An Explosive Development

An Explosive Development

Thirty-Second Sunday of the Year. Fr Richard Conrad explores how God’s people came to understand the fullness of our future hope.
In the year of Cardinal Newman’s beatification it seems fitting to note that our first reading is an instance of ‘the development of doctrine’.

For much of their history, the People of Israel seem to have had no hope for an exciting life after death. Convinced of the integrity of the human being, they could not see the soul as better off when released from its ‘imprisonment’ in the body. They had no truck with the idea of reincarnation so popular among other peoples. Recognising that much human psychology involves the body’s organs, they could only picture what survives death as a ‘shade’, dwelling in ‘Sheol’, a grey half-existence.

But God’s people were convinced of his justice. In his love he often went beyond justice and forgave sins – but he would not go against justice, would not fail to vindicate his friends. Their loyalty to God (which was his gift to them) must be rewarded. Many Old Testament texts wrestle with how the wicked seem to prosper and the just suffer; but the hope for vindication remained.

In our first reading we glimpse how Antiochus Epiphanes tried to force the Jews to abandon the true God, and to adopt pagan religion. This persecution took place from 167 to 164 B.C. It became impossible to claim that God’s friends were vindicated before death – rather, people died under torture for their friendship with God. Somehow, God must vindicate them after death. Given the integrity of the human being, this must involve the resurrection of the body. For God will reward human beings, not merely souls.

So a clear and lively hope for the final resurrection became widespread among the Jews. It was born out of suffering that tested faith, just as a clearer sense of God’s transcendence had been born out of the suffering of the Exile.

In this development, no truth already known had to be denied, but a new truth was discovered. Many ancient texts took on a new lustre, such as the verse in today’s responsorial psalm: ‘In my justice I shall see your face, and be filled, when I awake, with the sight of your glory.’

Another truth followed. On the basis of human nature’s resources, the disembodied soul can only have a grey half-existence. But if God’s purpose is bodily resurrection, then he will keep his friends’ souls in a state of bliss while they await vindication – though clearly some of them need purification after death, and our prayers can help them.

We should say these truths were not so much discovered as revealed. For the creative process of wrestling with paradoxes, and of preserving faith in times of trial, was a means God employed in order to speak of his purpose.

God the Father spoke most clearly of himself and his purpose by sending his Word Jesus Christ. In today’s Gospel we see Jesus affirming the final resurrection against the Sadducees, the one group of Jews that had not accepted this hope. Since they only venerated the first five Books of the Old Testament, Jesus chose a proof text from there.

The great way Jesus affirmed the hope for resurrection was by his own rising from the dead. Actions speak louder than words: Jesus’s resurrection does not only tell us that the dead will rise, it causes the dead to rise. Jesus the ‘First-Fruits’ enables the harvest to take place; his resurrection is the ‘channel’ through which God’s Spirit will flow to all the dead to restore them to life, and his risen glory is the ‘prototype’ on which the Spirit will pattern God’s friends when they rise.

As Jesus had promised, the Spirit brought to the minds of the Apostles and their fellow-workers all Jesus had taught them. In the explosive ‘development of doctrine’ that gave us the New Testament, what had been revealed in Old Testament times was affirmed, the ancient texts took on a further lustre.

Since, in Christ, God has said all he can say to us, no further saving truths have been revealed since the end of the Age of the Apostles. The development of doctrine on which Newman focused was the Church’s way of preserving intact and alive the Deposit of Faith. In the process of wrestling with paradoxes, and in pondering with delight God’s self-communication, the meaning of Jesus’s words and deeds, sacrifice and resurrection, has been brought out. In resolving arguments, and in meeting challenges to faith, the Church has had the guidance of the Holy Spirit, given her through Jesus’s sacrifice, the sacrifice in which God himself was in solidarity with those people of every age who persevere in loyalty to God, come what may.

Readings: 2 Maccabees 7:1-2,9-14|2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5|Luke 20:27-38

fr. Richard Conrad teaches dogmatic and sacramental theology at Blackfriars, Oxford, where he is also the director of the Aquinas Institute.