Four Last Things: Part One — Heaven
In Rome, amid the district of four-star hotels, expensive restaurants and luxurious residences on Via Veneto, there resides a strange church belonging to the Capuchin Friars called Santa Maria della Concezione, popularly known as the “Bone Church.” Here, five successive chambers are decorated in carefully wrought patterns and vignettes constructed entirely of human bones and mummified corpses. Time spent in the crypt forces the pilgrim to focus on one’s death and eternity that follows. The Friars make sure the intended message is loud, clear and personal. Near one of the hewn-out little alcove chapels hangs a plaque that reads: “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.” The message that this Bone Church wants to get across in so startling a manner is all about preparation for what happens at the end of our lives: Death, Judgment, Heaven or Hell.
Heaven is our calling
Towards these last things each of us is moving every hour of the day and night. Reflecting on these ultimate realities can be troubling and even frightening. However, the Four Last Things are not meant to scare us, but rather to lead us to live more faithful, committed Christian lives. As followers of Christ, we come to see them as part of a very real and profoundly meaningful life with God that extends beyond the grave. For our lives could not be understood fully without acknowledging all four. Each reflects God’s love, mercy and justice in its particular way.
Through the Paschal Mystery of His suffering, death and Resurrection, Jesus has destroyed the power of death and opened the gates of heaven. The Resurrection of Jesus shows definitively that this world is not all there is. God is up to something greater than we may have imagined or thought possible. We begin to see this world as a place of growth and transformation toward something higher, more permanent and magnificent. The Resurrection of Jesus points us to heaven as St. Paul reminds us: “If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with Him in glory” (Col 3:1-2).
Desear el cielo es un gusto adquirido
Heaven is communion with God
What, then, is heaven? Without a doubt, heaven is a place difficult to describe. Most people’s conception of heaven is built around the sensual notion that whatever makes me happy is what heaven will be. Heaven is often thought of as a personally designed paradise where we will be happy on our own terms. But that is not heaven.
When we reflect on heaven, there is the danger of taking earthly realities and merely transferring them to heaven. The happiness of heaven cannot be compared with earthly notions. Exactly how we will be happy in heaven cannot be explained to us here; as St. Paul writes: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor 2:9).
Jesus cautioned the Sadducees, who tried to project the earthly realities of marriage and family on to heaven, with these words, “You are misled because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Mt 22:29). Therefore, what heaven is, and how it will be experienced, cannot be reduced to, or explained merely in terms of how we are happy at the present.
Heaven is the Kingdom of God in all its fullness, and its values and qualities are numerous but include many things that are not immediately desirable to those who live with hearts and minds that are worldly and sinful. In heaven, all the values of the Kingdom of God are realized, such as mercy, justice, truth, love, compassion, chastity, forgiveness and so forth. In the Gospels, Jesus speaks of heaven through images. He calls it the kingdom, a place of life, light and peace. He refers to it as a wedding feast, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem and paradise.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines heaven in this way: “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live for ever with Christ. They are like God for ever, for they ‘see Him as He is,’ face to face. … This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity — this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed — is called ‘heaven.’ Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC 1023-1024).
Since heaven is communion of life and love with the Triune God, all things in this world such as money, pleasure, power, fame, health, peace, security or worldly success can be sought after but not possessed. Only life with the Triune God is guaranteed. And only those who seek Him will find Him as Jesus has promised, “Seek and you shall find … all who seek, find” (Mt 7:7-8). Finding God is heaven and not finding Him is hell. St. Augustine affirmed this truth when he wrote, “to turn from Jesus is to fall; to turn to Him is to rise; to abide in Him is to flourish; to go out from Him is to waste away, to return back to Him is to revive, to dwell in Him is to live” (Soliloquies I, 3). Thus, man made in the image and likeness of God is hardwired for fulfillment and definitive happiness which can only be found in being with God forever, and to be caught up in the beauty of His presence and truth.
To love and desire heaven is to love and desire God. For this purpose, Christ left us His Church, like a caring mother, to teach and lead us to love the things of God. He also left us the Sacred Liturgy as a great foretaste of heaven, and His Word in Sacred Scripture as a kind of blueprint describing what He holds dear. The saints also have journeyed ahead of us to show us the way. In all of this, God gives us a kind of pedagogy of heaven.
Desiring Heaven is an ‘acquired taste’
Learning to desire and love heaven can be quite difficult. For we live in a world that is utterly upside down, a world that is not rich regarding what matters to God, a world that is obsessed over passing and trivial things and pays little attention to eternal and heavenly things. Therefore, to desire and love heaven means to be willing to go against the world’s priorities and preoccupations. To be detached from all this and learn to love heaven requires a painful journey of sacrifice and self-denial. This is why the Lord has reminded us, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Mt 7:13-14). Our hearts are disordered; we easily desire not so much those things that are good and lasting, but those that are sinful and harmful. We seek after apparent goods instead of true goods. For this reason, learning to love heaven is an “acquired taste.”
How can we begin to learn to love Heaven while still living in this earthly life? One of the many ways offered to us is by participating with faith and devotion in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. For every Mass is a great foretaste of heaven. When we walk into a church, we are surrounded by images of angels and saints, with Christ at the center in the tabernacle. When we take part in the Sacred Liturgy, candles, incense, altar, hymns that are sung, the Sanctus, the Book of the Gospels that is brought forward, the postures of kneeling or standing before the Lord — all these details are contained and described in the heavenly liturgy in the Book of Revelation.
As we continue to rejoice that our Risen Lord has conquered death, let us give our hearts to Him and pray for a deepening desire for heaven. As an old poem on the Four Last Things reminds us, “Life is short and death is sure, the hour of death remains obscure;” i.e. our desire for heaven will not automatically change at that last moment. By that time, our choice for the Kingdom of God (for heaven) or for something else will be firmly fixed. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Christ.