Seven brothers and their mother were arrested and were being compelled by the king, under torture with whips and thongs, to partake of unlawful swine's flesh. One of them, acting as their spokesman, said, "What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors." And when he was at his last breath, he said, "You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws."
After him, the third was the victim of their sport. When it was demanded, he quickly put out his tongue and courageously stretched forth his hands and said nobly, "I got these from Heaven and because of his laws I disdain them and from him I hope to get them back again."
As a result the king himself and those with him were astonished at the young man's spirit, for he regarded his sufferings as nothing. After he too had died, they maltreated and tortured the fourth in the same way. When he was near death, he said, "One cannot but choose to die at the hands of mortals and to cherish the hope God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life!"
Lord, hear a cause that is just,
pay heed to my cry.
Turn your ear to my prayer:
no deceit is on my lips. (R./)
I kept my feet firmly in your paths;
there was no faltering in my steps.
I am here and I call, you will hear me, O God.
Turn your ear to me; hear my words. (R./)
Guard me as the apple of your eye.
Hide me in the shadow of your wings.
As for me, in my justice I shall see your face
and be filled, when I awake, with the sight of your glory. (R./)
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.
Finally, brothers and sisters, pray for us, so that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere, just as it is among you and that we may be rescued from wicked and evil people; for not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.
And we have confidence in the Lord concerning you, that you are doing and will go on doing the things that we command. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus to question him, "Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married and died childless; then the second and the third married her and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her."
Jesus said to them, "Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive."
We would think it foolish to set out on a journey without knowing where we were going. In a broad sense, of course, our pilgrimage through life is largely a path into the unknown, a journey towards the destiny God sets for us. The Maccabee family whose martyrdom is reported in the first reading, believed very firmly that God had a place for them beyond death. The faith in the after-life expressed by each of them at the point of death is the most explicit in non-Christian Jewish literature. During this month of the Holy Souls, it is good to recall our faith in the resurrection of the body, and the our Church's teaching about those who have gone before us and what kind of help we can hope to give them.
The Church has taught that for all those who die without fully repenting their sins, there is a purification in the next life. Allied to this is the belief that these departed souls can be helped by the prayers of the faithful still in this life, and especially through offering Mass on their behalf. The Church teaches nothing about the nature of Purgatory or its duration. In popular imagination Purgatory seems like hell with a lower temperature. Any ideas we may have about the details of our future existence are pure guesswork. The holy Cure of Ars, John Vianney, when once asked about the life hereafter simply said, "I know nothing of to-morrow, except that the love of God will rise before the sun."
Jesus made a promise at the Last Supper. "In my Father's house there are many rooms and I am going to prepare a place for you." While this promise offers a great hope it should not make us complacent, for we are daily challenged to choose between right and wrong. If we do not respond to the love of God we feel a sense of unrest and unease. In his epic poem "The Dream of Gerontius" John Henry Newman described Purgatory as a healing process of preparing us for God's presence. Awareness of their sins causes anguish to the souls of the departed. But the Lord is there to heal that soul and draw us into heaven. This is what we pray for the Holy Souls in this month of November.
The riddle the Sadducees use in today's gospel is exaggerated and humorous; but it was their way of setting the question about whether there is an afterlife, and see how Jesus would respond. In the afterlife, we will presumably be free of the bodily constraints and appetites that are part of our present experience. We will all be like children in God's presence, fully complete in love, no longer needing what we need in this world.
There is in our heart an an inherent hope for the after-life. But It is what Shakespeare so memorably called "The undiscovered country from which no traveller returns." Though nobody comes back to confirm it for us, through Jesus we believe it is there, just the same. As Paul the apostle said: "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of any person to imagine what God has in store for those who love him."