May 6, 2016

He Ascended into Heaven


Not so long ago, I had the opportunity, a privilege, to offer the graveside prayers at our Catholic cemetery in San Diego. Founded in 1919, and located east of downtown San Diego, it is 40 acres of holy ground. In its 95 year history over 65,000 individuals have been buried in its consecrated soil or interned in or around the chapel.  One day, after I have breathed my last, I hope to have my body also buried in its holy ground in a section reserved for priests.  There, my body will wait for the final day where I will rise again. It is my hope that I will be in good company! But what will I see?


Many of us have a very poor imagination about the "afterlife". We often talk about our souls going to heaven, gladly leaving behind a world of pain and suffering. Death becomes for many the way to escape from all our burdens, from the cruelty and injustices of this world. We sometimes say that someone has "gone to a better place".  We are often tempted to imagine heaven and earth as two different locations - one place is spiritual where everything is eternal, and the other is physical where in time things get older and eventually decay and crumble.


But it may come to you as a surprise, that nowhere in the Bible does it actually say that after our death, our souls go on to another world and there, in that other place, we live on as spiritual beings for all of eternity.


Even though, the Gospel tells us that Jesus, resurrected from the dead in a glorified body and after forty days is lifted up into heaven beyond our sight, the message given to us is not that we are to wait it out on earth and then "jump ship" to follow him to the better place of heaven.  Instead, we are told, wait "here" on "this" earth - wait "here" because He will be returning.  And when He has returned, what will He bring? He will bring heaven.


Just when we think that we have to wait for this to happen sometime in the future, and in the meantime learn and practice the Ten Commandments and be good so that one day we can "graduate" from boot camp and move up to the next level - the Good News of Jesus Christ is that He is already bringing heaven to earth, right now, right before our eyes even though we might not be able (at this time) to always see it.


If we have the Spirit of Jesus breathing through every cell of our body, does not our faith assure us that somehow we are already living life "on earth as it is in heaven"?   When we enter into the Sacraments of the Church and encounter Christ's true and substantial presence in the Eucharist, are not heaven "and" earth  full of His glory"?  When we live Christ's Sermon on the Mount and embrace the Beatitudes in our everyday lives, we do not pray "get me out of here"! We instead say, "Thy Kingdom come".


Yes, of course there is a difference between heaven and earth, and at times they can seem so far apart. But that's not God's doing. That's ours! We push heaven and earth away from each other 
- when we concentrate on spiritual needs and neglect physical needs, or the other way around 
- when we are more interested in doing good things at the expense of being good ourselves 
- when we are all faith and no works, or all busy without allowing God's grace to keep us humble.

Hell is the stomping ground of  "Jackal and Hyde". Heaven is the perfect union of the human and the divine in one person.  That person of course is Christ himself. And where is He to be found? [Hint: "The Lord be with you...  And...] Can I say with St. Paul, "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me". And can I hear Christ say, "as long as you did it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me?"

So after I die and my mortal remains are laid to rest, and then in the twinkling of an eye, I rise up from my grave in a new and glorified body, what will I hope to see? I look forward to a new heaven and a new earth, recognizable from the tiny glimpses I have already been privileged to see (through little slits in the vale) - of a paradise restored - as it was in the beginning, is now and ever will be, a world without end. Amen.

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