Sunday: Describing Heaven to Children — and Yourself
This Sunday’s Gospel (the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A) includes several visions of heaven, and that’s a good thing. It happens every year in our confirmation class: Students tell my wife and I that they aren’t looking forward to heaven. It doesn’t sound appealing to them.
Pope Benedict has said that this view is so pervasive it is a significant reason for the loss of faith in our time.
“To continue living for ever — endlessly — appears more like a curse than a gift,” he writes in his 2007 encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope). He said it sounds “monotonous and ultimately unbearable.”
But heaven in reality is “not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction … like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists … a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.”
We won’t be strangers in heaven. It will be more like a homecoming because “the Father’s house is our homeland,” says the Catechism.
When my children ask what heaven is like, I use Jesus’ description of heaven as like a mansion, or, a dream house. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places,” he says.
Since our children have been graced with a mother who likes to tour model homes whether or not she is looking to buy one, they understand when I explain today’s readings as a tour of their heavenly dream house.
Kitchen. According to today’s first reading, the kitchen of your house in heaven is well stocked with “a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.”
Backyard. The backyard is not fenced — but that’s okay. If good fences make good neighbors here on earth, no fences make good neighbors in heaven. Says Isaiah: “He will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations.”
Grounds. The Psalm mentions more features of the mansion’s ample grounds, which include a garden with a peaceful water feature: “In verdant pastures he gives me repose; beside restful waters he leads me.”
Patio. We also have a patio area — or a barbecue deck, if you prefer. Says the Psalm: “You spread the table before me in the sight of my foes; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”
Dining Hall. In the Gospel, we have a description of a banquet room at the mansion: “Behold, I have prepared my banquet; my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready. Come to the feast.”
This can all sound very materialistic, so I remind them that if it is difficult to get a mansion on earth, it is even harder to get one of these heavenly dream houses. The difference is that we all have the ready ability to do it — if we choose to.
This Sunday’s readings also tell us what we need to do get our mansion.
Walk With God. There is no map that we can use to guide ourselves to heaven. We have to follow God step by step, turn by turn, like a GPS, always looking to him and staying in touch with him. As the Psalm puts it: “He guides me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk in the dark valley, I fear no evil; for you are at my side with your rod and your staff that give me courage.”
Love God, Not Houses. Ironically, an inordinate love for fancy houses will keep you out of the dream house the readings describe. You need to be more like St. Paul in today’s second reading: “I know how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things, I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.” So be happy with your current house — or less, if necessary. Then you will be worthy for God’s.
Frequent the Sacraments. In Jesus’ story about heaven, “he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. The king said to him, ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’” Then he has him thrown out. Heaven isn’t open to those who take the privilege lightly. You can only go there if you are willing to change your whole life for the experience. If you want to take possession of your dream house in the sky, spend your time here on earth becoming the new person in Christ God wants you to be, through prayer, the sacraments and service to others.
Ultimately, though, all of the analogies we use for heaven fall short. Suffice it to say that it will be wonderful, and that Christians who have endured unimaginable sufferings throughout the ages to get there have never been disappointed.