The Jewish people were a tribal people well into their urbanization, choosing kings, and building a Temple for the Holy of Holies. For most tribal people, kinship is a biggie. Maintaining tribal cultural values are maintained by these real or fictive relationships. With the pickings for a spouse scarce and death rates high, it is no surprise that Leviticus is rife with rules about marriage and remarriage. A woman may be given to her dead husband’s brother, as in today’s Gospel, Matthew 22:23-33. But there are also strict rules about adultery. If the dead resurrect, how does this tangle of relationships play out? In today’s gospel those following the teachings of the Sadducees use this as a way of questioning Jesus about resurrection. This exchange was important enough to be included in all three synoptic Gospels (Mk 12:18-27 and Lk 20;27-38).
Judaism wasn’t monolithic and various rabbis over time had taught what they understood to be the meaning of Scripture. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. Even the Pharisees were not united on understanding of what lay beyond the grave. Jews still don’t have a firm theology about this. A group of Sadducees approached Jesus with a question. One woman is successively married to seven brothers as each brother dies. The Sadducees asked which brother would be the real husband according to the law if there were resurrection. And Jesus chides them for not really knowing scripture and answers saying that the dead are like God’s angels, not marrying, and supported resurrection by pointing to a reference to the great patriarchs of the Hebrews in the present tense, thus still living. But we know that the Resurrection of Jesus happened and is at the heart of Christianity. In Jesus’ words, in the Gospels, in the Epistles of Paul, and the Apostles, we are told that Jesus’ mission was to suffer for humankind, raise from the dead to Glorify his Father, and to bring the promise of forgiveness of sin and eternal life for us all. But what kind of life or resurrection we are talking about? An endless field of risen dead praising God? Being reunited with our blessed ones?
Christianity is a mystery religion, one of many in Late Antiquity. Ours is unique in many ways but the most central one is that our dead and risen god is God himself, coming to us Incarnate in the body and life of an unspectacular Judean rabbi. And of all these gods who were supposed to die and rise again, usually seasonally, Jesus was the only one to claim an actual relationship to the God of Israel, and the only one to be seen alive after his death and burial. Actually alive. Not mythologically or ritually or liturgically. He was witnessed. Not a ghost. Not an angel. He walked and talked and ate and even told Thomas to stick his hand into his open wounded side. He made breakfast for his disciples, and ate with strangers. And that made all his words remembered by those who knew and followed him, and recorded them in the Gospels and Epistles, the very Word of God. That is why we confess the truth of Scripture. Jesus was alive. And then he ascended and . . . and what? That is where faith is all we have. We don’t know what the promised new Zion will look like. The closest I found to anything suggesting what happens to our bodies at the End Time is 1 Corinthians 15:53-55, referencing Isaiah 25:8, “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” This actually describes a new body, but a body. Not a spirit, and not a pair of wings and a harp. We will rise to a new Earth, a new everything, and each of us called by name by our Shepherd will be judged to be damned or to take on the imperishable body of immortality finally cleansed of our sins and sanctified totally and forevermore. Probably the easiest way of picturing it, especially in explaining it to our children, is C.S Lewis’ The Last Battle. Because when push comes to shove, story is all we have until we experience it ourselves.
On reflection, I don’t think it matters. In fact, I don’t think we are meant to know. What we don’t know we can’t manipulate or control, or at least think we can. That final judgment when the dead arise to come before Jesus as our judge to eternal life, or the eternal pit, is still a mystery. That will be the end of our story. But we are now reliving the beginning of that story. The Holy Family and some shepherds come to see the newborn Shepherd, and a few domestic animals. What has Resurrection to do with Incarnation? Everything.
In the first few centuries after Jesus a whole host of heresies emerged as people struggled to understand what had happened on the Cross and at the empty tomb that had so changed the world. Many just couldn’t wrap their heads around the notion that God has been a real baby, a man, and a victim of a brutal death. Flesh was bad, they argued. Jesus must have always really been some ethereal being posing as a human person. But if that were so, would he have actually lived and experienced our lives. It is that shared story that makes our religion both so tender and powerful. Our God doesn’t just love us generically. He came down to us and lived as we did, taking on the worst we could dish out, and still defeated death and brought us forgiveness for our brokenness. He brought us Light.
So we don’t really know what the End Time will look like, although the sublime poetry in Revelation gives us hope. When the judgment comes, I have no idea if I will be selected and every tear wiped from my eye, or be sent to the pit. I also know it is not up to me to achieve salvation, no matter how hard I try, although I must try. I also know that even sent the pit, and I have lived an over-adventurous life, being judged in that Presence would be more precious to me than a thousand years in this vale of tears. How could I not praise him wherever I am sent? Love is like that. But who I am now in God’s eyes is what counts. And that is something to ponder for Advent, which is a season of self-reflection and penance.
We await the birth of a Child. But the secular Christmas rush will swirl around us. We must never lose sight of what we are really waiting for. And remember: following his birth came the political evils of Herod and strange Magi, and soon this Child and his family would flee as refugees. And the realities of an incarnate life would begin. The real life he shares with us. Take these days to slow down and refocus on what is really Real. Embrace the promise of his Light, our hope. And wait. Blessed Advent.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.