There is a story of Nicholas who was a political prisoner in Russia during the time of Stalin. Nicholas together with tens of thousands of his fellow country men and women were arrested and investigated for crimes that they never committed. As for Nicholas, he was found guilty and due for execution because of his Christian faith.
Just as Nicholas was due for execution, his wife unexpectedly came to visit him. Nicholas pleaded with the guards and authorities to spare him the three days that his wife was to be with him. He said, “After my wife leaves, you can then shoot me.” They surprisingly agreed.
During the three days, Nicholas did all he could to prevent his wife from finding out that he would be executed. He watched every word he spoke, he kept his spirits high and encouraged his dear wife to care for their children and do all that she has been doing as a dear mother. Most of all he encouraged her to hold on to her faith in God, who will always be there for her, her children and him, regardless of what happens. They spent three very beautiful days together.
When Nicholas’ wife left, he told the guards, “You can shoot me now; I am ready.” The guards were shocked and asked him, “How can you be so calm about death?” Nicholas replied, “Like everyone else I love life and want to go on living. But if, in order to live, I must deny my faith in Christ and all that I hold dear as sacred, then I would rather die. In any case, I do not look on death as the end of everything. I see it rather as a gateway to the real life. The real life for which our years on earth is but a preparation.”
Nicholas faced his executors with peace in his heart and died with a smile on his face . . . Nicholas is one amongst hundreds of thousands of others who have in the history of Christianity died for their faith as martyrs.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, in our Creed that we profess, every Sunday, we end and climax by saying, “. . . I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.” While we all agree and accept the faith that we profess in the Creed, how is it that we so often find ourselves living a fearful and insecure life . . . Fr Anthony Hutjes, in one of his homilies said that we are just as fearful and as panicky as non-Christians. . . “avoiding any thought of death and anxiously worrying about it all the time, running from one medical check-up to another. “Oh my head! Oh my heart! My kidneys! My blood-pressure! Dying a thousand times in our fearful imagination before we finally die once in reality.”
There is much to reflect on in today’s Gospel. The Sadducees asked Jesus that, in the resurrection, whose husband would the widow be since she married all the seven brothers? Jesus’ reply was, “. . . the children of this world take wives and husbands, but those who are judged worthy of a place in the other world and in the resurrection from the dead do not marry because they can no longer die, for they are the same as the angels and being children of the resurrection, they are sons of God.”
In short and very simply, Jesus is saying that heaven is real; resurrection is real; there is life after death. Even as you and I believe in the resurrection, how deep has this truth penetrated our lives and in our daily living is another matter. This is what today’s Gospel is challenging us to reflect on.
Last week, I heard a story of this couple who loved each other very much as husband and wife and lived up the age of 95 before both of them died; shortly of one another. When they got to heaven, they were surprised to find such a huge banquet waiting for them. St Peter told them, “Yes, you could eat as much as you wish; all the food here is free of cholesterol; there is no danger of any heart disease or cancer . . .” The husband turned to his wife and said, “You and your stupid ideas about cholesterol. . . we could have been here 20 years earlier!”
Jesus in today’s Gospel tells us that “we would be like angels . . . as children of the resurrection . . . as sons of God.” In Hebrew, the idiom “sons of God” means “those who will inherit the new world and its eternal life.” From this there are two Truths about God that we should remember: God is all powerful and God is an all loving Father. If you were “all-powerful” would you not bring back to life those you love, especially your children, your spouse, your parents and other loved ones? Real love always says, “forever.” As a loving Father, God wants us to live forever. And what He wants, He can make possible as He is all-powerful.
St Paul in his letter to the community at Corinth says, “If there is no resurrection from the dead, Christ Himself cannot have been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching would be useless and your believing it is useless.” (1 Cor.15:13-14).
But, Jesus in today’s Gospel assures us that the resurrection is real; that heaven is real . . . in other words, while our physical bodies die and when we are buried or cremated, we continue to live . . . our souls . . . our spiritual self will be transformed into a reality that Jesus says, is similar to those of the angels.
But, what does being similar to an angel mean? If we die at 5 or 15 or 95 years of age, would we look our age in heaven? Would our weight and waist still be the same? Some even imagine heaven to be a place where we sing hymns and play harps like the angels do for God, for all eternity . . . and so they say that heaven does not seem to be very interesting . . . especially those of us who do not appreciate music too much or are toned deaf!
All these questions of what interests and concerns us come from our influences of this secular world where our looks, appearances and reputation are important . . . but, in heaven when we are bathed in God’s divine splendour and glory, our needs and preoccupation would no longer be worldly . . . it would be divine and for all eternity. This is our faith!
But, if we choose to live a life that is of the secular world and its values that promote self-centeredness, then our daily living will continue to be insecure and our death be filled with fear. George Orwell once said, “Either life on earth is a preparation for something greater and more lasting, or it is".
More profoundly Jesus in today’s Gospel says to us that when we die, “we would be as the angels”, we would be “children of the resurrection” . . . for all eternity. . . . that’s the faith of the Creed that we profess all the time . . . today, Jesus is challenging us to live it and witness its Truth to all peoples . . .
Msgr Philip Heng,S.J.
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