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Don’t Be Afraid to Die—Be Ready

Homily for the Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2022

Every year after Halloween, we see that our culture doesn’t quite know what to do with death.

So much of our economic and political life is centered on holding off death—from medical cosmetics and designer drugs to people wearing masks in their own backyard to the countless ways in which “safety” has become our holiest and most revered deity. And yet when we do face death, as we do in large sections of popular entertainment—enter the more gruesome manifestations of Halloween—we go whole-hog.

We can’t talk about or acknowledge this thing in public, but in private we cope with it by making it a source of distraction.

Scripture scholar John Bergsma remarks that belief in the resurrection of the dead “has always been a threat to the power of the wealthy elite who run society.” How so? Because this belief insists that the meaning of this life cannot be merely assessed in the terms of this world. The Maccabean martyrs that we read about today (2 Macc. 7:1-2, 9-14) show this belief quite clearly, right up to the shock of the king and his attendants who marvel at the young man “because he regarded his sufferings as nothing.” These martyrs die in hope; that is, they have a confidence that God will vindicate their faithfulness in the resurrection of the body.

The Sadducees in the Jerusalem of the first century are, for the most part, not the villains that we see among the Greeks in Maccabees, attempting to force the Jews to violate their dietary laws or face torture and death. But they are related, in that they represent the wealthy and elite political powers of the day. Unlike the Pharisees, and indeed most Jews, they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. They held to what they saw as a purer form of the Law, rejecting most of the prophetic and wisdom literature that we and modern Jews consider to be holy Scripture.

Rather than making them more strict, though, this freed them up to collaborate more enthusiastically with Roman rule, compromising on things that they did not consider to be really essential to Jewish identity. The idea of resurrection was an embarrassment to them. It got in the way of the good work that they were doing to make this world a better place.

But, says Jesus, resurrection is real. And the resurrected life is not merely a continuation of the old, but something new. We do not become angels (please, let’s destroy that silly misconception wherever we find it!), but we do become like the angels in immortality and spiritual perfection. In another way, though, we will remain very different from the angels, in that we will have bodies. Glorified new bodies, to be sure, but bodies all the same, which was as scandalous to the Greeks as it was to the Sadducees.

What was scandalous to both, if for different reasons, was the idea that there might be some kind of continuity between the activities of this life and the life of a world to come. Surely, according to Greek thinking, any kind of higher spiritual life will have very little use for bodies or for things like history. You can see this assumption revising itself and emerging in early Christian Gnosticism, and again in the variously gnostic forms of Christianity today. There’s the antinomian version, popular among Christian progressives, who think that to be truly “spiritual” means to ignore rigid things like rules or universal norms and do whatever you want in the body because, in the end, the body doesn’t really matter. But there’s also an opposite rigorist version, which insists that, because bodies do not matter, they should be effectively ignored wherever possible. That was the version of gnosticism that I knew growing up in Southern evangelicalism.

Death is scary. In one of his books, Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) suggests that the reality of death is the existential starting point for most human thinking about God. I think that’s about right. What is frightening to the oppressors in Maccabees, though, is the sight of men who are not afraid to die. And this was exactly the same reaction provoked by the early Christian martyrs. For all these martyrs, it was the hope of resurrection that gave them the courage to die.

The Maccabean martyrs are an especially excellent case in point, because they died for something very physical: the refusal to eat pork. They didn’t die for an idea. They died because they thought that bodies matter. They died because they refused to draw some kind of arbitrary line between the life of the soul and the life of the body, the way that secular politicians of every age want us to do. Ah yes, believe whatever you want, so long as you do what everybody else does.

So the Christian hope has a kind of irony embedded in it. It says that precisely because bodies matter, we should be prepared to let them die.

Again, that is a strange thing to the world. To connect it back to the imagery of Halloween and this month’s focus on the dead: this season reminds us that there is something to be afraid of. It’s not goblins and vampires and demons. Those things we laugh at, and even mock, because we know, in the resurrection of Jesus, that they could ultimately have no power over us. The truly grave things, the things that should sometimes keep us awake at night—or better yet, compel us to the church and the confessional—are the real last things: death, judgment, heaven, hell.

Unlike the world, we have something to say about death. We have a means of confronting it and dealing with it, of saying what it is and what it isn’t, of preparing for it with maturity and grace. As we enter more fully into this month of the holy souls, and as we move speedily toward Advent, let us use the opportunity not to be morbid or fearful but to make a properly serious examination of life, to look at rather than hide from the promise of the last things, and most importantly, to look ahead to the peace and joy that the Lord has for those who in the trials of this life seek his face.

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