A Place Called Heaven
The season of Lent is a reminder of all the basics that Christ taught us when he walked this earth. Easter is a reminder of the Resurrection of Christ and that place we call heaven. I would like to share with you his basic teachings on that place we call heaven.
Heaven has to be considered as the place where every question, where every problem that could not be solved on earth, will be solved. Each one of us, from our different vocation, has a raft of answers that we are looking for. Several months ago I had the assignment to go to a hospital at 6:30 in the morning to baptize thirteen children who were victims of aids. I asked the same question you would ask. Why? Each person reading this has seen a loved one die of cancer, seen a child a victim of suicide, seen a loved one crippled by some disease from Alzheimers to multiple sclerosis and ask the same question. Why? In his handling of people throughout the centuries, God has kept many answers from many people who wanted them. In his handling of his only Son, many answers were kept from his own mother. Don't you think with all the maternal instincts that Mary, the Mother of Christ, had that she must have wondered why her only son had to undergo an agony, a scourging, a crucifixion? The answers were not given to her and many of the answers we are looking for are not going to be given until we, like Mary, meet God face to face in the kingdom of Heaven.
If you go back to the life and times of Christ, you recall that he did not cure the problem of leprosy, the problem of disease, the problem of slavery, the problem of high unemployment. If he came to earth today and walked through the corridors of Sloan Kettering, I don't think he would cure the problem of cancer. If he walked through the rooms at St. Vincent, he would not cure all the mental and emotional problems of those who are there. There is only one place where all the problems and all the questions we have in life are going to be answered to our personal satisfaction and that place is Heaven.
In the study of the Gospels and New Testament writing, the words heaven and eternal life are mentioned six hundred and eleven different times. Considering what has been written over the centuries and up to last year on this subject of heaven, in order that each one of us has a better idea of what we are striving for, or why we are Catholics, I would like to share some thoughts about the subject of heaven from the standpoint of scripture, from the standpoint of theology and from the standpoint of psychology.
From the prophets of the Old Testament to the writers of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John give hundreds of reminders to their readers of the home that God has prepared for those who loved and served him on earth. If they are wrong, then heaven is for all practical purposes a myth. If they are right, then heaven is a place, a new form of existence, a different kind of lifestyle unlike anything we have on earth and one filled with eternal peace. Since we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, then the words of Christ, as mentioned by the sacred writers, have to be words of consolation and comfort for all of us. St. John, when describing the life that awaits us, said there will come a time when every tear will be wiped away, there will be no grief, there will be no pain. Scripture makes it very clear that heaven is not just some sort of glorified retirement home, or some joyless place. It is a place where there is a combination of joy and serenity, happiness and peace. The scripture writers were clear that any writing about the subject of heaven would be inadequate to properly describe the home that God has prepared for us. That is why St. Paul said, your eye has not seen nor ear heard those things that God has prepared for you. One time Billy Graham, the Protestant Evangelist who is a devout golfer, asked his wife if she thought there would be golf courses in heaven. And she answered, if it will add to your happiness and something that you want to do, I am sure God can make the necessary accommodations.
Every great scripture and theology man in the Church from the time of St. Jerome and St. Augustine and St. Thomas has told the followers of Christ to deepen their faith in God when things are unanswered and to deepen their hope in God when solutions are not immediate. And the reason is that faith and hope shown and exercised on earth will enable us to live the Christlike life that will lead us into the mansions that Christ talked about in heaven. Either you believe these great theologians or you do not. St. Paul was always reminding his followers about our body that is corruptible that one day will become incorruptible. One of the richest theological psalms reminding us of heaven is the beautiful psalm The Lord is my shepherd. The prayer tells us that we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever, though I walk into the valley of darkness I fear no evil, for you are with me. This was spoken to people who were oppressed and downtrodden and reminded them of the world that awaited them after they left earth.
It would be a contradiction to think that God would allow his only son to suffer and die on cross unless there were very good reasons. Yes, he died for our sins. But he also died so that Heaven could be ours. In any discussion of heaven, two other points have to be considered: the justice and mercy of God.
Concerning the justice of God, we all know there is no such thing as perfect justice on earth. It would be an unjust God that would let millions of people in India and Africa starve to death and then no do anything about their death. The justice of God, according to St. Thomas, balances things in the world to come. It would be an unjust God that would leave the homeless without any kind of hope for human life. It would be an unjust God that would say to the poor and the oppressed, there is not going to be any time in your life that you are going to have more happiness than you have now. That would not be justice on the part of God. If you look at the beatitudes, especially the first and the last, where Christ talks about the poor and those persecuted, the first and the last beatitude make it clear what God had in mind for such people. The beatitudes say, the kingdom of God is theirs.
There never was any doubt in the mind of St. Thomas that the vast majority of people who walked this earth would go to heaven. People are basically good. Concerning those who have committed serious sins and serious mistakes, and all of us fall into this category, the mercy of God is the most optimistic factor in all of Christian Theology. Parents who carry some guilt because of some sin or mistake, the mercy of God is theirs in abundance. One time Sigmund Freud said, being a parent even under the most ideal of circumstances is an impossible profession. If you really believe that the mercy of God is translated by the teaching of Christ who said we must be willing to forgive each other seventy times seven then you can imagine the kind of forgiveness and mercy that God has in store for us. Heaven is a place where the mercy of God is experienced by a person who recognizes his mistakes, put the pieces of his life back together and went on doing the best he or she could.
From the standpoint of scripture, theology, psychology and the teachings of Christ concerning the mercy and justice of God, heaven is what god has in store for all of us if we do our best to be as Christlike on earth as we humanly can.
Men like Plato, when describing life after this world, wrote about the new lifestyle that awaits us. Socrates talked about life after this that would lead to higher forms of existence. Elizabeth Barrett Browning has a beautiful line about life after this earth when she said, "I will love thee with the breath, smiles and tears of my life and if God chooses, I shall love thee better after death."
I think one of the greatest passages ever written about the life that awaits us after this world was written by Thomas Wolfe after he had written, You can't go home again. During an illness that eventually lead to his death, the 38 year old writer read the words of Christ, "come to me all you who are burdened and I will refresh you." After reflecting on these words he wrote to his friend, "before I go I have one more thing to tell you. Something has spoken to me in the middle of the night, burning the tapers of the waning years, someone has told me I am going to die. I know not when. I know not where. I have no fears for I will lose the earth you know for a place of greater knowing. I will lose the life you have for a place with a greater life. I will leave the friends you have for a place of greater knowing and greater friends. This new place, this new home, will be more kind than the earth we call home. For I will go out beyond the stars, out beyond the planet Mars and into the arms of God in the place he calls heaven."
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