At first glance today’s gospel (Luke 20.27-38) sounds like the kind of thing that delights theologians and bores everyone else. It is a discussion about levirate marriage, that is, marrying your deceased brother’s widow. But underlying this we find a practical concern. In an age, long before the welfare state, this practice of a man taking his widowed sister-in-law as an extra wife meant that she did not starve.
Jesus however takes the whole discussion into a new plain when he replies: ‘God is God not of the dead but of the living: for to him all are in fact alive’ (v 38). What could this mean? Think of how we begin our Easter Vigil each year. Shortly after the ceremony of the new fire the celebrant marks the paschal candle and says: ‘Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end ... all time belongs to him.’ Christ risen from the dead returns to the eternity that he has always shared with the Father. All time is present before God. What to us is past, present and future, is one eternal now to God. In this sweep of time, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob –and Moses himself – are all present to God. So are the generations before us and those that will come after us. All are visible to the eternal gaze of God.
We have two great sources of hope for eternal life. One is the resurrection of Christ. His promise is that for all those who are joined to him in faith and baptism, death is defeated. The passage to death is the passage to eternal life in Christ. Our second hope is quite simply the love and mercy of God. These two sources of our hope, joined to what Jesus says in the gospel today, allow us to see our departed loved ones in a different light: the light, in fact of eternity itself, and the shining love of Christ.
Think of it this way. We who live here and now live in the presence of God. And yet in their own way those who are departed this life also live in the presence of God. One day all of us who are in Christ will enter into the fullness of the same eternal reality. The Vatican II document Lumen Gentium has a wonderful passage about this:
‘Some of Christ’s disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating “in full light, God himself, triune and one, exactly as he is”. All of us, however, in varying degrees and in different ways share in the same charity towards God and our neighbours, and we all sing the one hymn of glory to our God. All indeed, who are of Christ and who have his Spirit form one Church and in Christ cleave together (Eph. 4.16).’
So to pray, to confess, to worship, to share in the sacraments, as it draws us deeper into Christ, also joins us more closely to all others who are in Christ, those who already know that they are held safe in his keeping.