Sunday, April 20, 2014

Life After Death: Easter Sunday

A newly-ordained priest posted to a university parish was intimidated by his congregation. So he went back to the seminary to get some advice from one of his old teachers.

“Father,” he said, “It’s impossible to preach to them. I use an example from geology, there’s a science professor looking right at me. If I use an illustration from Roman mythology, a classics professor is ready to pounce on my smallest mistake. And if I use a story from literature, I have to worry about the English prof in the first pew. What shall I do?”

The wise old priest replied, “Don’t be discouraged. Preach the Gospel. They probably don’t know much about that!”

That made me smile, but it wouldn’t be the advice I’d give. A preacher should be grateful to know what his congregation thinks, because knowing your audience is the key to any good speech.

In this regard, I am certainly the luckiest preacher in the Archdiocese. Since Canada’s most prominent opinion pollster is a member of our parish, I sometimes know more about what you think than you know about what I think!

This Easter, I was particularly pleased to get a copy of a new research study conducted by the prominent sociology professor Reginald Bibby in partnership with Angus Reid. The study showed that some 50% of Canadian adults say that they believe in life after death, about 30% are uncertain, and only 20% rule out the possibility altogether. Those figures are virtually unchanged from 1975, despite a decline in church attendance and Christian faith.

Needless to say, I don’t need an opinion poll to know that most parishioners believe in life after death! We’d have a lot of empty pews if you didn’t. But these statistics can help us understand the central importance of the Easter message and encourage us to share it with others. Because if Easter isn’t about life after death, it’s not about anything at all.

As St. Paul says, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. (1 Cor 13-14)

On this subject, two of our Easter readings are pretty plain. There’s not a whole lot of complicated theology; instead, we get one basic message: Jesus Christ has risen!

In the first reading, Peter tells this to a crowd gathered at the house of Cornelius in Caesarea. God raised Jesus of Nazareth on the third day. He ate and drank with his friends after his resurrection from the dead.

In the Gospel, Mary Magdalene gives us the simplest message of all: “I have seen the Lord.” St. John gives us the details of the empty tomb and of Christ’s meeting with Mary not to stretch out the story but because they remind us that this is no fable. As Archbishop Miller said in yesterday’s paper, “The resurrection is narrated in the Gospels as a fact.”

From this fact flow very real consequences. In his interview, the Archbishop added “Because the resurrection took place, Jesus is alive still in our midst.”

I read this week about a missionary in Japan. Since he didn’t speak Japanese, he asked an English teacher from a junior high school to translate while he preached. It was all going fine until the third week, when he said “And on the third day he rose from the dead.”

The young translator looked up at him and said “They’re never going to believe this!”

And yet we must.

Accepting the resurrection as fact is not, perhaps, as difficult as some opponents of Christianity suggest. A great British judge once said “The resurrection of Jesus Christ rests on the basis of testimony greater and more indisputable than sustains any other fact of ancient history.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict speaks of this in the second volume of his book Jesus of Nazareth. Although it is something entirely new type of event, the resurrection “nevertheless has its origins within history and up to a certain point still belongs there.”

He says, very simply, the “resurrection points beyond history but has left a footprint within history.”*

And what a footprint! One of the greatest testimonies to the literal truth that Jesus died and rose gain comes from the apostles, who did not offer their lives to proclaim the teachings of a dead man—certainly not a dead man who had promised to rise again.

Of course we do not depend on the historical record, much as it supports our faith. The Holy Spirit bears witness in our hearts. An old Christian gentleman once overheard two young men talking about how the resurrection was impossible. When he joined the conversation, they asked him “How can you be so sure that Jesus rose from the dead?”

The elderly man said, “Well, for one thing, I was talking with him this morning.”

In our second reading, Paul tells the Colossians that the resurrection of Jesus means something: it should change how they look at everything, because it has changed them. For those baptized into the death of Christ, nothing remains the same after the resurrection, Paul says, “for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

Better still, “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”

We start to live these truths at baptism, but we are strengthened and sustained in the Eucharist, which is an intimate part of the Easter mystery. I love St. Thomas Aquinas’ famous antiphon about the Mass: “O sacred banquet! In which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory to us is given.”

That “pledge of future glory” is a promise of the life to come that at least half our fellow Canadians need to hear. For us who already hope and believe in everlasting life, the Eucharist is a comfort to our own mortality and a consolation when our loved ones die. My father died on Palm Sunday, but this year the anniversary of his death was on Holy Thursday, a vivid reminder of the life promised to him in the Eucharist but also of how close the faithful departed are to us at Mass.

The survey about beliefs in life after death turned up a particularly surprising thing: close to 40% of Canadians say they “definitely” or “possibly” will see people again who have died. Some 30% say they don’t know, and only about 30% have actually closed the door on the possibility, including just one in two of those who have “no religion.”

On top of that, very many people believe that those who have died are interacting with us.

We have here a reminder that the message of Easter connects to a deep longing in the human heart—a longing for life after death, and a longing to rejoin those who have died before us.

At the same time, these figures tell us that many people are indeed rejecting belief in an afterlife.

To quote Archbishop Miller again, “Easter itself is about life: the feast of risen life, of new life; the feast of hope and of triumph.”

On this Easter day, we rejoice that this new life begins now. But at the very same time we rejoice that it does not end.

When the Sun asked Archbishop Miller what he believes happens after death, he replied “I believe that death is only a passage to the fullness of life with God.”

This is our Easter faith—a message that conquers fear and eases sorrows. Surely this is a message that many of our family, friends and neighbors are longing to hear. Like Peter and John standing at the empty tomb, they do not yet “understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

Let us, like Mary Magdalene, tell them that we have seen the Lord; and let us share with them the things we have heard him say.

* Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, p. 275.

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