Tuesday of Week 32 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Wisdom 2:23 – 3:9

Here is a lovely and magnificent passage which is often read during requiem Masses and which we also read on November 2, All Souls Day. It speaks about death and immortality and is full of hope:

God created us for incorruption and made us in the image of his own eternity…

God says in the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis:

Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness… (Gen 1:26)

In Genesis, the meaning was primarily that humanity was given responsibility to manage the rest of creation and to live in truth and love. But in our present reading, the emphasis is on God’s eternal nature which God intended to share with all human beings.

That immortality was called into question by death which came into the world “through an adversary’s [Satan] envy”, as if to say, that our First Parents were tempted to sin because of Satan’s envy at their sharing in God’s immortality, something he himself had forfeited by his disobedience (see Rev 12:9; 20:2). All those who submit themselves to Satan’s deceitful guidance will meet the same fate:

You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him… (John 8:44)

The ‘death’ that Satan brings here is primarily spiritual death, the eternal alienation from God, of which physical death is one of its consequences.

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.

By contrast, the fate of the ‘upright’, those who are fully conformed in every way to the will of God, are under his special protection and “no torment will ever touch them”.

In practice, when people die – even good people – it does not, on the surface, look like that:

In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster and their going from us to be their destruction…

Even when good and saintly people leave us, it is regarded as a tragedy and a blow not only to us but to them. We ask: “What did they do to be taken away like this?”

But, where the truly good are concerned, the reality is quite different. In fact, in death:

…they are at peace.

It is not only that all negative elements have been removed from their life, but that they are in a state of security and total happiness under the protection of, and in intimacy with God. As the Third Eucharistic Prayer reads in speaking of the dead:

There we hope to share in your glory when every tear will be wiped away. On that day we shall see you, our God, as you are.

Their death seemed like a form of punishment, the denial of the gift of life but, in fact:

…their hope is full of immortality.

For a Christian, faith is coupled with hope, a confident hope of being one day reunited forever with Christ our Lord. That hope is for immortality (in the Greek, athanasia).

Strangely, this is the first appearance of the term athanasia in this late book of the Old Testament. For the Greeks, it was a familiar term meaning either a remembrance that would never die, or immortality of the soul. Here it is clearly used in the second sense and, more specifically, speaks of a blessed immortality in close companionship with God as the reward for a life of uprightness – a life lived according to God’s will. This was the hope of the Psalmist who could not reconcile himself to losing his friendship with God through death:

Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
For you do not give me up to Sheol
or let your faithful one see the Pit.
(Ps 16:9-10)

In Old Testament times, the fate of all was to be confined forever to this nether world, called Sheol. The author of Wisdom has a much more hope-filled attitude which makes the Psalmist’s prayer a reality for all the upright.

In fact, for the upright, the pain of death is only a slight tap on the wrist, compared to the blessings that are in store on the far side:

…because God tested them and found them worthy of himself…

Sorrow and pain are the ways in which God tests and purifies the upright:

…for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves and chastises every child whom he accepts. (Heb 12:6)

…like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them.

One can understand how those who do evil come upon bad times. It is more difficult to understand why the good should suffer. But, as the writer says, suffering in the case of the good has a purifying effect. The image is that of the holocaust, in which the victim is completely consumed by fire. And, by being put in fire, all impurities are removed from the newly mined gold. Even Jesus himself, the very Son of God, was so tested and so entered his glory.

In the time of their visitation they will shine forth and will run like sparks through the stubble.

‘Visitation’ here expresses God’s loving judgement on those who have been faithful to him (but note that later in Wisdom, the same term is used for the punishment of the wicked at God’s final judgement).

The image of sparks running through the stubble, left over after the cutting of the grain, is used in many biblical passages and symbolises the effects of God’s avenging anger or of Israel’s revenge on its enemies. Here it is used slightly differently, perhaps to mean the participation of the glorified upright in the elimination of evil, preceding the establishing of the kingdom of God, of which they are striking evidence. And so:

They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them forever.

Obviously, they will judge the nations not on the same level as God. But their very uprightness will stand in sharp contrast with those who did not follow God’s will in their lives.

And finally:

Those who trust in him will understand truth…

Those who fully committed themselves in faith and trust to God’s will in their lives will, after death, know that they were indeed walking the way of truth, the way of integrity and wholeness which they have now achieved. They will also:

…abide with him in love because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones, and he watches over his elect.

A life of faith in Christ and his Way is not possible without also being a life of love – love for God, love for others, love for oneself. In death they will truly know and be totally taken up into the God who is Love. This is Heaven!

It is for us, then, to ready ourselves so that our death too will simply be the gateway to perfect happiness and union with God. We make ready for that time by each day seeking and finding God in every person and in every experience.

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