Homily Notes: 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Three hundred-thirty-odd years before the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror, vanquished everyone in his path as he extended his empire across the known world. There was no one who could stand up to Alexander and his Greek armies. His technology, and techniques were superior. The only time he was given pause was when Alexander faced Indian war elephants. His army had never encountered elephants in war before, but ultimately, they only slowed him down. With his victories, Alexander brought Greek culture and civilization with him. This Hellenism even echoes down into our own time. We still live with some of the reverberations of Alexander the Great. Visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and you’re standing in a Greek temple. The edifice and great symbol of our nation, is pure Greek architecture, which we probably wouldn’t have but for Alexander.
Alexander, like all conquerors, came to the end of his life. Faced with illness and death, he divided up his empire among his lieutenants. As soon as Alexander died, they began fighting among themselves, trying to expand their fiefdoms and generally causing trouble. The Jews in Palestine too were under the influence of one of Alexander’s successors: Antiochus Epiphanes IV. We can think of Antiochus as a sort of Hitler who lived two thousand three hundred years ago, because he had it in for the Jews. He did all he could to stamp out the Jewish faith. Antiochus made it illegal to practice Judaism; in fact anyone caught with a copy of the Mosaic Law was summarily executed. And just as Alexander had done, Antiochus attempted to impose Greek culture onto the Jews. So Antiochus had a gymnasium, a Greek sports arena, built in Jerusalem. This might not seem problematic, except for the fact that the Greek custom was to exercise naked. So imagine Jewish youth, acting like Greeks, wrestling and running around Jerusalem’s gym in the raw. For their parents, grandparents, for the Jewish people generally, this was a disaster, to put it mildly.
This is the context for our first reading. There were seven brothers and their mother, on trial and threatened with torture and death for practicing their faith. The Greek imperialists were attempting to force them to eat pork in violation of the law. The boys were tortured and killed, one by one in front of their mother. The torturers promised that if just one of the boys would eat pork and violate the law, then all the rest would be spared. Of course, none of them acquiesced. And one by one, in front of their mother, they were tortured and murdered, until at last, she too shared the fate of her boys. This tremendous witness of faith, this heroic example of martyrdom is typical fare from the two books of Maccabees. There is much history, drama, virtue and courage running across the pages of these books of the Bible. I highly recommend them.
The question must be asked: Why? Why did they refuse to break the law? Why did they allow themselves to be tortured and killed? For at least two reasons. First, because they didn’t want to betray God, and second, because they had faith in the resurrection. They believed that life on this earth is not the end of the story.
We’ve all got a problem, everyone of us. There’s something each of us must face. There is a reality we can’t escape. None of us is getting out of this life alive. Every one of us, everyone reading these words, myself included, will one day stop breathing and die.
It’s interesting to note that Our Lord Jesus Christ sees sin and its consequence death, as the fundamental human problem. The basic predicament in this life is the fact that it’s going to end. That was Jesus’ perspective. The essential element of Jesus’ mission was to take sin and death onto Himself and vanquish them.
Now not everyone holds this view, that death is the fundamental problem in life. Take, for example, the Buddha. The Buddha held that the fundamental problem in life is suffering, and that the root of suffering is selfish desire. To eliminate desire is to follow the eight-fold path of ego reduction, which essentially is to realize that you do not exist. To realize the truth, at least according to Buddha, that “we” share identity with Brahman. That there is no duality, there is only Brahman, and we do not really exist. Thus, by eliminating desire through ego-reduction there will be no suffering.
Or take Karl Marx. Marx, an atheist, believed the fundamental human problem was class divisions, and that inequities between classes had to be eliminated. So for Marx, in order to overcome class divisions, there must be a worker’s revolution to create a classless labor state. North Korea and Cuba are still working this program.
Finally, take another atheist, Sigmund Freud. Freud held that humanity’s fundamental problem is neurosis, or mental illness, the fact that we’re all a little bit nuts. Freud’s prognosis, his goal, is homeostasis, to achieve mental health through psychotherapy which balances the Id and the Superego. According to Freud, this is the path to human fulfillment.
However, for Our Lord Jesus Christ, the fundamental problem is death, the fact that we all are headed to the grave.
In a few moments we will proclaim our creed. There’s a line we recite, sometimes without reflection, “We look for the resurrection of the dead.” This word, resurrection is sort of overplayed for us in English. It almost sounds like resuscitation. I like the Greek expression for resurrection much better. Anastasis necron. Literally it means “the standing up again of a corpse.” This is obviously a tremendously literal, pictorial expression. The standing up again of a corpse. That is precisely what we profess in our creed.
What came down from that cross on Good Friday was a corpse. What was then laid in the tomb was a corpse. But on the third day, He rose. His risen body was transformed, glorified. Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, paved the way for you and for me, to rise from the grave transformed, spiritualized. This is our hope. This is our faith. This is why we’re here on Sunday morning, resurrection day. God’s love was so great, that He sent His Son to take sin and death onto Himself, so that we might live, so that sin and death would not have the last laugh.
(Elements of this homily have been bald-facedly lifted from Dr. Peter Kreeft and Rev. James C. Hudgins)