Becoming Olive Trees and Lampstands, 33rd Saturday (II), November 22, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Saturday of the 33rd Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of St. Cecilia, Virgin and Martyr
November 22, 2014
Rev 11:4-12, Ps 144, Lk 20:27-40

 

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • Today’s readings focus us — as the Church normally does in the month of November — on the four last things (death, judgment, heaven and hell) and specifically on heaven and how we’re supposed to prepare for it in our conceptions and in our actions. So often our conceptions of heaven are erroneous projections of the little things of earthly life and Jesus, in today’s Gospel, helps us to grasp that heaven is something far greater. St. Paul has told us, “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered the human heart [to conceive] what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9) and St. John has added, “What we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Today Jesus helps us to see that heaven is even greater than one of the greatest gifts on earth and that that gift is meant to prepare us for a much greater realization.
  • The Sadducees came to Jesus with a question designed to test him and prove their point that there is no resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees were the priestly aristocracy and they only accepted the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, which they claimed gave no evidence whatsoever of the resurrection. They were often in dispute with the Scribes and the Pharisees, who accepted the entire Hebrew Bible, which gives ample prophecy of the resurrection. We see evidence of this dispute in the detail that after Jesus’ response it was the Scribes who said, “Teacher, you have answered well,” since the Scribes were regularly arguing with the Sadducees about this very point. The Sadducees pose to Jesus a question based on the truth of marriage and one aspect of the Mosaic law. We know that in the beginning, God said that when a man leaves his mother and father and clings to his wife, they become one flesh, and no man can render their bond asunder (Gen 2:24). The Jews also practiced what is called the levirate law of marriage. Moses taught, “When brothers live together and one of them dies without a son, the widow of the deceased shall not marry anyone outside the family; but her husband’s brother shall go to her and perform the duty of a brother-in-law by marrying her. The first-born son she bears shall continue the line of the deceased brother, that his name may not be blotted out from Israel” (Deut 25:5-6). The first son born from the woman would technically become the heir of the deceased brother in order to carry on his name through successive generations of progeny. The Sadducees’ question about the seven brothers who married the same seemingly sterile woman was essentially this: if this woman became one flesh with seven different men, to whom will she be united in one flesh forever? The implication was that since she couldn’t be one flesh with all seven, there could be no eternal life, because it would make the one flesh bond of marriage absurd. People must really be dead — and dead for real — for a new bond to be formed.
  • How does Jesus respond? He responds first about the connection between marriage and the afterlife, describing how marriage is an institution God founded for this world meant to help people enter into a far greater marriage bond, the marriage of the Lamb with his Bride the Church that will be consummated forever in the wedding feast of heaven. He said, “The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” There are no more marriages taking place in heaven. The reason for this is because marriage, as God intended, is sacramental. It’s meant to be a bridge to eternity. There’s a two-fold purpose to the Sacrament of Marriage, what has traditionally been called “the mutual sanctification of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring,” and both aspects of that purpose will have been fulfilled in heaven. There’s no need for the sanctification of spouses because, hopefully, both spouses will be saints around God’s throne, and there will be no new offspring in heaven, there will be no need for maternity wards and schools because everyone will be full stature in Christ. Marriage is meant to be a bridge to eternity, an entrance in this world and in the text into Christ’s marriage with us. To say that there is no marriage or giving in marriage in heaven doesn’t mean that there will not be love in heaven — there certainly will! — and it doesn’t mean that those who were spouses here on earth won’t have an even deeper spiritual bond in Christ than they even anticipated here on earth, but that the essential properties of marital love between one man and one woman will no longer be in vigor. In this month of November, those who are married are called to reflect again on the fundamental purpose of the Sacrament of Marriage, which is to help each other form a school of sanctification leading spouses and children, God-willing, to the unending nuptial of the Lamb and the Bride.
  • After Jesus clarifies the misunderstanding of the Sadducees about marriage and its connection to eternity, he gets to the heart of their problem, which is about eternal life. In St. Matthew’s version of the account, he tells them, “You are misled because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God” (Mt 22:29). They don’t even understand the five books of Sacred Scripture they do accept, he says, nor what God’s power is to raise the dead. He cites an example from the Pentateuch that up until this time had never been used to refute the Sadducees’ objection. “That the dead will rise,” Jesus says, “even Moses made known in the passage about the bush, when he called ‘Lord’ the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” This is a reference to the famous scene in the second book of the Hebrew Bible, Exodus, wherein God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush and revealed himself as YHWH (“I am who am”) and as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Ex 3:1-15). The fact that God said, “I am,” rather than “I was,” the God of their forefathers is a strong indication that they are in fact alive. Not only did Jesus’ response win the acclaim of the Scribes but was so powerful that St. Luke tells us that the Sadducees “no longer dared to ask him anything.”
  • The first reading from the Book of Revelation adds to the teaching the Church gives us today on eternal life and the connection between this world and heaven. The more we understand the symbolism being employed by St. John the more we can apply its lessons to our lives. St. John heard a voice saying, “Here are my two witnesses. These are the two olive trees and two lamp stands that stand before the Lord of the earth.” If there are two witnesses, we would expect one olive tree and one lamp stand. Why are there two of each composing the two witnesses? I think that we’re talking about a guardian angel together with the human witness, something we’ll return to a little later. But why refer to a witness as an olive tree or a lamp stand? A lamp stand, we know, gives off light and an olive tree produces olive oil used for anointing and so the witness that is being given is of the light of God and the sacred anointing of the Lord, pointing to the Anointed one (Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek) and to those who are anointed in him. The word witness, of course, is the Greek word martyr, which points to the supreme testimony. The symbolism of the Book of Revelation goes on to describe that they’re both intrepid witnesses — with fire coming out of their mouths, a sign of how they speak with God’s power — and that “they have the power to close up the sky so that no rain can fall during the time of their prophesying. They also have power to turn water into blood and to afflict the earth with any plague as often as they wish.” These are clear allusions to Elijah who prophesied the great drought to King Ahab (1 Kings 17) and to Moses who for God announced the plagues to Pharaoh including the one that turned the Nile into Blood (Exod 7:14-18). These were the two who were set to give witness to the coming of the Messiah, Elijah whom the Prophet Malachi said would precede the Messiah and make straight his ways (Mal 3:1; Mal 4:5), a function fulfilled by St. John the Baptist who came in the spirit of Elijah (Lk 1:17; Mt 17:12); and Moses, on whom the Messiah would pattern his life (Deut 18:18). There’s no surprise that in the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John saw Jesus speaking to Moses and Elijah about the “exodus” he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. Moses and Elijah were two of the Lord’s great anointed ones. They were both great lamp stands. They were the ones giving witness to Jesus. And all of us are called to give a similar witness of light and anointing.  Revelation continues that when they have finished their testimony (literally, their martyrion or martyrdom), they will be killed by the “beast” from the abyss, a symbol of the devil, and that their death will for three and a half days become a mockery in the great city symbolically called “Sodom” and “Egypt,” where “indeed their Lord was crucified.” We know that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, but Jerusalem, instead of being a holy city, had become a city of sin (Sodom) and slavery (Egypt). People would mock them and their deaths because “these two prophets tormented the inhabitants of the earth,” who didn’t want to walk in the light they were emanating or to live anointed lives but only greasy ones. These words of Revelation were fulfilled in the martyrdoms of so many prophets who took their lead from Moses and Elijah, prophets both before and after the time of Christ and his crucifixion. Revelation says, “After three and a half days, a breath of life from God entered them.” This is an allusion to Christ’s resurrection on the third day. “They heard a loud voice from heaven say to them, ‘Come up here.’ So they went up to heaven in a cloud as their enemies looked on.” We know that Elijah was caught up to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11) and we’ve never been able to find Moses’ body on Mt. Nebo. Certainly their souls are now with God experiencing the triumph of the resurrection.
  • This whole passage helps us to learn how to live in this world so that one day we may experience with Moses and Elijah the triumph of our Crucified Lord. They lived as lamp stands and as olive trees. We, too, are called to burn with Christ’s light as the light of the world and we are to live in an anointed way, to live according to the Holy Spirit whose anointing we’ve received, to live by the Sacraments, to live as priest, prophet and king — the three who would be anointed in the Old Testament — in Christ, the Anointed Priest, Prophet and King. That is our great martyrdom, our testimony of the Lord. The beast may come from the abyss to wage war against us, to try to conquer and kill us. Our cities may become like Sodom and Egypt. Our corpses may lie in the city streets and our enemies may for a time seek to gloat over us. But this passage from the Book of Revelation is meant to strengthen us to live our faith with heroism. In the Psalm today, we blessed the Lord as our “Rock,” saying that he trains our “hands for battle” and our “fingers for war.” We named him our “fortress,” our “stronghold,” our “deliver,” our trusted “shield.” All of these remain true even when we’re persecuted, when when we’re surrounded by the beast and those who have made themselves our enemies. Those circumstances are the occasions in which our witness as a lamp stand and an olive tree radiate all the more.
  • We see this in the life of St. Cecilia, whose martyrdom we celebrate today. She was a young girl of a noble Christian family who fasted, wore a hair shirt, and desired to give herself always as a virgin to God, but her father had plans for a good marriage to a young pagan patrician named Valerian. During their wedding, among the music and rejoicing of the guests, Cecilia stayed apart, singing to God within and praying for help. When she and Valerian retired to the place where he was prepared to consummate the marriage, Cecilia told him a secret that she has an angel watching over her and that if he touched her in the way of marriage, the angel would make his suffer, but if he respected her and got baptized, he would see the angel. Valerian received instruction, god baptized by Pope Urban, and then saw the angel standing by Cecilia’s side who put on both of their heads a crown of roses and lilies, a sign (like we’d see much later in the life of St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe) of martyrdom and purity, respectively. The fact that Valerian could see Cecilia’s angel shows that we’re never abandoned, that our serving as a lamp stand and an olive tree is multiplied, as we see in Revelation, by the presence of the Angel God sends each of us. Valerian eventually helped his brother Tiburtius to convert and the two of them began to care for the bodies of all the martyrs seeking to bury them. That exposed them as Christians and both were brought to martyrdom with the guard, Maximus, who witnessed their supreme testimony and became a Christian on the spot and almost immediately a fellow martyr. Cecilia buried all three bodies and herself was exposed as a Christian and brought to trial before Almachius. She was unable to be threatened out of her faith and after they tried to suffocate her by fire, ended up trying to behead her, but the axe wouldn’t penetrate through her entire neck. The blow, however, turned out to be fatal after three days and she was buried close to the popes in the catacombs that would eventually be named after St. Callistus. Her relics were translated by Pope St. Paschal in the early 800s to the area that was believed to have been her house and where a Church had been built after the age of persecutions. In 1599, the Cardinal in charge of the Church of St. Cecilia (Cardinal Sfondrati), in doing various renovations, decided to re-inter Cecilia with SS. Valerian, Tiburtius and Maximus, and as he opened her tomb, he found her incorrupt. He had the great renaissance sculptor Stefano Maderno make a sculpture identical to what was seen in the tomb. That statue is now found before her tomb as well as a copy has been placed in the catacombs closed to where her bodied had rested for over five centuries. He remains looked as if she were sleeping. You could see the axe marks in her neck. But what has always struck me — and many others — is the way she was prophesying even in death. In her right hand, she had two fingers and her thumb extended. In her left, she had her index finger extended. This was a means by which she was proclaiming her faith in her Triune God, one God in three persons, to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to the God of Cecilia, Valerian, Tiburtius and Maximus, to the God of Elijah and Moses, to the God of Bernadette and Mary, to the God of each of us here, the God of the living, not of the dead.
  • Today we celebrate St. Cecilia’s great witness but also how her soul has entered into resurrection and how her incorrupt body is await that same fate “after three and a half-days.” We mark the fact that our God is a God of the Living who wants us all to come fully alive in Christ his Son, so that we, having been illuminated by the word of God, might become lamp stands not hidden under a bushel basket but placed in such a way as to give light to all who see, and so that we, receiving within the Body and Blood of the anointed one, may go out dripping with Christ’s own unction, to anoint the world. If we give witness to Christ in this way, in life and in death, then each of us will hear one day a “loud voice from heaven” saying to us, “Come up here!

 

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 rv 11:4-12

I, John, heard a voice from heaven speak to me:
Here are my two witnesses:
These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands
that stand before the Lord of the earth.
If anyone wants to harm them, fire comes out of their mouths
and devours their enemies.
In this way, anyone wanting to harm them is sure to be slain.
They have the power to close up the sky
so that no rain can fall during the time of their prophesying.
They also have power to turn water into blood
and to afflict the earth with any plague as often as they wish.When they have finished their testimony,
the beast that comes up from the abyss
will wage war against them and conquer them and kill them.
Their corpses will lie in the main street of the great city,
which has the symbolic names “Sodom” and “Egypt,”
where indeed their Lord was crucified.
Those from every people, tribe, tongue, and nation
will gaze on their corpses for three and a half days,
and they will not allow their corpses to be buried.
The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them
and be glad and exchange gifts
because these two prophets tormented the inhabitants of the earth.
But after the three and a half days,
a breath of life from God entered them.
When they stood on their feet, great fear fell on those who saw them.
Then they heard a loud voice from heaven say to them, “Come up here.”
So they went up to heaven in a cloud as their enemies looked on.

Responsorial Psalm ps 144:1, 2, 9-10

R. (1b) Blessed be the Lord, my Rock!
Blessed be the LORD, my rock,
who trains my hands for battle, my fingers for war.
R. Blessed be the Lord, my Rock!
My mercy and my fortress,
my stronghold, my deliverer,
My shield, in whom I trust,
who subdues my people under me.
R. Blessed be the Lord, my Rock!
O God, I will sing a new song to you;
with a ten stringed lyre I will chant your praise,
You who give victory to kings,
and deliver David, your servant from the evil sword.
R. Blessed be the Lord, my Rock!

Gospel lk 20:27-40

Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection,
came forward and put this question to Jesus, saying,
“Teacher, Moses wrote for us,
If someone’s brother dies leaving a wife but no child,
his brother must take the wife
and raise up descendants for his brother
.
Now there were seven brothers;
the first married a woman but died childless.
Then the second and the third married her,
and likewise all the seven died childless.
Finally the woman also died.
Now at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be?
For all seven had been married to her.”
Jesus said to them,
“The children of this age marry and remarry;
but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age
and to the resurrection of the dead
neither marry nor are given in marriage.
They can no longer die,
for they are like angels;
and they are the children of God
because they are the ones who will rise.
That the dead will rise
even Moses made known in the passage about the bush,
when he called ‘Lord’
the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob;
and he is not God of the dead, but of the living,
for to him all are alive.”
Some of the scribes said in reply,
“Teacher, you have answered well.”
And they no longer dared to ask him anything.