Today is Remembrance Sunday, first of all. We remember the dead of the two World and other wars. We remember especially the dead of our own country. But not only them. I read once that in the 20th c, it was estimated that some 165 million people died from violent causes. And this was a figure arrived at before the end of that century, some time in the 1980s.
The ceremonies of Remembrance Sunday occur when they do because World War I ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. But it coincides too with the time when we as Catholics are anyway remembering the Holy Souls, the faithful departed, beginning with their Commemoration on the 2nd November. Our faith adds its own perspective. It’s the perspective Jesus opens today in the Gospel when he speaks of those ‘judged worthy of a place in the other world and in the resurrection from the dead’. It’s the perspective the seven brothers had even before Christ: ‘Inhuman fiend, you may discharge us from this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up, since it is for his laws that we die to live again for ever.’ We bring hope and prayer for the departed into this remembering. We remember a past ruined by humanity. But we also remember a future promised by God. In the midst of death, we remember resurrection.
And isn’t there something else to pray for as well? Next year will be the centenary of the outbreak of the 1st World War. During that war, in 1917, Pope Benedict XV offered the combatants a carefully-drafted peace plan. Had it not been rejected, the history of Germany and the 20th c. might have been less bitter. 50 years ago this year, Pope John XXIII wrote a memorable Encyclical called Pacem in Terris. Pope Francis called for peace recently in regard to Syria. All the Popes of recent times have done this. And several of the Popes have been bold enough, as disciples of Christ, to ask the question, ‘Can’t humanity move beyond war? Can’t humanity decide that even as a last resort it is not the way to resolve disputes? Can’t we put it in the past?’ We have weapons capable of wreaking incalculable and longterm destruction. Is it really so absurd an aim to banish war? At least may God who sees our hearts and answers our deepest desires see a longing and hear a cry for peace in them.
Then, in the gruesome 1st reading and by way of an allusion in the 2nd, we touch on another kind of war. Not simply the war of man on man, Cain and Abel, but a war against the most precious thing inside man, his religious freedom and his faith. The 1st reading comes from the second book of Maccabees. It refers to events from about 160 years before Christ, to a time when Israel was part of the Seleucid empire. The latter’s ruler got the idea that everyone in his little world should follow Greek customs. Jewish customs, like circumcision or abstention from pork, were outlawed. For Jews, though, these things were signs of loyalty to God’s covenant with them. They were expressions of their faith in the God of Israel. So the bolder among them refused to compromise. Hence the story of this remarkable family, the mother with her seven stalwart sons.
St Paul, some two hundred years later and after Christ, speaks in the 2nd reading of ‘bigoted and evil people’ opposing the Gospel, the faith. It’s another chapter in the same story. What a great and painful mystery we have here! When God draws near to fallen humanity, first through the Law of Moses and the prophets and then through Christ, this approach is rejected. There is something in us that doesn’t want him. What was done to Christ – the Cross – is the lasting sign of this. And so this story goes on, not just in the 2nd century BC or the first AD, but now, in the early years of the 3rd millennium. I read a brief report the other day that most European Jews feel that anti-Semitism is on the rise. For many Christians, the sky is still darker. Just a few years ago COMECE (the Commission of Episcopates for the European Community) produced a report which revealed that Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world, and that some 100 million Christians were suffering various forms of persecution throughout the world. More recently the charity Aid to the Church in Need has published a report covering the period from 2011 to 2013. This makes painfully clear how the world situation is deteriorating for Christians. This is so especially in the Middle East; in countries in Asia and Africa where radical Islamism is active; in places where another religion such as Buddhism is in the ascendant and intolerant, such as Sri Lanka and Burma; and in some Communist countries, most notably North Korea. In 20 out of the 30 countries surveyed, the situation for Christians has worsened over the last two years. Here are some random statistics. Between January and October 2012, 1,201 Christians were killed – 791 of them in Nigeria. In one northern Nigerian diocese, with 37 parishes, half the churches have been destroyed. In Egypt since August of this year, some 80 churches and Christian establishments have been destroyed. Many Christians migrate, if they can. But this is tragedy too. In Iraq, not so long ago, there were almost 1.5 million Christians; there are now 300,000. There is a real danger that Christianity will disappear from some Middle Eastern countries altogether. There are deaths, but more often there is just fear, intimidation, destruction of property, the curtailment of freedom. Not all this persecution is purely and simply anti-Christian, but it is predominantly Christians who are suffering, Protestants, Orthodox and Catholics; lay people, religious, priests and bishops. It’s a dark picture. It’s as if the Church is living a historical November.
So, it’s not just St Paul who’s speaking to us, but these suffering fellows of ours: ‘Finally, brothers, pray for us, pray that the Lord’s message may spread quickly and be received with honour…pray that we may be preserved from the interference of bigoted and evil people, for faith is not given to everyone.’
‘Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to stand with confidence before the Son of Man,’ said our verse at the Alleluia.
God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ have given us, Paul says, a ‘sure hope’. He actually says a ‘good hope’. This is the hope Jesus speaks of in the Gospel: the hope that God is God of the living, not the dead. Christ himself suffered a brutal and apparently hopeless death. But in that death was contaimed every death, all deaths, including yours and mine yet to come. And by the alchemy of who he was as Son of God, by the power of his divine-human love, by his obedience to the Father, he changed the base metal of death into the gold of eternal life. He overcame death. He proved stronger. He did not allow it to have the last word, but changed it into the first word of a new sentence, the beginning of a new world. And because he rose, all of us can now hope to rise with him. If we link our lives to his as he has linked his to ours, he will make us ‘children of the resurrection’. ‘I shall be filled when I awake with the sight of your glory, O Lord.’ This is the ‘good hope’. This is what helps so many of our fellow-Christians have ‘the fortitude of Christ’ today. This is what provokes our prayer for them and for the departed. This is what can enter every sorrow in our lives.