I have a few friends from grade school whom I see infrequently, but every time we get together we pick up where we left off. Our friendship has changed over the years, but it endures even when long periods of time elapse between our reunions.
Friendships, family relationships, all relationships change over time as a result of growth and development. A relationship that does not change is one that has ended. The same is true of our relationships with deceased relatives and friends, whom we remember in our prayers at Mass during the month of November.
The Sadducees mentioned in today’s Gospel reading were one of the many groups that comprised Judaism during Jesus’ lifetime. The Sadducees were very conservative in some ways; they accepted only the written tradition of the five books of Moses, and rejected later traditions and Scriptural texts. In other ways, they were very non-traditional; they supported the Roman government of Judea and Galilee.
As the Gospel reading indicates, the Sadducees did not accept belief in the resurrection of the righteous, which was a late development of doctrine embraced by the Pharisees and others. This particular group of Sadducees decided that they would try to humiliate Jesus by attacking an aspect of his teaching: the promise of resurrection for those who put their faith in him.
As was common at the time, this argument about belief was also a contest about personal honor. The Sadducees tried to ridicule Jesus, and Jesus responded by ridiculing them. He pointed out that the limited written tradition that they themselves accepted gave testimony to the afterlife that the patriarchs enjoyed in God’s presence. He said, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob . . . is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” (Lk 20:37-38) Based on this Scripture passage he reasoned that the eternal life of the patriarchs is proof of the validity of his teaching about resurrection.
I should probably point out that eternal life and resurrection are not, strictly speaking, the same thing. Resurrection was a belief that developed in Judaism about two centuries before Jesus was born. Belief in the resurrection of the righteous was embraced by some groups within Judaism during Jesus’ lifetime. Jesus himself accepted this belief as valid, and incorporated it into this teaching. Eternal life, in contrast, is a notion derived from pagan Greek culture’s belief in the eternal existence of the universe and everything in it (including the human soul). In Luke’s Gospel these two ideas become joined, probably as a result of Luke’s personal cultural background and that of his original audience.
Despite this theological complication above, there is an important message for us in the Twenty-First Century. The promise of resurrection that we have because of our baptism and faith is trustworthy because of Jesus’ words that God “is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” (Lk 20:38) Jesus said that those who put their faith in him “can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God.” (Luke 20:36)
Beginning with All Souls Day, and throughout the month of November, we will remember at Sunday Mass our parishioners who died during this past year, and all of our deceased relatives and friends. We remember our beloved dead with both legitimate sorrow and firm faith. The dead are no longer physically present with us, but neither are they lost to us.
We pray for the dead, and with them, based on a belief that Catholicism has called “the communion of the saints.” This notion, “the communion of the saints,” is a belief that all the righteous are alive to God, as this Sunday’s Gospel reading says. Because the righteous live with God, we remain connected to them. For Catholics, the Church is not just an artifact, a delivery mechanism for religion. Rather, the Church is an expression of human nature.
Human nature is as social as it is individual. Each of us has an unique personality, but each of us is entirely dependent on human society. Church community is the highest expression of our human nature, because it is our social communion with one another and God. Church community unites us with all other believers, even those who have passed from this life.
When a loved one dies we experience real loss and grief, but the end of this earthly life is not the end of personal existence. All believers remain united with one another, because all believers remain in a love relationship with God. In a very real sense our relationships with deceased relatives friends continue; those relationships are changed, in obvious ways, by death, but they are not ended. In the communion of the saints, that is, the unity of believers, we remain united even with those believers who have died.
Our prayers of remembrance for the dead are one expression of the continuing, living nature of our on-going community with our deceased loved ones. We are not praying for people who have ceased to exist. Rather, we remember those who live now with God.
When a loved one dies, it is necessary and legitimate to “let go.” However, our “letting go” is not the same as “giving up” on the relationship or the person or our hope of joining them in God’s presence. The nature of our relationships with deceased loved ones was changed by death, but all relationships change. Change, in fact, is a sign of a living, continuing relationship.
It is appropriate to let go of those who have died, to let them go to be with God. It is also appropriate to be mindful of how much our deceased loved ones are still present in our lives; the memories of our time with them continue to influence our thoughts and actions. Just as in any relationship between people who are not physically proximate to one another, we look forward to the day when we will pick up where we left off.