Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The hope of the resurrection characterizes our Catholic understanding of death and the life to come. The last things (death, heaven, hell, purgatory) are important points of reflection for us throughout our lives, and in a special way, the Church invites us to consider the reality of death in the month of November, as we pray for the souls of our beloved deceased. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches “By his death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ has opened heaven to us. The life of the blessed consists in the full and perfect possession of the fruits of the redemption accomplished by Christ. He makes partners in his heavenly glorification those who have believed in him and remained faithful to his will. Heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ” (CCC 1026). Lest we consider life after death to be an exclusively spiritual reality, our faith also proclaims the resurrection of the body: “We firmly believe, and hence we hope that, just as Christ is truly risen from the dead and lives forever, so after death the righteous will live forever with the risen Christ and he will raise them up on the last day” (CCC 989).
Our understanding of death sheds light on what we understand of the human person still living. If the body will be raised to share in Christ’s incorruptibility and His victory over sin and death, then the body matters in life. Our physical, incarnate nature, has meaning. If heaven is a spiritual reality as well, then what we do in this body matters in a spiritual way. The human person is a unity of body and spirit, and our Catholic faith helps us to integrate the material and spiritual.
In the Gospel today, the Sadducees, who do not believe in the resurrection of the dead (or any kind of afterlife) pose a question to Jesus that demonstrates a very materialistic view of the world and of the human person. Our world today is often materialistic, thinking only about the physical realities of today with no consideration for the transcendent or eternal. This focus on the physical can make the idea of death rather difficult to comprehend. Jesus must answer the Sadducees with a teaching about something very real: life after death. Not only will there be a bodily resurrection, but the spiritual state of the person endures even after death. Jesus gives the Sadducees a picture of the human person that includes both the physical (we have a body that will die, but that will also be raised) and the spiritual (in the spiritual reality of heaven we will be like angels). Note that Jesus does not say that the reality of life after death is purely spiritual; hence, He describes the righteous dead as like angels, not actual angels. Note also that He speaks of those “who are deemed worthy,” indicating that our actions in this body in this life have consequences for eternity. In other words, there is more than just this life, and both body and spirit matter very much.
A few final thoughts for this week, as we continue through the month of November carrying out the Church’s call to pray for the dead. We should never minimize death. So often at funerals or wakes we hear things like “Aunt Susie wouldn’t want us to cry today, she’d want us to laugh,” or horrible attempts at poetry that say things like “death is nothing, I’m not really gone.” These sentiments are meant to be encouraging, but all they really do is ignore the stark, challenging fact of death and lie to us that grief is inappropriate. On the contrary, it is healthy to grieve, and even though I do not want anyone to feel sad about anything, I have to understand that sadness is a real emotion associated with death. Death is real, and someone’s absence can be tangibly felt; any suggestion otherwise is foolish. Healthy grief and a healthy appreciation for death allows us to move through the experience of bereavement. Just as we should never minimize death, we should also strive to keep the hope of the resurrection before our eyes. That there is a heaven that awaits us should be a consoling thought. That we have the power here and now to live in such a way as to merit eternal life with God should inspire in us the determination to live, not only for the physical goods of this world, but also for the spiritual goods that are available both now and, in the life to come. To be aware of death is not the same as being afraid of death. To be hopeful in the face of death is not the same as ignoring healthy grief. The Sadducees, lacking a sense of eternal life, see only this world. We Catholics, equipped with the witness of the Resurrection of Christ from the dead, are able to see both this world, the end of life, and the hope for life to come in God’s heavenly Kingdom.