Belief Under Pressure
(2 Maccabees, 7; Luke 20: 38)
One of the things that has sharpened inside me on my journey into the senior years is a sense of time passing (where did it go?), and an accompanying wonderment about what happens when it does pass. What’s on the other side? What will it be like, how do I know it’s there, and even at times thoughts of is it there? And if in a courtroom I would put my hand on a Bible and swear, yes, there is an afterlife, still am I totally sure about that? Do I know it like I know 2+2 is 4 or that this floor under me is solid?
The point is that our belief in resurrected life is just that, a belief. Our hope in it is just that, a hope. And especially under the pressures of widespread unbelief in our own secular age is this belief and hope put to the test.
In their own age, that testing is what’s happening to the Maccabee Brothers and to Jesus himself.
The King: “I’ll put them to the ultimate test, death itself. There’s nothing beyond it; it’s the ultimate threat.” And the brothers: “There is something beyond this.”
The Sadducees: “We’ll lead Jesus down the logic road to an impossible-to-hold conclusion and win the case.” Jesus: “We’re out beyond common logic here. Our God is not God of the dead, but of the living. For to Him all are alive.”
Both are instances of belief in life eternal coming under great pressure – and still these faithful ones go on believing and hoping. These are case studies in belief and hope being strengthened on the spot.
Writing to the Thessalonians, it’s exactly that strengthening that Paul is praying for. “May Jesus, who loved us and encouraged us and gave us hope, may He continue to encourage your hearts and give you hope. The Lord is faithful and The Lord will strengthen.” (2 Thess 2: 17)
How about our own strengthening? Where does it come from? One answer is from other people, other believers who don’t “fully know” either.
For one, there are those heroic ones who died for this conviction, the Maccabee brothers and all the other martyrs over the centuries who, when it came to drawing that line in the sand between believing and not believing, came down on the Resurrection side.
For another there are the many people whose spontaneous, even unthinking actions witness to this hope, who almost reflexively act out what might be called ‘gestures of faith.’ Things like people talking to their deceased loved ones and friends (“Help me, Mom.”). Things like my own experience of walking through the woods next to a cemetery and hearing someone standing at his good friend’s grave. And unaware anyone was listening, talking to him.
There are other things like our creedal statement about the communion of saints we hear professed all around us each week. Recently I saw this being acted out in an All Souls Mass. About 150 parishioners who had lost someone over the past year gathered together at an evening Eucharist to hear the names of the deceased read out. But as you could see on so many faces, these weren’t just names but people with whom they were communicating.
Then there are those testimonies of doctors and scientists who drew near the point of death and there “saw” something, light, peace, someone calling. Also there are the stories many of us know personally of deathbed scenes where “something more” seemed to be occurring with that dying person.
None of these events add up to that irrefutable proof. But each and all of them continue Paul’s service of giving encouragement and sharing strength.
But of course there’s one more person, The Person Jesus himself. He strengthens us:
- with His words to the Sadducees, “Our God is the God of the living,” and so many of his other sayings all through Gospels.
- with the “as if” way He lived, as if there’s something more in the picture than what immediately appears.
- with His death, not having proof that everything would work out (“If this cup can be taken away from me. Why have you forsaken me?”). And yet at the very last handing Himself over into the arms of that Living God. Or as one writer imagined it, not knowing when He stepped out over that cliff that there would be someone there to catch Him — and yet in trust and hope stepping off (“Into your hands I commend my spirit.”)
And finally He strengthens us through His Risen Life. We profess He’s not just an inspiring memory or the model of an ideal from the past to whom we all aspire. But we say He’s alive, the principle of life itself. In fact “sitting at the right hand of God,” He’s more alive now than when He walked the earth. He’s here and now — in this assembly, the Word, the Eucharist, next to us and in us.
So the ever challenged hope that there is something more, the ever-under-pressure belief that this life is not all there is. And thus, our hope and faith always in need of encouragement – and of prayers like Paul’s, “May the Lord strengthen your hearts.”
For a patron saints of encouragement, we can of course look to Vincent and the countless gave his collaborators. But there’s also another surprising candidate to be found in the Acts of the Apostles, St. Barnabas. Recognizing in him a gift for shoring up faith, Paul sends him out to strengthen the faltering belief of a distant community. “Bar” is the Hebrew for son; “Nabbas” is the word for encouragement. He is the Son of Encouragement.
May we all be more attuned to the strength and assurance that comes from others – and in turn give them back much the same.