is addressed in a book by Doris Lee McCoy called Megatraits: Twelve Traits of Successful People. One of the people Ms.McCoy interviewed while researching the book was Peter Coors, president of the Brewing Division of the Adolph Coors Company. Adolph Coors entered the United States as a stowaway on a ship from Germany. He came to America with no passport, no papers, and no money. From this unlikely beginning, he founded one of the most successful and prestigious companies in America. Peter Coors is Adolph Coors’s great-grandson. When Ms.McCoy asked Peter what his idea of success was, he responded in this way: “Success for me is pretty basic. First, when my life is completed, success would be standing in front of God and feeling that, although I’ve made some mistakes, I’ve always had [God] at the center of my life. “Second, success for me is having a successful family and a successful marriage. That’s a very important part of my life. “Third, success to me is, after my tenure with the company is complete, being able to say that I . . . helped not only the company but also the individual employee.’’ Those three observations by Peter Coors contain the answer to our question: How can a busy person live in this world in such a way as to be assured of eternal life in the next world? First, we should live our life in this world in such a way that when we stand before God after death, we will do so with the assurance that God was at the center of our life on earth. Second, we should live in such a way that, next to love for God, love for the family that God entrusted to us was our top priority in life. Finally, we should live out our chosen career in such a way that we will make a positive contribution not only to our chosen field and work but also to the people with whom we worked. If we can do that, we will have indeed lived our lives in a way that will assure us of St. Paul’s promise: “What no one ever saw or heard, what no one ever thought could happen, is the very thing God prepared for those who love him.” Let me conclude with a poem. It makes an appropriate, practical conclusion to what we have just said. The poem is entitled “Anyway.’’ People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. Love them anyway! If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway! If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway! The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway! Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway! The biggest [person] with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest [people] with the smallest minds. Think big anyway! People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for some underdogs anyway! What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway! People really need help but may attack you if you help them. Help people anyway! Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you’ve got anyway. Author unknown
32nd Sunday of the Year 2 Maccabees 7:1–2, 9–14; 2 Thessalonians 2:16–3:5; Luke 20:27, 34–38 Life after life Heaven is seeing God, being in union with God, and sharing in God’s life. Jesus said,] “[T]he dead are raised to life.” Luke 20:37 J ohn Quincy Adams was the sixth president of the United States. He was also a religious man. Years after his presidency, when he was an old man in his 80s, he was tottering down a street in Boston. A friend happened by and said, “How is John Quincy Adams today?” John stopped and said: “John Quincy Adams is very well, thank you. But the house he lives in . . . is tottering on its foundations. The walls are badly shattered. . . . “The building trembles with every wind, and I think John Quincy Adams will have to move out before long. But he himself is very well, very well, thank you.” Quoted in God’s Presence in My Life by Edward W. Bauman (slightly adapted) John’s charming response to his friend makes the same point that Paul makes in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. Paul writes: [W]e know that when this tent we live in— our body here on earth— is torn down, God will have a house in heaven for us to live in, a home he himself has made, which will last forever. 2 Corinthians 5:1 That brings us to today’s Gospel. It touches on the famous debate between two Jewish religious groups: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees believed in life after death; the Sadducees did not. If I were a punster, I could say, “That’s why they were “sad, you see.” One day the Sadducees tried to make fun of Jesus’ teaching on life after death by posing an outlandish case of a woman who had seven husbands, each of whom had died while married to her. They asked Jesus smugly: “Now, on the day when the dead rise to life, whose wife will she be? All seven of them had married her.” Luke 20:33 You could almost hear the chuckles coming from the crowd. Jesus responded simply, saying that life in heaven is infinitely different from life on earth. Saint Paul described that difference in these thought-provoking words: “What no one ever saw or heard, what no one ever thought could happen, is the very thing God prepared for those who love him.” 1 Corinthians 2:9 That raises a question: If life in heaven is “what no one ever saw or heard,” how should we think of it? What image should we use when we meditate on it? Perhaps the simplest way to answer that question is to tell a true story. Years ago John Peterson wrote a popular hymn. It dealt with the joys of heaven. An excerpt from it reads: Over the sunset mountains, Heaven waits for me; Over the sunset mountains, Jesus my Savior I’ll see. Quoted by H.G.B. in The Upper Room magazine (March 1981) When Peterson first tried to sell his hymn, the publisher said, “John, leave Jesus out of the picture and spend more time talking about the joys of heaven.” Of course, Peterson refused. The reason is clear. If he left Jesus out of heaven, he’d have to leave out the Father and the Holy Spirit too, for they are one. Someone else made Peterson’s point even clearer, saying: If you leave out of heaven the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit— well, I have news for you, my friend. You no longer have heaven; you have hell. Yes, my friend, you have hell! Ibid. In other words, being in the presence of God is what heaven is all about. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit constitute the very essence of heaven. This brings us back to today’s Gospel. In the face of ridicule, Jesus affirms the existence of life after death. He also makes it clear that life in heaven is infinitely different from life on earth. Then, our joy will consist in being in the presence of God. Saint Augustine had this in mind, when he prayed to God, saying: Our hearts are made for you, O God, and they will not rest until they rest in you. In other words, we were made by God, and we were made for God. God is our origin; God is our home. God is our fulfillment and joy. An Eastern mystic used a more concrete and colorful image to illustrate that God is our origin and our home. He said: Picture a campfire on a summer night. As you watch it burn, you see it throw sparks into the air. They glow splendidly for a few seconds and then fall back into the fire. The campfire stands for God; the sparks stand for you and me. We come from God, we glow brightly for a few short years, and then we return to God. Our hearts are made for you, O God, and they will not rest until they rest in you. Let me conclude this way: Cardinal Bernardin finished his book The Gift of Peace about two weeks before his death. It gives us a lovely image of how we might think of life after death. He writes: It is the first day of November, and fall is giving way to winter. Soon the trees will lose their beautiful colors of their leaves and snow will cover the ground. . . . Chicago winters are harsh. It is a time of dying. But we know that spring will come with all its new life and wonder. It is quite clear that I will not be alive in the spring. But I will soon experience new life in a different way. . . . Many people have asked me to tell them about heaven and the afterlife. I sometimes smile at the request because I do not know any more than they do. Yet, when one young man asked . . . I made a connection. . . . The first time I travelled with my mother and sister to my parents’ homeland . . . in Italy, I felt as if I had been there before. After years of looking at my mother’s photo albums, I knew the mountains, the land, the houses, the people. As soon as we entered the valley, I said, “My God, I know this place. I am home.” Somehow I think crossing from this life into eternal life will be similar. I will be home.