A few months ago, our very own Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB joined Rabbi Aaron Flazraich of Beth Sholom Synagogue and Justin Trottier of the Freethought Association of Canada, for this year’s inter-faith panel discussion from Beth Sholom in Toronto. They shared a view from earth, with a look at heaven.
If you missed it, watch a re-broadcast of this wonderful and interesting conversation tonight, Wednesday, May 23, at 8:00pm ET / 5:00pm PT. (Check our schedule for other re-broadcast times.)
To whet your palate, here is an appetizer by Fr. Rosica:
We must consider heaven with the eyes of faith. Heaven and paradise are as synonyms, a being well together, a consequence of being well with God. Heaven is communion of friends, never a boring reality, a richness enriched by others. Heaven is not a material or geographic place, it is more than a state of spirit, our spirit which is at peace with itself; it is to experience authentic peace, to live the joy of the richness of life with peace of heart. It is union with God. Heaven is not something static; even our own imagination does not understand it as something static. It is a continuous happening, a growth that advances with our call, our desires, our weaknesses themselves.
Let us consider the reality of heaven through the lenses of Sacred Scripture.
John the Baptist calls for a change of heart and conduct, a turning of one’s life from rebellion to obedience towards God. It is the only condition for recognizing the Messiah already present in the world. The kingdom of heaven is at hand: “heaven” (literally, “the heavens”) is a substitute for the name “God” that was avoided by devout Jews of the time out of reverence. The expression “the kingdom of heaven” occurs only in the gospel of Matthew. It means the effective rule of God over his people. In its fullness it includes not only human obedience to God’s word, but the triumph of God over physical evils, ultimately over death. In the expectation found in Jewish apocalyptic, the kingdom was to be ushered in by a judgment in which sinners would be condemned and perish, an expectation shared by the Baptist. This was later modified in Christian understanding where the kingdom was seen as being established in stages, culminating with the parousia (second coming) of Jesus.
Christ not only invites us to enter the Kingdom of heaven through him, he even leaves the keys to his apostles, assuring them that “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 16:18-20)
At the conclusion of Luke’s Gospel and at the beginning of his second volume of the Acts of the Apostles, we have the moving scene of Jesus’ departure from this world. The angels’ words to the “men of Galilee” in the Acts reading are piercing and loaded: “Why do you stand here looking up at the skies? This Jesus who has been taken from you will return, just as you saw him go up to the heavens.” Jesus disappears from bodily view. Only in his physical separation from the historical scene can his spiritual union with all the world for all time be complete.
The disciples are given a last bit of instruction. “Don’t keep trying to stare into the future. Don’t be overly concerned about which hour he will come back.” We must not stand idly staring up into the heavens and moaning about the past, about which we can do nothing, except to bury it deeply in God’s hands and heart! The Lord will be glorified, and it follows that his disciples will also share in his glory. Let’s get going and carry a piece of heaven into the world. This is the meaning of the Resurrection and the Ascension of our Lord, not one of divine abandonment of the human cause, but divine empowerment of the Gospel dream! Christ’s dying and rising moves us to make God’s glory and God’s heaven dwell on earth.
During the Christmas Midnight Mass at the Vatican in 2007, Pope Benedict concluded his magnificent homily with these words:
“Heaven does not belong to the geography of space, but to the geography of the heart. And the heart of God, during the Holy Night, stooped down to the stable: the humility of God is Heaven. And if we approach this humility, then we touch Heaven. Then the Earth too is made new. With the humility of the shepherds, let us set out, during this Holy Night, towards the Child in the stable! Let us touch God’s humility, God’s heart! Then his joy will touch us and will make the world more radiant.”
As he was dying in 1996, Joseph Bernardin of Chicago wrote a moving, personal testament, The Gift of Peace, that speaks so eloquently and simply about death and the afterlife:
“Many people have asked me to tell them about heaven and the afterlife. I sometimes smile at the request because I do not know any more than they do. Yet, when one young man asked if I looked forward to being united with God and all those who have gone before me, I made a connection to something I said earlier in this book. The first time I traveled with my mother and sister to my parents’ homeland of Tonadico di Primiero, in northern Italy, I felt as if I had been there before. After years of looking through my mother’s photo albums, I knew the mountains, the land, the houses, the people. As soon as we entered the valley, I said, “My God, I know this place. I am home.” Somehow I think crossing from this life into eternal life will be similar. I will be home.” [pp. 152-153]
We must not limit ourselves to look for heaven on earth in relationships we experience in the world even if they are of tremendous significance to our lives. These relationships are important, as it is important to make an effort to read the seeds of paradise and heaven now here in this life. But what counts is to understand that here on earth there are only pale reflections of those to which we are really called.