Have you ever thought how depressing life would be if this is all there was? Do you know people who would say that they believe there is nothing else after this life? Do you feel sorry for them? These questions of life and death and last things and life after the last things are what’s going on in the Church’s mind and imagination in these last days of the Church year. Last week, we celebrated our saints, those people who have fought the good fight and who have joined themselves to Christ in his overcoming of sin and death. And we mourned our dead, those souls who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith and whose absence in our lives leaves a great hole that cannot seem to be filled up.
And it’s no wonder these questions grab us in these waning days of the year. The trees are losing their foliage. The daylight hours are getting shorter. The air is a bit colder. We can sense there is a change approaching, and perhaps it isn’t one that we look forward to. Even with the festive atmosphere of the upcoming Christmas holidays, or perhaps even because of that, many of us feel depressed or blasé, and the festivity of the holiday season only serves to highlight it for us. Please God, let there be something more.
Fundamentally, we human beings need to make connections. We want life, we want light, we want peace, we want love. And because we want all these things, we know we are alive. We attempt, don’t we, to fill them up as best we can. We hope that our attempts are healthy, but sometimes we find ourselves stuck and attempt to fill our desires with things that are well, just shoddy. We anesthetize ourselves with drugs or alcohol. We enter into relationships that are unhealthy. We work ourselves to death. We distance ourselves from loved ones. We sin.
And it’s easy for us to console ourselves when we accept these shoddy ways of filling our desires. Hey, we’re only human, right? Well, that’s what we tell ourselves. And that would be helpful except for the fact that sin isn’t human at all. Filling our desires so poorly is the very least human thing we can do. Our desires aren’t wrong; it is not wrong to want something more. Filling that up with something less is the problem.
The Sadducees had no idea, but that’s exactly what they were doing. The Sadducees, we are told, were a group of religious authorities that taught there was no resurrection. I had a professor in seminary that told us that that is why they were sad, you see. It’s a bad joke but I never forgot what the Sadducees were about! So these Sadducees come to Jesus and seem to have an earnest question. They speak of a woman seven times widowed and wonder whose wife she will be in the resurrection of the dead. Except that their question wasn’t earnest at all. Clearly they were out to discredit Jesus, even embarrass him. So you think there will be a resurrection, they say, well then, what about this?
The Sadducees didn’t get it when it came to the resurrection, and they weren’t willing to open their minds to any kind of new possibility. If what Jesus said didn’t fit what they believed, then it absolutely must be wrong. They were filling their desires with the sin of pride instead of the possibility of eternal life. What a horrible, shoddy way to fill up their desires!
But swing that around and look at the seven brothers in the first reading. All they would have to do was eat a little pork and they could have lived. Yet they patently refused to do so. One by one, they are tortured and killed. Why would they have let themselves be treated that way? All they had to do was eat some pork, for heaven’s sake; surely God would forgive them, right? But listen to what the first brother says: “You are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying.” These brothers and their mother realized that there was something greater, something more. They knew their desire could never be filled up with a little pork, or the shoddy life that would come about as a result of giving up their beliefs. What a stark contrast they are to the prideful Sadducees!
St. Paul underscores this today in his letter to the Thessalonians. Listen to his opening instruction again:
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father,
who has loved us and given us everlasting encouragement
and good hope through his grace,
encourage your hearts and strengthen them in every good deed and word.
There is something more, St. Paul tells us. There is something that will fill up our desires once and for all, and that something is Jesus Christ. It’s not going to be our pride, boasting of our elaborate wisdom or ability to take care of ourselves. It’s not going to be a little pork, or giving in to whatever temptation comes our way to take us off the path. It’s not going to be alcohol, or drugs, or unhealthy relationships or Dr. Phil or Oprah or anyone else. It’s only going to be Jesus, only Jesus who will fill up the desires that touch us to the core of who we are.
The Church in these waning days of the Church year would never deny that there is suffering in the world. She will not even allow us to tie up all the loose ends neatly so that we can march our way into the kingdom. But she will encourage us to open up our desires to be filled with our Savior who comes not to make our suffering go away, but instead to fill it up with his presence. Jesus tells us as much in another place: “In this world you will have suffering.” But suffering isn’t all there is. There is something more, and we can expect to be filled up with it when we realize that the fit for the hole we have in our hearts is Jesus Christ.
Our God is not a God of the dead, but of the living. To him all are alive. So in these last days of the year, if we find ourselves desiring peace, desiring wholeness, desiring comfort, desiring love, desiring fulfillment, or desiring anything else, that’s okay. Because what we’re really desiring is Christ, and there’s nothing wrong with that.