In my first assignment as a priest 58 years ago as chaplain at a Catholic hospital, I had the assistance of 14 high school boys as servers at Mass and special religious functions. Among that faithful group was a boy from Cuba, whose father, a prosperous business man, was still in Cuba at the time. One day Leonardo came to me with a terrible worry: he and his mother had just learned that his older brother had been taken into custody by the Cuban military, who were trying to force him to reject his Catholic faith and to profess instead his allegiance to what was being called in those days Godless Communism. The test was simple: all he had to do was to stomp on a crucifix that had been placed on the floor below him, but he demonstrated his solid faith by refusing to comply, even though he was aware that the penalty would be imprisonment and possibly torture and eventual death.
I’ll tighten up a much longer and detailed account by telling you that I took the matter to our then bishop, Lawrence Casey, asking him to intercede with the appropriate inter-governmental offices. He did so, and the young man, Leonardo’s brother, was eventually released and permitted to join his family in America.
That memory was instantly triggered as I read today’s first reading in preparation for this homily. What we just heard was that a woman and her seven sons were arrested, tortured, and ordered to violate the sacred laws of their Jewish religion. We are told that one of them, very much like the young man I just spoke about, said, “We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”
That’s impressive enough, I think you’ll agree; however, there’s more: each of the brothers mentioned in the biblical account makes reference to a life beyond this mortal life and a power that is greater than the earthly power that has them in its deadly grip. Their dying words are about resurrection after their deaths and about a compassionate God, the Creator of all life, to whom they entrust their futures.
This belief in life after death was not always a part of Jewish tradition; even in Jesus’ day it was hotly disputed. In the Gospel passage just proclaimed, the Sadducees, a Jewish religious party, are mentioned as denying that there is resurrection after death, a disbelief that Jesus had to deal with among his hearers.
I think that among all the good, true, and helpful things said from Christian pulpits, there are still some foolish things said with an aura of unquestionable authority. But the truth, it seems to me, is that we still know almost nothing about what happens to a human being after death. There’s an instinct in all of us that insists – or at least suggests – that we could not have been born merely for these few short years on Planet Earth but rather were created to live forever. That’s why death appears to be the ultimate enemy — because it threatens to rob us of our birthright.
Enter Jesus, who endorses that instinct as totally reliable. The good news, he says, is that it is true: we were created in time to live in eternity! His own resurrection, the cornerstone of our Christian faith, is meant to give us light and courage while we are here, plagued with so many doubts and fears.