Saturday, May 3, 2008

Let us work for Heaven; all the rest is nothing.

Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 4, 2008:

This past January, my Aunt Pat, my Dad's oldest sister, passed away. I went up to Maine where she had lived for the funeral. The night before the Mass, gathered at my cousin's house, I was given a prayer card that had been in my Aunt's Bible. It contained a well-known poem often read at funeral's called "Safely Home." But, in the margins my Aunt had handwritten two notes. One said simply, "Please read this at my funeral." But on the other side she had written, "My last prayer is that you all get right with God, so I'll see you all again." My Aunt, especially as she was nearing her own death, had a mind and a heart that was fixed firmly on Heaven - and she wanted the same for all of the people she loved.

While I'm sure we all want to get to Heaven, it doesn't seem to be something most of us think about on a daily basis. This is for two reasons. First, the practical demands of life on earth tend to monopolize our attention. But this is a dangerous mistake. Jesus came to earth in order to be able to lead us to Heaven, or as we hear in the Preface of our Eucharistic Prayer today, "Where Christ has gone, we hope to follow." He died on the cross so that we could look forward to eternal life in Heaven. Heaven is the goal, the destination of our lives on earth. How foolish a traveler would be to struggle forward without ever thinking about where he is going!

But there is another reason why we don't give too much thought to Heaven: it's simply because picturing eternal life is hard for us. This is where Jesus' revelation in today's Gospel is so helpful. He tells us exactly what eternal life is: "Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one you sent, Jesus Christ."

We all know that the greatest joy of human existence, even here on earth, consists in relationships of love. What would all of the most beautiful things in the world be - the wonders of nature, the joy of children and family, beautiful works of art, even nice homes and cool cars - what would these be without others to share them with? Loving relationships make life's most ordinary activities enjoyable and meaningful.

Today Jesus is telling us that Heaven is nothing more or less than a perfect relationship of love, an everlasting getting-to-know-God, Christ, and all the saints. These relationships will never get boring or tedious, because God is infinite, and getting to know him is an adventure that will never end. If the best human friendships never lose their luster, how much more indescribable will be our eternal friendship with God, from whom all good things come!

I am a big fan of C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia series. A strong Christian, Lewis, in this series, has a beautiful way of explaining the reality of that Heavenly relationship with God. Narnia tells the story of English school children who find their way into another world where they have many adventures and go on special quests to defeat the forces of evil. All the children love Narnia, and they love their adventures there. They are always sorry to have to go back to England at the end of each adventure. At the end of the last book, however, it turns out that they don't have to go back. They are permitted to stay in "Aslan's Country," which in the books is the equivalent of Heaven, forever.

Lewis tries to describe what their lives were like from that moment on. He uses the analogy of a book, a story. Lewis writes, "But for [the children], [the end of the books] was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the title and the cover page. Now at last, they were beginning Chapter One of the great story, which no one on earth has read, which goes on forever, in which every chapter is better than the one before."

Lewis explains that compared to life in Heaven, absolutely everything that had come before, all the amazing adventures and thrilling experiences, both in this world and in Narnia, were nothing more than a hint, just barely a faint idea of how wonderful the rest of the chapters were. And life in Aslan's Country was always getting better and better, like a book with an endless amount of chapters, each one better than the last.

My friends, the eternal life that Jesus promises us is like that. An everlasting adventure that keeps getting better and better. God is the source of all the goodness and beauty we see in the universe, and so He Himself is pure, inexhaustible goodness and beauty - we never become tired of getting to know and enjoy Him.

One of the most dangerous things we can do in the spiritual life is to not think about Heaven often. After all, the less focused we are on our destination, the more likely we'll be to make a wrong turn along the way. Imagine a baseball player who never thought about the game! Imagine an actor who never thought about the performance! Imagine a businessman who never thought about the bottom line! Well, a Christian who never thinks about Heaven is equally absurd. So what can we do to keep Heaven in mind?

In his last encyclical, "Saved in Hope," Pope Benedict gave one very simple suggestion. He suggested reviving what used to be a common practice among Christians. It's the tradition of "offering up" the small trials of each day, those little sufferings, pains, and inconveniences, that we all go through all the time. We all experience them. No one escapes them. From traffic jams to money worries, the trials of daily life effect us all. "Offering them up" simply means turning them into a prayer. Instead of uselessly complaining, we turn our minds to Christ on the cross, and we unite our small sufferings with Christ's redeeming sacrifice, plugging them into God's plan of redemption.

By doing this, we defend ourselves against the lie that earth should be Heaven, and we keep our hearts set on the Lord. And if we do that, with the help of God's grace, eternal life will surely be ours.

As St. Bernadette Soubirous, the peasant girl to whom the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared at Lourdes, put it: "Let us work for Heaven: all the rest is nothing."

My friends, St. Bernadette and my Aunt Pat had it right: let us get ourselves right with God so that in the glory and complete and perfect joy that is Heaven, we will see each other again. Let us work for Heaven: all the rest is nothing.

May God give you peace.

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