The Resurrection of the Dead

All Souls Scripture Readings

From the time humans first learned to communicate with one another, our distant ancestors created ritual. No doubt, the first rituals they performed were intended to honor their beloved dead—to send them onward, and to assure their continued presence. Surely, our commemoration today has its origins in our basic humanity. Even the smallest and most archaic societies understood that, somehow, in some way, those whom we have loved and who have gone from us are with us still. Even the Roman poet, Horace, wrote, “non omnis moriar” “I shall not wholly die” [Carmina III/30:6]. The commemoration of our departed loved ones is more than just a memorial of who they once were, it’s a joining with them—a communion—with who they still are.

The ancient Israelites had no clear idea of what—if anything—awaited them after death. For some, it was simply a vanishing into the “pit,” the grave, never to return. For others, it was a journey to Sheol—like the Greek Hades—the dark and dank abode where the dead remained forever. For still others, it was to rest within the Kingdom of God in the bosom of Abraham, as recipients of God’s promise of an eternal homeland. Today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom reflects a still later understanding that some faithful Israelites had, envisioning a life sharing the glory of God forever. They couldn’t accept that those who loved God and lived exemplary lives would simply cease to exist. Yet even this vision was not universally accepted.

Down to Our Lord’s time, there was great controversy raging between those Pharisees who believed in the resurrection of the dead, and the Sadducees who denied it. We’ll see in this coming Sunday’s gospel that even Jesus was drawn into the controversy. Of course, he came down solidly on the side of those who believed.

By his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus taught his followers to see death and life in an entirely new light. His followers came to understand that death is but an illusion. By allowing himself to undergo suffering and death, Jesus revealed the fulness of the resurrection that his whole life had manifested. How ridiculous for a Christian to say, “Nobody’s come back from the dead to tell us about it!” The entire thrust of Jesus’s life and teaching was only this: to show us the resurrection. Jesus wasn’t just a teacher of ethics like Confucius, nor just a teacher of spirituality like the Buddha. No. Rather, Jesus was—and is—the revelation of the resurrection. In that, Jesus transformed our understanding of life itself.

We hear about that transformation in today’s second reading. Listen again.

“Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”

Saint Paul tells us we’ve already died. What part of us have we left behind? That part of us that is a fearful voice—our egos. That part that tells us we’re not enough—not good enough, not strong enough, not smart enough, not rich enough, not powerful enough, not lovable enough—and, if we don’t take charge, we’re going to die…but more than die, we’re going to cease to exist. That’s the thought that lies at the core of our weak, sinful, selfish, hateful, hopeless humanity. That futility is what our joining with Christ puts to death. “Don’t you know,” Saint Paul asks, “that you’ve already died?” “Don’t you know,” he asks again, “that the resurrection is now?”

If we’ve already died, and if the resurrection is now, what more do we have to fear? That’s the amazing part of the Christian message. The life of faith you’re living now—the life in and with the Holy Spirit—is permanent. It can’t be taken from you. We hear these words in the Eucharistic Prayer Preface for the Dead, “Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended.” Although you seldom hear it said, at death, nothing happens. Bodily functions will cease, but the living, loving, knowing, feeling individuals that we are continue on unchanged.

The Christian message has been badly diluted by less important peripheral concerns. The one critical, vitally essential element of the Christian message is found in today’s gospel.

“For this is the will of my Father,
that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him
may have eternal life,
and I shall raise him on the last day.”

We will understand this Christian message fully so long as we remember that, in the death and resurrection of Christ, the last day has already come.

Readings & Homily Video

Get articles from H. Les Brown delivered to your email inbox.