“Ours is the better choice, to meet death at men’s hands, relying on God’s promise that we shall be raised up by him.”
The Second Book of Maccabees chronicles the revolt that sought to preserve the integrity of Israel’s ancient faith against the growing incursion of Greek culture in the second century before Christ.
The heroic martyrdom of the seven brothers is a stark reminder to every generation that conscience demands that we oppose, when unreasonable, the demands of the prevailing power.
The martyrdom of the seven brothers is remembered for other reasons. As the brothers went to their deaths they articulated clearly, for the first time in the Old Testament Scriptures, their faith in the resurrection of the body.
The resurrection of the body is central both to our understanding of the person of Christ and our understanding of ourselves. So central was the resurrection of the Body to St Paul (1 Cor 15) that he declared that without such faith in the resurrection we are of all people the most to be pitied. The Maccabean martyrs were fearless in the face of death because they firmly believed that death was not the end of the humanity entrusted to them at birth, that God would embrace and raise up the life that they had known in this life. The third of the martyred sons proclaimed this explicity as he faced fearful mutilation. “It was heaven that gave me these limbs. From him I hope to receive them again.”
While we cannot imagine our own resurrection in Christ, one thing is clear: we shall not experience life in Christ as disembodied spirits. There will be no violent disruption between the life that we have lived and the life that we shall experience in the fullness of Christ’s resurrection. All that we have known in the warmth of our humanity shall be raised up, just as Christ was raised to new life in the fullness of his humanity.
It is against this background that we should understand the clash between Jesus and the Sadducees concerning the resurrection. The Sadducees, while they believed in a life after death, did not believe in a bodily resurrection. In order to discredit Jesus’s preaching of the resurrection, they introduced the somewhat unlikely scenario of the woman who had been married successively to seven brothers, each of whom had died. “Now, at the resurrection, to which of them will she be wife since she has been married to all seven?”
Jesus refused to be trapped in the absurdities proposed by the Sadducees as a counter argument to the resurrection of the body. He simply asserted that the resurrection, while a continuation of the life into which we were born, shall be lived in a way beyond our imagining. This, because we shall then be beyond all that death represents. The concluding argument, that God is the God not of the dead but of the living, is put more directly in the recent translation of Fr Nicholas King:
“He is not the God of corpses, no, he is the God of the living, for they are all alive in him.”
The resurrection of the body embraces our humanity. The life entrusted to us at birth is not cast aside in death. Through the resurrection of the Lord it is raised up and cherished in every aspect of its individual humanity. Therefore, our human life must be safeguarded at every moment, for it is destined, one day, to share in fullness of Christ’s humanity.