to die or not to die

match, death, martyr, testigo,

Last week we heard the story of Zacchaeus, which occurred as Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem. This week we hear that Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem, where he finds the authorities are plotting against him. They set traps for him with their questioning. First they try to trick him by asking where his authority come from —does it come from God or from Man? Since this didn’t work they then ask him if it is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. This is also a trap, for if Jesus responds by saying, “Yes, it is lawful,” then he is a traitor to his people, and to his own cause. However, if he responds, “It is not lawful,” then the Roman Empire will see it is an act of instigation and punish him for it. In today’s gospel, we hear a third “trick question” that Sadducees pose, Is there life after death? Is there resurrection? If Jesus responds that there is, then he would be denying the Torah, and going against the Law; he would side with Pharisees. If he says “No. There is no resurrection,” then he would deny the prophets, and he would side with Sadducees. Either way, Jesus would lose. The way the Sadducees bring about the question is by ridiculing any belief in resurrection. What if a woman was widowed and then remarried several times in this life, they ask, will she have several husbands in heaven?—I imagine them asking the question with a smirk and a sarcastic tone.

In all these three plots, Jesus responds in a very creative and challenging way. He does not fall into the arguments and false logic of those who try to trap him. Instead he shows them how petty and small their understanding of the issues really is. By his answer, Jesus points out how the Sadducees see the afterlife and resurrection as a mere extension of this life. This is why he says “They shall be like angels” (Mt 22: 30). Wanting to place Jesus against the Law he ends up using it, when he says, “Have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Mt 22: 31-32). Like the Sadducees, we too can live our life practically as though there is no afterlife, and if there is, it is completely unrelated to this one. By not reflecting enough on the afterlife, and the mysteries of Death, Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and Judgment, we can live in the belief that this life is really all we have.

The First Reading  tells a story that has resonated through the ages. It’s taken from the Book of the Maccabees, and a little historical context will help us to understand it more clearly. This was a time when Israel had been conquered, and the new rulers were trying to impose a Greek worldview on everybody.They were systematically dismantling and destroying anything that was of Jewish custom. If something was even close to being Jewish they tried to destroy it. It was a very difficult time for the Jewish people. For example, for a Biblical Jew the holiest place and most sacred thing in their lives was the Temple. But now the rulers would walk into that Holy Temple, and desecrate the altar, take the gold, and the candelabra, and hang their own pagan symbols and idols. For a Biblical Jew this was a deeply offensive act. They also started building gyms, where people would exercise in the nude, another deeply offensive act to the Jewish people. Today we hear of another measure the rulers tried to impose: Everyone has to eat pork. In the Reading the rulers capture a Jewish mother and her seven sons. One by one they torture the sons, asking them to renounce their faith. One by one they are killed in front of their mother—we can only imagine the suffering of that woman. Yet she sustains them and encourages them to live their faith, even amidst pain, cruelty, and finally death. Like Jesus, they continue to give testimony to their faith, despite the ridicule and persecution they face.

martyr witness life after death martyrdom afterlife
Martyrdom of Saint Felicity and Sons, Francesco Coghetti, Bergamo, Italy

One year ago, twenty Coptic Christians were captured by Isis. They were tied up and taken to a nearby beach. They were made to kneel on the sand, and were repeatedly asked to renounce and deny their faith. Eventually the captors pulled out their ominous swords, and began to decapitate the prisoners. These captors dressed in orange jumpsuits, to mimic the Isis prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, decapitated every single one of the Christians. They say that their last cry was the word “Jesus.” Twenty-one men were killed that day, but only twenty were Christians. The last man was not a Christian. He was a man from Chad. He was accused of working with Christians, and colluding with them. When his captors asked him why he was willing to give his life, he responded, “Their God is my God.” As if to say, “I have seen the testimony they give. I have seen the witness in their daily lives. Their God is my God.” And so he was decapitated along with this Christian brothers.

witness, testigo

Two weeks ago, José Sánchez del Rio was canonized. Our “newest saint,” a 14 year old Mexican Boy. He was alive during the time of the Cristero wars, a time when the Mexican government tried to impose its secularist ideology on the faith its people. It was a time when the government was killing nuns and priests in public, and burning churches and convents. José Sánchez was a young boy who was a part of the Cristero movement. He wasn’t a fighter, but he would help in any way he could. He would take the Blessed Sacrament here and there, and carry medicine and information. The Government thought that it would be wise for them to prove a point to the Cristero movement. They captured José Sanchez, again, fourteen years old. They began torturing him, wanting him to renounce his faith. When he didn’t do so so they skinned the soles of his feet, and made him walk for miles to the closest cemetery. They made him kneel as a last warning to deny his faith. He would not. They shot him, but it was not a death shot. They kept him alive to command him once again, “Renounce your faith!” Again he would not. His last words were “Viva Cristo Rey! Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!”

There is a common theme in the captors in these stories. They all believe that this life and everything in it, encompasses all of reality. They believe that this life is all that we have. The common theme that each martyr of these stories share—the woman and her seven sons, the Coptic Christians, and José Sánchez—is a belief in a higher realm, an afterlife. Each martyr is a witness to this, the very word martyr means witness. They are a witness to a deeper reality, a dimension that is more “real” than the one we perceive by our senses. This is something worth reflecting on, because if this life is really all there is then we should just “go at it”!  We should base our life on furthering our careers, growing our bank account, and increasing our number of Instagram likes. We should chase all the pleasures we can while we are here. However, if this life is not all there is, if there is an afterlife and a judgement, then we should really live our lives with our gaze fixed on the life to come. If there is life after my death, then this life is truly an opportunity for me to grow in  understanding of what is true, and good, and beautiful, and eternal. If this life is all there is then there’s no point in tithing or fasting, chastity, prayer, or the Holy Sacraments. But if there is an afterlife then these realities are an anticipation, a foretaste, of that life to come. God is God of the living, and we can anticipate these mysteries already on this earth.

St Ignatius deeply considered these realities. He pondered the idea that the only way to live this life to the fullest is in reference to the life to come. But, he wondered, if we are created to be happy with God for all eternity, what then the point of this life? It was in grappling with these issues that he wrote down the first lesson of his retreat, what he calls the Principle and Foundation, and it is the lens through which he sees all of this life.

The human person is created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord, and by doing so, to save his or her soul. All other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings in order to help them pursue the end for which they are created. It follows from this that one must use other created things, in so far as they help towards one’s end, and free oneself from them, in so far as they are obstacles to one’s end. To do this, we need to make ourselves indifferent to all created things, provided the matter is subject to our free choice and there is no other prohibition. Thus, as far as we are concerned, we should not want health more than illness, wealth more than poverty, fame more than disgrace, a long life more than a short one, and similarly for all the rest, but we should desire and choose only what helps us more towards the end for which we are created.

Should we desire health? Riches? Fame? Ignatius says that we could, insofar as they serve to save our soul, insofar as they help us to glorify God for ever more. And so tithing, fasting prayer, chastity, and the Holy Sacraments do have a place in this life. We are created to enjoy the fullness of God, and these practices will help us to get closer to Him.

The Blessed Virgin Mary chose to respond to the gift of virginity, giving testimony of the life to come. May she increase our belief in the resurrection, and may she make us witnesses to the life to come. At the end of the day we are the ones who choose to respond to the call of God. It is a personal choice. Holiness is a personal choice. Sanctity is a personal choice. We choose to respond our Father in Christ. Our faith informs everything that we are: our relationships, our job, and our family life. May Mary show us wisdom to respond..

This post is also available in: Spanish

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