Homilies - November 2010
- November 7, 2010
- by Fr. Boniface
“Whose Wife Will She Be?”
The September issue of The National Geographic featured an article on the Pharaoh Tutankhamen (King Tut). This time the article described an attempt to unravel by DNA the complex relationships of the royal family as well as the cause of his untimely death at eighteen. This pharaoh has been newsworthy ever since the discovery of his tomb in the 1920s. His mummy rests in a glass case so that the public can look on his face once more. I don’t think that his majesty would have been thrilled to have commoners gawk at him like that, but that’s the way it goes. Once a noteworthy personage, he is now an object of curiosity.
He was not a great ruler, and he died young. We remember him and his tomb primarily for the wealth of grave goods that were buried with him and which are now the prize of museums. These goods are sumptuous, made of precious materials, beautiful to look at and attest to a belief in a life after death. In ancient Egyptian belief, life after death was very much like the every day life the Egyptians knew. That was why the dead were provided with grave goods: to make them as comfortable in the next life as they were in this. What happened to the poor peasant, I have no idea. Clearly according to their beliefs, you could take it with you.
In ancient civilizations, belief in an after life was usually a dismal affair. The dead were shadowy figures not able to really enjoy the remnant of life that was left them, even with all the grave goods left behind. This was also true of the Jewish attitude towards death and the after life. The dead, according to early Jewish belief, were not even able to praise God. We can trace a development to eventually include a resurrection of the dead by the time of the Maccabees. Even then it was thought that only the righteous rose from the dead. And so we have the fourth brother declare as he died: “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life”(Mac 7:14). Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, this belief was to develop further into the resurrection of all the dead as we believe today.
The Sadducees, whom we met at Jesus’ opponents in today’s Gospel, were a religious party within Judaism, made up of the priestly aristocracy and their supporters. They held to a rigorous interpretation of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, and were what we would consider the Fundamentalists of their time. As opposed to the Pharisees, they did not believe in the oral tradition, the resurrection of the dead, spirits and angels.
And so in their antagonism to Jesus, they tried to trap him with a case bordering on the absurd and implying an attitude of ridicule.
They assumed that the after life and the resurrection of the dead, should there be such a thing heaven forbid, would be very much like our every day life and the same rules would imply, including the law of Levirate marriage. According to this law, the brother of a deceased, childless man was obligated to raise up children by the widow in order to ensure the survival of his brother’s name.
The Sadducees made a fundamental mistake. Life after death, resurrected life, will be very different from the life we know. Jesus points out the absurdity of their case. To translate marriage in the present life into resurrection terms is impossible. The transformation of the resurrected body from matter to spirit is so total that earthly considerations no longer have meaning. The only point of comparison that can be made is with the angels. St. Paul would write of this later: “What is sown in the earth is subject to decay, what rises is incorruptible, what rises is glorious. Weakness is sown, strength rises up. A natural body is put down and a spiritual body comes up (I Cor 15:42-44).”
Quite frankly, we know very little about what it’s like after death, and what the resurrected body will be like. But we have some clues. Above all, there is the resurrected Christ, and we are to share in his resurrection, to be like him. “Christ Jesus…is head of the body, the church; he who is the beginning, the first-born of the dead (Col 1:18).”
We know from the resurrection appearances, that the resurrection is no resuscitation, that is bringing someone back to the life he or she had known in the past. Lazarus’s resurrection was, speaking in this manner, a resuscitation. Jesus’ resurrection was, and ours will be, a complete transformation, a transfiguration. While appearing in this world after that first Easter Sunday, the risen Christ was no longer part of it in the sense that the rules governing space and time govern us. This explains the ambiguity of his person when his disciples first saw him. They did not recognize him at first and yet he was the same. He had been glorified and entered fully into that kingdom, which we in our sense of time see only as future. Walls and doors could not keep him out.
And yet another dimension is visible. There is no longer the struggle that characterized his earthly life. Although Jesus appears and disappears like lightening flashes there is a deep peace, a peace that passes understanding, a peace he wishes to share with his disciples. There is a new tenderness which becomes apparent as he gently calls his disciples “children.” I also find a playfulness and a sense of humor as he plays hide and seek with his troubled followers: witness how he accompanies those sad disciples on their way to Emmaus. I can just hear him chuckle as he begins his heart to heart talk with them, followed by a divine laughter as he suddenly reveals himself and just as quickly disappears. Like the passing vision on Mt. Tabor, Jesus is now revealed totally illuminated by the love of God made manifest in him in a way never known before. He is the eternal Word now glorified sitting at the right hand of the Father.
And the Scripture texts have been written for us that we may remember that this is our destination: to be with God and to share in his life and love for all eternity. And because we dwell in a shadow land, we but dimly realize what such a life and openness to divine love mean for us not only spiritually but for the whole person and for the world. We have not only Jesus’ own words to draw us on to the fullness of life which he promises to those who follow him but the example of his own resurrection. This is the basis of our faith. Flowing out of the love of God for us, it is something we should ponder and give thanks by the way we live out our response to Christ. “And may he bring us all together to everlasting life” (Rule of Benedict 72:12).
Boniface Von Nell
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1: John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible, (Milwaukee, Brice) 758
2: Roland Faley, Footprints on the Mountain (NY Paulist Press) 723
John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (Milwaukee, Bruce, 1965) 758
Roland Faley, Footprints on the Mountain (N.Y., Paulist Press, 1994) 723
- November 1, 2010
- by Fr. James
One of our Carmelite next-door neighbors until his death some years ago was Fr. Roland Murphy, a Scripture scholar whom his students used to nickname Yahweh because of his commanding presence in the classroom. His academic specialization was the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, so I couldn’t help but think of him as I pondered this morning’s first reading, from the Book of Wisdom. This book was written in Greek by an anonymous sage in Alexandria, Egypt within a hundred or even fifty years of the birth of Christ and so is one of the last books of the Old Testament. Even though it and the rest of the Wisdom literature often receive less attention than the Pentateuch or the writings of the prophets, they are actually a very important part of the Bible. They might not say a lot about the Lord’s mighty deeds in Israel’s history, but their attentiveness to the concrete details of daily life can provide much wise instruction for the conduct of our own lives. As Fr. Murphy wrote in one of his books, “This sphere [of daily life] was not felt to be withdrawn from the Lord and his activity; God was as much at work here as in the heady experiences of Israel’s history and liturgical worship.” Even though Fr. Murphy was perhaps somewhat prejudiced in favor of these books and may have exaggerated in some of his praise of them, it is worth reflecting on his striking claim that “the sages [of Israel] penetrated into the divine mystery in a manner that even the prophets never equaled. God drew the people, through their daily experience of themselves and creation, into the mystery of God’s dealings with each individual human being.”
There are two aspects of today’s reading that I want to single out. First, with regard to what Fr. Murphy called “God’s dealings with each individual human being,” there is much in this section of the Book of Wisdom about God’s patient longing for our repentance. The verses that precede and follow the seven short verses in our Lectionary keep emphasizing that God, in his almighty power, could in fact do away with evildoers at once. As one especially blood-curdling verse puts it, sinners “could have been killed at a single blast, pursued by retribution and winnowed out by your mighty spirit” (Wis. 11:20). Instead, a constant refrain of this entire section of the book is that God in his mercy refrains from such precipitate punishment and instead keeps inviting sinners to repentance. As the very last verse of our reading says, “You rebuke offenders little by little, warn them, and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O Lord” (Wis. 12:2). In this, our sage reflects one of the most beautiful of verses in the Psalter: “Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness” (Ps 103:8).
Such verses sound very consoling, and they should, but note that we are not simply the passive recipients of undeserved mercy. No, we are called to return to the Lord with repentant hearts, and this seems to be more of a problem today than in earlier times. Kenneth Woodward, a Catholic layman who was for many years the religion editor of Newsweek magazine, once wrote a column in which he observed that “the urgent sense of personal sin has all but disappeared in the current upbeat style in American religion. Among most Roman Catholics, for example, the traditional monthly ritual of regular confession to a priest has become [something of] the past.” Woodward went on to say that most Protestants are no better, for while many of their ministers “routinely condemn such ‘systemic’ social evils as racism, sexism and other update permutations of the Mosaic Ten Commandments … their voices are strangely muffled on subjects close to home—like divorce, pride, greed and overweening personal ambition.”
It isn’t just a matter of how this disappearance of a sense of sin affects individual lives either, for the very fabric of a nation is affected by such disappearance. This was brought out a century ago by a Jewish rabbi named Abraham Isaac Kook, a man who was very much in the line of the sages of ancient Israel. Although he lived much of his adult life in Palestine, up to the time of his death in 1935, what he said about life there is every bit as true about life in our own country. Here’s a powerful passage from one of his essays:
The strengthening of all aspects of our nation’s life is dependent on the strengthening of its spiritual character. This, in turn, depends on the illumination from the spiritual realm … that will bring the spirit of man and of the world … to complete harmony….
The preparation of the spiritual character of our nation for union with the universal [spirit] … cannot be effected by a prescriptive moral code alone, … This must be supplemented by the inflow of original spiritual influences that express the divine good that pervades all existence and reaches down to every particular being.
Many people in our country certainly want this, and it can indeed occur. When Rabbi Kook wrote that “the divine good pervades all existence,” he was only mirroring the scriptural teaching that we just heard from the Book of Wisdom, that God’s “imperishable spirit is in all things.” This surely means that it is especially in us humans, the creatures that were expressly created in God’s image and to God’s likeness. The question before each one of us is, in that respect, both simple and daunting: Will you, will I, be open enough to let that spirit do its full work in us? If so, then in words taken from a still earlier part of the Book of Wisdom, we will at the time of judgment “shine, and dart about as sparks through stubble” (Wis. 3:7). Or, to quote the rabbi one more time, “When the righteous perform acts of penitence, they reveal the holy light that they find in the dark and broken-down alleys of their own lives. … Through their thoughts of repentance the whole world is renewed in a new light. The whole world is pervaded by harmony.” Through the power of this sacrament of the Eucharist may we, in a spirit of both repentance and holy joy, let our light radiate outward in all that we say or do.
A second and final point that I want to reflect on from our reading is captured in the verse, “For you, Lord, love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made” (Wis. 11:24). This is only another way of saying what we hear already in the very first chapter of the Bible, the Book of Genesis’s account of creation with its insistence that everything God made was good, indeed, very good. That this includes our very bodies should be obvious, but this truth has often been overlooked in one of two ways. In some past centuries there was such excessive mortification of the body that one’s very health was jeopardized. The extreme fasting that St. Bernard undertook as a young monk ruined his health for the rest of his life, as he later ruefully admitted. Something similar occurred in the life of St. Francis of Assisi, who refused any salve for his body when in extreme pain until one of the younger friars said to him, “Father Francis, your body has served you so faithfully all of your life. Why are you treating it so harshly now?” At that, Francis recognized the error of his ways, but it was too late and he died shortly thereafter. Nowadays, however, this kind of behavior is hardly a problem. Rather, too many have gone to the other extreme. You probably read a recent news report in which medical personnel predicted that by the year 2050 as much as one-third of the American population will be suffering from adult-onset diabetes, and that for two reasons: overeating and lack of exercise. That is an astounding prediction, and would never have had to be made if people took to heart the Bible’s teaching about the goodness of everything that God has made and our concomitant obligation to care for created things—all of them, including our bodies. May God grant that we so live.
Fr. James Wiseman
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Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 124.
Kenneth Woodward, “Whatever Happened to Sin?” Newsweek, Feb. 6, 1995, 23.
Abraham Isaac Kook, “The Road to Renewal,” in idem, The Lights of Penitence, the Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems, trans. Ben Zion Bokser, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist, 1978.
Kook, The Lights of Penitence, ibid., 65.