Monday, February 20, 2017

Defining Heaven

Dear Friends,

Each time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we pray to “Our Father who art in heaven” and we include a line that says “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Heaven. When is the last time you included in your conversations some reference to heaven? Life, lived as it is today in the fast lane, is so absorbed in today that any thought of heaven leaves us skeptical. Still, even though the word “heaven” is not part of our everyday vocabulary, once in a while, it’s good to be reminded that heaven is a reality and a goal for Christians, as well as other religious groups. Muslims believe the deserving end up in a peaceful abundant paradise; many Buddhists and Hindus believe they must pass through a series of heavens before they get to the enlightened bliss of nirvana. Many Jews believe in life everlasting in God’s kingdom which shall never be destroyed. Some African faiths speak of a long journey to a lovely next world, while others teach that the heavenly spirits live among us.

Two stressful times, in particular, find people desperately hoping for heaven: first, at times of persecution, when people endure suffering for who they are at the cruel hands of others. At this time when life seems to be falling apart, the suffering and their loved ones focus on heaven and what God has in store. Secondly, when our loved ones are dying – we believe more compellingly than at more placid times that the dying are on their way to heaven. We want them to be whole, safe happy and without pain. Moreover, for Christians, life with God in eternity is for everyone.

In the long history of belief or conjecture about the afterlife, Jesus stands out as the One whose words and actions make heaven take on new meaning for his followers and for all time. He doesn’t speak of heaven as a reward, certainly not a place of material pleasures, tribal triumph or falling into the cosmos no longer a unique person. For Jesus heaven is a glorious personal transformation and an eternal communion with the living God. Ultimately, heaven is the believer’s true home and ultimate destiny. In Luke, Jesus says to the repentant thief also hanging on a cross: “This day, you shall be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23.43) In his own agony, Jesus thought of another person who was suffering. Paul puts the prospect of eternal life with God this way: “Eye has not seen nor ear heard what God has ready for those who love him.” (1Cor.2.9)

Christian teaching used to highlight heaven as our true goal with this life as an antechamber, a prologue. With Vatican II, believers have been taught to savor, build up and take delight in our lives and this world with all its surprising possibilities, needs and challenges. We now say that heaven is already here in our midst. Heaven is not some far distant place. Wherever the Beatitudes are lived out, wherever people are more aligned with God’s ways, heaven is already present. Dante, in the Paradiso, describes heaven as “a state of being in which we open up to more love.” That certainly can happen here and now.

Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College says of heaven: “It is the New Jerusalem, and Paradise Regained, the Community of Saints and the Eternal Eucharist; everlasting Easter and a million Christmases. It is an end to death’s sting; it is the eternal ongoing, ever growing experience of God. It is the ecstatic dram of St. John: ‘Holy, holy, holy.’” Heaven is real, though we do not know its details.

Take a look around you. What heaven will be has already begun today.

~ Sister Joan Sobala