The Stewardship of Hope
Do you believe that after death your body will rise to life again? Do you take this for granted, or do you recognize it as a precious revelation preserved and passed down to you by others? Do you see this truth as confided to your stewardship, to be passed on to others in a way made credible by your lifestyle?
The Entrance Antiphon is pure hope; “Let my prayer come before you, Lord. Listen and answer me.”
In the Opening Prayer(s) we ask for what we need to “do your work on earth” and “more willingly give our lives in service to all.” We list our needs as “freedom of spirit,” “health in mind and body,” protection in (not deliverance from) “the burdens and challenges of life” and a shield against the “distortion of pride.” And we ask God to “enfold our desire with the beauty of truth.” To make us “more aware of your loving design.” Granted health, the key to it all seems to be “truth.”
Dying in Living Hope
2Maccabees 7:1-14 begins the story of the brutal martyrdom of seven brothers and their mother. The words of the first son grounds their courage in fidelity to God’s law, the Covenant heritage that gave identity to them and to their family: “We are prepared to die rather than break the Law of our ancestors.”
The second son added hope in the resurrection: “The King of this world will raise us up, since it is for his laws that we die.” The third expressed the same hope.” When they cut off parts of his body he said God had given them to him, and “from him I hope to receive them again.” The fourth said they died “relying on God’s promise that we shall be raised up by him.”
Their moving testimony to faith in the resurrection was a precious heritage in Judaism. However, it was not preserved as conscientiously as it should have been. In Jesus’ time the Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife. They were “unfaithful stewards” of the truth that had been entrusted to their people.
There are Christians whose belief in life after death is not apparent. But we need to look to the example of those whose lifestyle preserves the memory and testimony of the Maccabee brothers — and of all the martyrs — in such a way that its meaning is passed on to future generations. How many have been — and are today — willing to lose anything on this earth, from body parts to promotions, from status to success, as our culture defines these, rather than break God’s law? Especially the law of all laws, the law that rules the interpretation and application of all the others: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”1
Jesus’ whole life is a witness to eternal life. Jesus was not only God; he was the greatest model of human life to walk the earth. In him the Father was able to see and rejoice in a free human nature that performed perfectly according to the Creator’s desires. But how would Jesus’ life on earth be judged by human standards? Did he do anything that would make him famous the way people achieve fame today?
In his lifetime, no. After his resurrection, yes.
Jesus had an insignificant number of followers when he died, and they were considered insignificant people. But how many billions have followed him since? Jesus never wrote any books, composed music, designed buildings, sculpted or painted great works of art. But he has inspired the most beautiful literature, music, architecture and art in the history of the world, in all those subjects we call “the humanities.” But only after his resurrection.
In direct aid to the poor and afflicted, Christians do not just lead the field; they dominate it. Schools and hospitals began as Christian institutions. In the area of politics and social justice what account can we give of our stewardship? Only historians can measure how much Christianity influenced the growth of democracy, the defense of human rights, the abolition of slavery and racial discrimination. And sociologists must judge whether, given the forces of resistance, the results of Christian social action are an inspiration or an indictment. In both of these areas the “reign of God” is still in its infancy.
What we do see today are “martyrs to social justice” without precedent. The visible tip of the iceberg are bishops like Oscar Romero, shot to death during Mass on March 24, 1980, for speaking out against the oppression of the poor in El Salvador, and Bishop Juan Gerardhi, beaten to death April 26, 1998, with a concrete block for his part in publishing the Church’s report on human rights abuses in Guatemala.
The report “is based on the testimonies of 65,000 people interviewed in their communities by some 600 pastoral agents. It documents 55,000 victims of a total of 150,000, and 440 massacres in 36 years of war and genocide”. 2
Among the martyrs were lay volunteer Jean Donovan, with Sisters Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel, raped and murdered by the National Guard in El Salvador on December 2, 1980. Father Stan Rother, July 28, 1981, and Christian Brother James Miller, February 13, 1982, both assassinated by “death squads” in Guatemala. On November 16, 1989, a unit of the partly American-trained Atlacatl Battalion, machine-gunned six Jesuit priests of the University of Central America in San Salvador, their housekeeper, Elba Ramos, and her sixteen-year-old daughter, Celina. All for their involvement with the poor.
The real iceberg, however, are the thousands of laity counted in the report — catechists, “animadores de la fe” and faithful believers who participated in Mass and religious discussions at their peril — who were “disappeared,” tortured, and buried in unmarked graves, including whole villages burned alive in their churches. This was the response of governments, ours included, to the Church’s history-making “option for the poor” declared in the Latin American Bishops meetings in Medellín, Colombia, 1968, and Puebla, Mexico, 1979.3
These victims all died with the same cry on their lips as the martyred Maccabees: “Lord, when your glory appears, my joy will be full” (Responsorial, Psalm 17). They were faithful “stewards of the hope.”
Misguided on the right path
In Luke 20:27-38 the Sadducees appear as “unfaithful stewards” of the truth of resurrection and the blood testament of the Maccabees. But there is something we can learn from them: they related the doctrine of the resurrection to the current reality of daily life. They asked what resurrection said about marriage, and vice-versa. They thought up a scenario in which the two appeared to be incompatible, and used that as an argument against resurrection.
Jesus basically dismissed their objection by telling them they didn’t have a clue about what life was like after death, so their attempt to apply to the risen life the restrictions that exist on earth was presumptuous tunnel-vision from the start. But we can learn from them.
We need to relate what confronts us now on earth to what awaits us later in heaven. All our fears, compulsions, inhibitions, anxieties, desires and choices take on new clarity when we view them in the light of resurrection. It is only in that light that we are able to say, “Lord, when your glory appears, my joy will be full”?
Live to Give the Light
Paul began his letter praising the Thessalonians for their “steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.” In 2Thessalonians 2:16 to 3:5 he prays that the Lord will “turn your hearts toward the love of God and the fortitude of Christ.” Why? To “comfort your hearts and strengthen you in everything good that you do and say.”
Fortitude. Strength. Comfort. These are recurring words, all based on the heritage entrusted to us by “our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father” who have given us “such inexhaustible comfort and such sure hope” in the assured promise of the resurrection of our bodies. This is the heritage we need to preserve by persevering in faith; the heritage we need to pass on to our children and contemporaries. We do it by teaching through our words and by the testimony of our lifestyle that we know our lives are not limited to what we experience on earth. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”4
The Apostles defined themselves as “witnesses” to his Resurrection.5 We need to bear shocking testimony to our hope by living in a way that does not make sense without it. We can only proclaim the future credibly by living in the present as if the future were already an assured fact. To be a “faithful steward” is to live and act always in a way that proclaims, “Lord, when your glory appears, my joy will be full.”
How is belief in the resurrection, central to Christianity, visible in your life?
Take seriously your stewardship of the heritage of faith the martyrs died for.
1 Luke 10:27.
2 Maryknoll magazine, April, 2000). This was the official report of the Guatemalan bishops’ Recovery of Historical Memory Project (REMHI), on human rights abuses in Guatemala, abridged in English as Guatemala, Never Again! (Orbis Books, 1999).
3 See the second and third General Conferences of Latin American Bishops, in Medellín, 1968, and Puebla, 1979. For American involvement, see Penny Lernoux, Cry of the People, (Doubleday, 1980). This book received the Sidney Hillman Foundation book award for 1981 and was cited by The New York Times Book Review as one of the most notable nonfiction books of 1980. See also Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer’s report on the United States Army “School of the Americas” at Fort Benning, Georgia: School of Assassins (Orbis Books, 1997).
4 Philippians 3:20.
5 Acts 2:32, 3:15, 10;39-41.