Today’s readings converge at the point of family—of choosing and claiming our spiritual family as God’s children over and against our merely biological family. In the old covenant, God’s grace was dispensed primarily through natural ethnicity and kinships. God chose Israel and the Jewish people, by the very fact that they were the children of Abraham, and thus blessed in a way that other tribes were not. Yet, the moment God became human, his covenant became literally Catholic—a universal promise to all people that God is now present in their midst. If this is true, our old identities must be transformed: we are no longer simply the child of this family, no longer simply a citizen of this or that community, not just a member of that political party, and so on. Now we realize that we have been made for nothing other than life in heaven.
Accordingly, we can look upon God, and the human family, in the same way no more. God is no longer tied to a particular people but now to the entire human race. That is how we are to interpret those places in Paul where he teaches that, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28; cf. Rom 10:12; 1 Cor 12:13; Col 3:11). To interpret these passages correctly is not to say that there are no longer historical (personal, gender, social) differences, but that God no longer distributes his grace determined by these differences. All are now one in Christ!
This is what makes the opening reading from Maccabees (a family name traceable, appropriately enough, to the word “hammer”) all the more remarkable. In the reading in 2 Maccabees, we hear the story of Judas Maccabeus who led a revolt against Antiochus Ephiphanes IV (King of the Greek Seleucid dynasty, covering most of modern-day Turkey and beyond) defeating his army in 161 B.C., so as to free the Jews from foreign domination.
The lesson here for us Christians is obviously what the Apostles themselves knew very early on as well: it is better to follow God than to capitulate to man (cf. Acts 5:29). It is ironic that we are a people who claim to have a unique friendship with one we know created the world, rules all things providentially, who became one with us in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and with one who has pledged his own sacred body and blood to us at each moment of our lives, and yet, we still fear to trust him completely. We are still afraid of death.
However, this is what we proclaim as Christians: that love is infinitely stronger than death and we have been lovingly made members of an eternal family. God is now our true and everlasting Father, Mary is our Mother, and all the saints are our newly-acquired siblings. This is why we hear the Apostle Paul refer to those in the Church at Thessalonica as “brothers and sisters.” These Christians are closer to him than any would have been to their own naturally-born siblings. It is the Faith that thus binds, and Paul realizes that not all have such life within them.
This might be an opportunity to comfort those before us by reminding them that this world was never meant to be their true home. Instead of feeling sad and despondent that we are not closer to others (especially our members of our immediate families), or that we find many aspects of our lives lacking, perhaps we could see these tears and aches as the realization that we know we are not made for earth only, and that our true destination and character is still to come. As Tolkien realized, as opposed to the elves who could not die, death is the “great gift” of humans because it finally transposes us from this “veil of tears” into an everlasting community of joy.
That is where today’s Gospel strikes. We are to live in this world as if we were already claimed for heaven. Even the closest possible human relationship, the sacrament of matrimony, is to be lived sub specie aeternitatis—with the realization that your spouse on earth is not your eternal spouse but a living icon through which you are to see your eternal love. Marriage’s ultimate purpose is for you to hand your spouse over to Jesus each day, and to assure that your life together is cemented by Jesus’ love and care. This is why matrimony is a sacrament: even on those days where you feel like being selfish and vindictive, the grace is offered you to become other than you might feel at any unfortunate particular moment.
When Luke says the married are like the angels in heaven, it is important to stress what this means. The elect are like the angels in heaven, not because they leave their bodies behind, but because there will not be marriages celebrated in heaven. Nothing makes me more upset when I hear well-meaning (but poorly catechized) Christians assure someone that their deceased loved one is “now an angel.” No! Angels are spiritual substances who were created without bodies, and who never will have bodies; we humans are incomplete without our bodies, and will one day enjoy glorified and resurrected bodies. Angels cannot become human, humans do not become angels. The point here is that, if lived rightly, marriage fulfills its purpose by one’s getting one’s spouse to heaven. For Christ must be the first and the form of all our loves, the union by which all the cares and affections in our lives are brought together.
Toward the end of his classic, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis depicts a young, grieving mother named “Pam” who is claiming that the love she has for her son, who died at an unfortunately early age, is what should grant her heaven. The angel of God points out that the lavish attention she showed her son, Michael, was never, in fact, true love, but her own possessiveness: “You’re treating God as only a means to Michael. But the whole thickening treatment consists in learning to want God for his own sake.” “You wouldn’t talk like that if you were a mother.” “You mean if I were only a mother. But there is no such thing as being only a mother. You exist as Michael’s mother only because you first exist as God’s creature. That relation is older and closer.”
Today’s homily, then, can focus on how we Christians are currently landlocked, but are given the grace to live as if we were already in heaven. Heaven is not a place, but that relationship with Jesus Christ which transforms our every thought, word, and action here on earth. Christ does not want to take away our families, and our deepest desires, but to become the “glue” that holds them all together. As long as our hearts remain divided between creator and creatures, we will never be happy. Once we surrender all of our seemingly “human” loves, and plunge them into the Heart of Christ, thus allowing him to become the love that unites us to even the most natural of our affections, our world becomes consecrated. For this reason Jesus asks us today to put him first in order that we may love ourselves and others, not only rightly, but eternally.