It has been a few months since the glorious feast of the Resurrection. The fresh lilies, the lyrical alleluias, and the glow of the Paschal candle have long lost their splendor. Easter has changed from a festive celebration of risen life into a sublime doctrine pondered by the devout.
Yet, so essential is the mystery of the Resurrection to the Christian life that the church’s liturgical year re-introduces the worshipping community to the prospect of eternal life on high, body and soul, in the joy of heaven. The persecution of the Maccabees in late Judaism and the wiseguy question posed to Jesus about life after death this Sunday will draw the faithful back to a consideration of one of Christianity’s central mysteries.
The ancient Jews had a very fuzzy notion of the afterlife. They viewed death mostly as a descent into the grave, into the pit, at best, into a netherworld of shadowed existence. If the ancient Jew lived on at all it was through his offspring, through his children, through his moral influence on the generations to come. Shortly before the birth of Christ, the notion of the bodily Resurrection of the dead began to be introduced by the Holy Spirit to Jewish religious thought. While the immortality of the soul was by this time a fairly accepted view within the Greek world, the Resurrection of the body is uniquely Jewish, or better, uniquely Judaeo-Christian since Jesus Christ brought to fulfillment the seed of the Resurrection sown by the Maccabees and later Jews.
Even in the time of Christ, the Jewish community was unsure of the full extent of this novel doctrine. The Pharisees accepted the bodily Resurrection of the dead as a basic belief. Having a spiritual bent, they also believed in the soul and in angels.
The Sadducees, on the other hand, rejected any belief in life after death, resurrected or otherwise. Being rather materialistic in their thinking, the thought of a spiritualized body was beyond them. Fulfillment was found in this world or not at all.
Enter the Maccabees, truly great Jewish heroes, the last heroes of biblical Judaism. Refusing to worship pagan gods, they managed to throw off the Greek rule of the Holy Land and ushered in a century of peace and religious renewal. Their greatest lament was the profanation of the temple by the pagans and their greatest joy was the rededication of the temple by the priests, an event still commemorated each year by the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.
Once religious life centered on the temple was re-established, the Jewish community was divided regarding the continuance of any war. Those who would later be called Pharisees wanted to stop fighting since religious freedom had been secured. The future Sadducees wanted to continue the battle until full independence had been won. It was the Maccabees who took up this effort for full independence and were successful. The Maccabees also introduced certain beliefs to Judaism that matured in Christianity. Prayers for the dead, the value of martyrdom, the intercession of saints and, of course, the Resurrection are first revealed in the scriptural books of the Maccabees. Somehow, by the time of Jesus, the Sadducees curiously lost these noble ideas about heavenly life first introduced by their Maccabean forebears.
It was Jesus Christ, of course, who revealed the fullness of resurrected life to the early church. Not only did Jesus rise gloriously from the grave himself but he promised eternal spiritual and corporeal happiness to all who would call upon his name. St. John writes most clearly when he pens the words, “Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.’”
The Christian who is united to Christ in belief and in sacrament can expect the fullness of life beyond the grave. The body that shared the joys and sorrows of earthly existence along with the soul here in this world can anticipate the same mutual satisfaction in the next world. Man does not just have a body. Man is a body. And for man to be fully happy in heaven it is fitting that his whole being, his whole personality, his whole essence, should participate.
The Resurrection of the body is not just a bookish doctrine for Christians. The Resurrection is the completion of the Christian life, when man in his fullness will see God in his fullness.