Homilies for November 2019

Painting of Christ blessing, by Gallego

For All Saints, All Souls, November 3, November 10, November 17, and Christ the King.

Solemnity of All Saints – November 1, 2019

  Readings: Rv 7:2–4, 9–14 • Ps 24:1bc–4ab, 5–6 • 1 Jn 3:1–3 • Mt 5:1–12a
  usccb.org/bible/readings/110119.cfm

Becoming Like Christ, According to His Call

Saint Augustine has referred to the Sermon on the Mount, of which the Beatitudes we’ve just heard form the first part, as the “charter of the whole Christian life.” Pope Benedict XVI teaches that the Beatitudes, taken together like so many brushstrokes, form a picture for us of Jesus Christ. And to this extent it needs to be said that the call to holiness we all share demands that we strive to live all of the Beatitudes. We can’t pick some and ignore others, or the picture of Christ in us will be distorted.

At the same time, the exact composition of the Beatitudes will be different in each of us. The Church’s roster of saints, the whole of which we celebrate on today’s solemnity, is proof of this. Today’s First Reading from the Book of Revelation presents us with “a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” This text points to the wondrous variety of of the saints.

But the variety of their vocations also distinguishes the saints. All of them — the glorious company of apostles, the noble fellowship of prophets, the white-robed army of martyrs, and so on — lived all of the Beatitudes. But they did so with varying degrees of emphasis depending upon their various vocations.

Going back to St. Augustine for a moment, you may remember from his Confessions that he wanted to go into contemplative life after the ideal of Greek philosophy, but was called forth by the bishop of Hippo and “constrained to receive ordination.” Augustine wrote in the Confessions, “Terrified by my sins and the weight of my misery, I had resolved in my heart, and meditated flight into the wilderness; but you forbade me and gave me strength, by saying: ‘Christ died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died’ (cf. 2 Cor 5:15).”

And the vocations of the saints aren’t only different in the most basic way, that some were priests, some religious, some rulers of nations, some parents, martyrs, virgins, etc. The details of their lives were also very different from each other, and that’s where I want to zoom in and sharpen the focus on our own lives.

We are each called by God to some particular vocation, and even compared with others who share our vocation, it will take a somewhat different shape in each of our lives. Which is to say that the call to become a saint will take a somewhat different shape in each of our lives.

For each of us, the path to sainthood involves not just in doing what is good, but in doing precisely the good thing God chooses for us. This is the daily path of sanctity down which we need to walk, step by step, day by day, choice by choice.

And notice that Augustine discovered God’s will through the direction of his bishop. Such is the life of every Christian, a life of obedience. In my life as a priest, for example, it is very often my superior whose voice tells me the difference between all the good things I might do and the specific good thing God is calling me to do right here and now. Or, to employ the language of the Society of Jesus, we might ask, “What is ad majorem Dei gloriam (for the greater glory of God) for me right now?”

As in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass we share in the heavenly banquet of all the saints, may God give us the grace to know the next good thing he is calling us to do, and the faith, hope, and love to do that next thing. And the next one after that. And the next one after that.

Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed
(All Souls) – November 2, 2019

  Readings: Wis 3:1–9 • Ps 23:1–6 • Rom 5:5–11 (or Rom 6:3–9) • Jn 6:37–40
  usccb.org/bible/readings/110219.cfm

Dying and Rising in Union with Christ

If you aren’t nerdy enough to read both The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and also the appendices to the books, then you aren’t nerdy enough. I’m kidding, of course, but it is true that the appendices contain some great stuff, including one of the most poignant death-scenes I know of in literature.

One of the heroes of the story, King Aragorn, is dying after a long and a good life. His wife Arwen is with him as he’s dying, but she doesn’t really understand what’s going on because she is an elf, and in the story elves are an immortal race of beings. So, Aragorn explains to her that his death is not the absolutely bleak doom it seems to be:

In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold, we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory, Farewell.

On today’s commemoration of All Souls Day, we would do well to consider together what this “more than memory” is and how we get there. Death is the one thing every sane person must agree is a certainty of life. They say “death and taxes,” but there are some people who (wrongly) evade their taxes. No one escapes death. And yet many of us seem to avoid thinking very much about death, about what it really is, about that to which death leads, and about what all of this means for how we ought to live now.

What is death? It’s a great mystery. But by “mystery,” we do not mean it is just a question mark or a riddle. To the Christian, a mystery is always something true, but it is also something we know only partially. We can grow in our knowledge of a mystery, and we should, but there will always be a mix of light and shadow, some things revealed to us, and some things concealed.

What we know most clearly, perhaps, is how we feel about death. We feel scared to think about our own deaths or the future deaths of people we love, and we feel great sorrow when someone we love has already died. We might go along okay for a while not thinking of death, but then from time-to-time we come to a moment when the reality of death just hits us, and we can’t ignore it any more. We shouldn’t run away from these moments, but see them as gifts given by God so that we can understand not only death, but life.

How does understanding death help us to understand life? For centuries, many have said that knowing we will die helps us appreciate life, to treasure the gift of our lives each day. I don’t believe the Greek poet Homer ever wrote the following lines, but the 2004 film Troy, loosely based on Homer’s Iliad, places them on the lips of the hero, Achilles:

I’ll tell you a secret. Something they don’t teach you in your temple.

The gods envy us.

They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed.

There’s something to this view, of course. The very fact of death tells us that our lives are limited, and when something is limited we tend to appreciate it more than if we have an infinite amount of it. Each day is truly a gift.

But there is another and more important way that understanding death is really about understanding life. Today’s readings point the way for us, from the very first words of the First Reading: “The souls of the just are in the hand of God.” When at death the spiritual dimension of who we are, our souls, separate from our bodies, they do not simply float off “somewhere.” When we die we meet God; we are held in His hand.

Today’s Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 23, is the scripture read in practically every Western movie I’ve ever seen when cowboys bury their comrades on the trail. In one Western I saw several years ago, a cowboy called upon to think of a scripture didn’t have a Bible, and he couldn’t think of anything except that there was a scripture “about them green pastures.” Psalm 23 is so popular because it so beautifully reminds us that we are not lost, in life or in death, unless we choose to be lost. Jesus is our Good Shepherd, Who leads us through “the dark valley” to Himself, the Light of the World and of the world to come.

Saint Paul reminds us in today’s Second Reading that the security we have in the face of death is not of our own doing. “While we were still helpless,” St. Paul writes, “. . . while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” We are “justified by his Blood,” and “saved through him from the wrath” of sin and death. We have been “reconciled to God through the death of his Son.” Any confidence we have about our beloved dead, any confidence we have as we consider our own future deaths, comes from our faith in the power of Jesus’s death and resurrection. The Eucharist, given when someone is dying, is called viaticum, or “food for the journey,” precisely because it makes present to us the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, Whom we take into ourselves so that we can share in His victory over death.

Here we have a point of connection with today’s Gospel. Just before Jesus speaks about the Eucharist as the Bread of Life in chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, Jesus makes clear that it is His mission to bring the gift of salvation, that He came to do the Father’s will, and not to lose anyone who “sees the Son and believes in him.” Again, our total reliance upon Jesus for any hope we have for life after death is made perfectly clear in this passage.

Let’s think about this in the context of our funeral rituals. A generation or two ago, when a Catholic died a Requiem Mass was offered for the repose of the person’s soul. Black vestments were worn by the priest, most of the congregation would wear black, and the music was very ancient and written in the form of prayers that pleaded with God for mercy. These rites inspired a great deal of awe in the people. It was all very solemn, and very powerful. Today, our Funeral Mass is most often celebrated with white vestments — though I should point out that the priest even today has the option to wear black or violet — and we typically sing comforting hymns such as “Be Not Afraid.” So which approach was correct?

I hope we can see that they are both correct, and that there can be distortions to either approach. We can become too fearful and sorrowful in the face of death, on the one hand, and we can become too casual and superficial in dealing with death, on the other hand. What the Church’s funeral rites call for is hope without presumption, confidence in the saving power of God without a flippant sense that heaven is the automatic destination for every person. We need to stand in awe before God, but also to know that we are His beloved children.

Today, the more common problem is in our tendency to become presumptuous, to see going to heaven as automatic regardless of how a person lived or whether he believed in Jesus Christ or not. I’m not saying we can never speak as if a deceased family member or friend was in heaven, but I do notice that this is almost the only way people talk about those who have died.

Just one problem with that approach is that you strip away any motivation to pray for the dead. If your Aunt Petunia is already in heaven, then why pray for her? She already has exactly what we would be praying for! I certainly hope that when I die you will pray for me! I hope no one holds back their prayers out of a sense that I’ve already gone to heaven.

The vast majority of those who go to heaven do so by way of Purgatory, where God prepares us to meet Him face-to-face. Very few of us have died in such a state of holiness that we are perfectly ready to meet the all-holy God, and so we need purification, to become totally detached from sin. Our prayers help those who have died through this experience of purification, and so praying for the dead is an essential act of Christian charity, of love for them.

There is also a trend today towards becoming very casual, and kind of superficial, about how we react to death. A few years ago, I read an article about a funeral home in Michigan offering drive-through visitation for those, I suppose, who would find the inconvenience of parking the car and walking into the funeral home to be just too much.

We Catholics have not gone that far in allowing convenience to trump every other consideration, but things are moving in that direction. Shorter times of visitation, celebrating the Rite of Christian Burial Outside of Mass when a Mass could be celebrated, and a general sense that we “don’t want to make a fuss” over death are becoming more and more common today.

If there is one time in our lives to “make a fuss,” it’s when our lives come to an end! It is our duty and privilege to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for our beloved dead, to pray for them and spiritually accompany them into the hands of our heavenly Father. Jesus has won eternal life for us, but He gives us a role to play in helping each other receive this gift and say “yes” to it. The funeral vigil, Mass, and committal all play a role in commending a soul to God and helping us remember the reason for our hope and consolation.

Finally, the Christian understanding of death tells us something about how we are to live today. If in our dying we seek to be in union with Jesus, so that we might share in His rising to new life, then it is also the case that we need to live in union with Jesus now. We cannot presume that union with Christ will be established at death, if we did not stay faithful to the union with Him forged when we were baptized.

Remember the Gospel: “everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life” (emphasis added). We are not on this earth just to do our own thing. And if we do our own thing, ignoring or rejecting Jesus, during our lives, what do we think will happen when we come before Him after we die?

Let’s not find out! As Jesus becomes present to us in the Bread of Life, let’s take this opportunity to tell Him once again that we believe in Him, that we are ready to live in union with Him, and that we hope to die in union with Him, so that we can share His life forever.

And for those who have already died, we pray, “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen. May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 3, 2019

  Readings: Wis 11:22—12:2 • Ps 145:1–2, 8–11, 13–14 • 2 Thes 1:11—2:2 • Lk 19:1–10
  usccb.org/bible/readings/110319.cfm

The Hound of Heaven

The poem “The Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson very beautifully and powerfully tells the story of a spiritual pursuit involving an individual person and God. Perhaps the greatest “surprise” of the poem is that it is not about the person pursuing God, but rather about God relentlessly pursuing one single person, even a person who has fled from God. The language of the poem is a little difficult, but it begins this way:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him and, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
and unperturbed pace,
deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat — and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet —
“All things betray thee, who bestrayest Me.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus answers the challenge of the crowd by saying that He, “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” In Jesus Christ, we see that the Son of God is the “Hound of Heaven.” Although He enjoyed a perfect life in heaven, out of love He chose to become one of us in order to save us from sin and death.

And we see in today’s Gospel Jesus’s personal touch. Jesus not only came to save all of us, but also each of us, including Zacchaeus in today’s Gospel.

Now, Zacchaeus may not be exactly like the person described as fleeing from God in the poem “The Hound of Heaven.” After all, Zacchaeus clearly wanted to see Jesus, and even acts with some ingenuity in order to overcome the problem of his, well, to put it delicately, “vertical under-enhacement,” as he climbs up the tree in order to see Jesus. But we should also remember that Zacchaeus, like all of us, was certainly a sinner in some ways, and as a tax collector it is likely that he was involved in more sins than he might have been otherwise, since tax collection at that time was a relatively corrupt profession.

There is another passage from “The Hound of Heaven” that captures the moment of encounter with God after the flight of sin is ended, one that shows the poverty of sin giving way to total surrender to God. Here God addresses the sinner in the following words:

All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!

Beginning with his climb up the tree, and then with his coming down at the call of Jesus, his welcoming of Jesus into his home, his pledge to turn his life around and to make up for his past mistakes, and his commitment to live a godly life, we see Zacchaeus doing exactly what God tells the sinner to do in the poem: he clasps God’s hand, the hand stretched out to rescue him.

Many of us, at some point in our lives, have fled from God. And I would venture to say that many of us can point to one or a few significant moments when we were aware of God stretching out His hand to rescue us from what Scripture calls “the pit of destruction.” We should thank God repeatedly for saving us. And from time to time we should remember the very real spiritual danger we were in.

Also, undoubtedly, each of us is close to some people who are fleeing from God right now, who like Zacchaeus cannot see Christ but who may or may not be interested enough to climb the tree in order to see Him. Here we need to shift from placing ourselves in the position of Zacchaeus to the position of a member of the crowd.

We read in the Gospel that Zacchaeus could not see Jesus because of the crowd. We should ask ourselves: is there something about me that blocks other people’s view of Jesus Christ? Each of us is called to be another Christ in the world, to make Christ known to other people. And yet how often do we hear stories about someone who left the Church years ago because someone in the Church treated them badly?

I am very conscious as a priest that, while I need to be a strong leader, I never want to become the subject of the story someone tells twenty years from now about the last time he or she entered a Catholic Church. And so we all need to be careful that we are attracting people to Christ, not repelling them by our unkindness.

Now, being kind does not mean we compromise on the truth of our faith, or that we fail to correct and challenge people when needed. I also don’t mean to say that people have a good excuse for leaving the Church because of someone’s unkindness. Rather, the call of the Gospel is that we are responsible for radiating the love of Christ to other people, even when we challenge them. And all of us are responsible for having the determination of Zacchaeus, determination not to let obstacles keep us from seeking Christ and clasping His hand when He reaches out to save us.

The point of all of this is simple. Jesus has come to us because we could never have gone to Him on our own. He is the “Hound of Heaven,” who has come to seek and to save all who are lost. What we need is to “clasp (God’s) hand” by faithfully participating in the life of the Church, so that we might hear some of the sweetest words imaginable, words that echo the message of Jesus in today’s Gospel: “Today salvation has come to this house.” Today salvation has come to you.

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Nov. 10, 2019

  Readings: 2 Mc 7:1–2, 9–14 • Ps 17:1, 5–6, 8, 15 • 2 Thes 2:16—3:5 • Lk 20:27–38 (or Lk 20:27, 34–38)
  usccb.org/bible/readings/111019.cfm

Living and Dying for Heaven

“You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying.”
2 Maccabees 7:9

The Old Testament is filled with examples of fidelity to the Lord, but the story of the Maccabees gives us a rare example of what it means to live not for this world but for the life to come. Other heroes of the Old Testament put their faith in God and His promises, but generally with a view to the fulfilment of those promises here on earth. The Maccabees testify that they are prepared to die not because they foresee some great earthly outcome, but because they believe in the promise of life after death.

One of the ways to understand the Old Testament is to see in its stories a series of “types” pointing to their fulfillment in Christ and in the life of the Church. In the Maccabees, we see a “type” of fidelity to the promise of resurrection. Their faith is strong enough that they willingly face torture and death at the hands of unbelievers. What their witness demonstrates partially is completely fulfilled in the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that definitive fulfilment is echoed and reechoed in the witness of all the Church’s martyrs, down to the present day.

Our tradition recognizes martyrdom as paradigmatic for the whole Christian life. Although most Christians are not called upon to give their lives for Christ through the shedding of their blood, every disciple ought to be prepared to do so. And every Christian must exercise that self-sacrificial love than which there can be no greater form of love (see Jn 15:13).

A simple way to examine our own lives is simply to ask, “What sacrifices is God calling me to make for His sake, out of love for Him and for my neighbor?” We might then ask, “Am I making these sacrifices? Am I doing so in a spirit of joy and peace, or grudgingly? Is there anything I ought to do to make a more complete, perfect, and wholehearted sacrifice of my life for God?”

The practicalities of this examination will obviously vary quite a bit from person to person. I might be called to sacrifice more for my family, in my prayer, in my generosity to the poor and suffering, or in my work. Each person’s situation, strengths, and weaknesses are different, and so the next steps on the path of discipleship will somewhat different for each person. But in a world that emphasizes perpetual self-indulgence, it is essential that every Christian make such an examination regularly and discover what those next steps are for him or her.

Living self-sacrificial love, living for heaven, also requires a spiritual outlook. All of life must be viewed through the lens of our faith in Christ. Saint Paul writes in Romans 12:1-2: “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.”

In this brief exhortation, St. Paul joins the sacrifice of the body with the renewal of the mind and heart. The spirit of the martyr is one that is utterly centered on God and on His promises to those who are faithful. This complete focus on God is what equips a Christian to offer his or her body in sacrifice.

Last month, we celebrated the feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of the Church’s earliest martyrs. Saint Ignatius exemplified the clear focus of the faithful Christian on Christ and the promise of heaven. He writes in his own letter to the Christian community at Rome: “No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire.”

The Holy Eucharist we celebrate and receive in the Sacrifice of the Mass is what Pope Benedict XVI has called the food of martyrs (2007 Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, par. 85). The Eucharist transforms us so that our minds and hearts become more set on God and His will for us. The Sacrament also draws us into closer union with Christ and prepares us to imitate His self-emptying love by filling us with that love. His broken Body and spilled Blood are the Sacrifice of our salvation, and make us ready to give our bodies and our very lives in service of God and neighbor.

A reward as great as eternal life with God in heaven is worth any cost. May the good Lord renew in us a strong faith in the promise of heaven, as well as a total commitment to making any sacrifice asked of us on our pilgrimage through this world and into the world to come.

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Nov. 17, 2019

  Readings: Mal 3:19–20a • Ps 98:5–9 • 2 Thes 3:7–12 • Lk 21:5–19
  usccb.org/bible/readings/111719.cfm

Perseverance in Grace Is the Way to Heaven

Several years ago, I used to see a series of commercials on cable advertising gold as a lucrative investment opportunity. The pitch was that gold is a solid, reliable commodity. National currencies, which have derivative value, were presented in at least one commercial as being “unreliable.”

Whether these advertisements were accurate or not, they do give us an analogy to help us understand the Christian life. The culturally savvy among you will remember the 1980s Tears for Fears anthem, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and its lyric, “Nothing ever lasts forever.”

The assertion that nothing lasts forever is nearly true! The things of this world are temporary and finite, no matter how powerful they appear to be. Take the Roman Empire as an example. Rutilius Namatianus, a Roman poet of the mid-fourth century, wrote of the world’s greatest city, “No man will ever be safe if he forgets you; May I praise you still when the sun is dark. To count up the glories of Rome is like counting the stars in the sky.” Just about a half-century later, after the Visigoths sacked and occupied Rome, St. Jerome wrote, “It is the end of the world. Words fail me. My sobs break in . . . The city which took captive the whole world has itself been captured.”

Destruction, decay, and death. These are the inevitable fates of all that is earthly. “Sic transit gloria mundi” (“So passes the glory of the world”) was a Roman proverb for precisely this reason. The inevitable conclusion for all thinking people is that we cannot live for this world, trusting in its power or endurance. So, where do we turn?

Faith tells us that the answer is Christ. As the Second Vatican Council and Pope St. John Paul II teach us, Christ is the answer to which every human life is the question. His grace, divine life and power at work in us, is the only “commodity” on which we can rely with absolute trust.

This message of God’s grace is at the heart of Jesus’s preaching, from the Sermon on the Mount to the eschatological discourses, one of which we hear in today’s Gospel. Today, we heard Christ teach that the Temple, which was the locus of God’s presence par excellence, would not last. Human relationships often fail. The very world itself will end. But the power of Christ endures. He gives his followers life, power, his words of truth, the strength to persevere, and the promise of sharing in God’s life forever.

Grace is the “solid commodity” upon which we can safely stake our lives. But what is God’s grace?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 1996–2005), grace is the gift of God’s own life, the life of His Holy Spirit within us. Grace justifies us, putting us into a right relationship with God and equipping us to respond positively to His invitation to live as His adopted sons and daughters. We do not earn God’s grace; it is a freely given gift. God lavishes His grace upon us out of the sheer gratuity of His love for us.

Grace is given in Baptism, strengthened in the Eucharist, restored in confession. In His fidelity, God never withdraws His grace from us if we do not forfeit it by sin. The life of grace is the treasure in the field, the pearl of great price to which Jesus refers in the Gospel. It is that for which any sacrifice is worthwhile.

Grace is also a “game changer” for every Christian. It changes our way of seeing and thinking, of choosing and acting. A positive response to God’s grace necessarily involves that we embark wholeheartedly on a new life, on the adventure of Christian discipleship.

Finally, grace prepares us for the “day of the Lord,” that future day when God will manifest His power over all creation and Christ will come again in glory. It is God’s grace that allows us to live in such a way that we can meet the day of the Lord with confidence and hope, rather than fear and despair.

In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, a supernova of God’s grace is unleashed on the altar and given to us as Food and Drink. In every celebration of the Holy Eucharist, we pray that God will strengthen in us the power of His life, so that we might never lose heart, but persevere to the end, and enjoy true life with Him forever.

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ,
King of the Universe – November 24, 2019

  Readings: 2 Sm 5:1–3 • Ps 122:1–5 • Col 1:12–20 • Lk 23:35–43
  http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/112419.cfm

With Jesus in Paradise

The Catholic Church has a code of law called the Code of Canon Law, which is the oldest currently functioning legal system in the world. You can find the whole Code of Canon Law in one large volume, and at the end of that volume you’ll find Canon 1752, which tells us that “the supreme law of the Church” is “the salvation of souls.” Every law of the Church — from laws concerning the way we celebrate the sacraments, to those which govern the way priests lead parishes, to laws about how the Church handles her material resources — is subordinate to this one great priority: that we go to heaven, that we’re saved from hell, and sin, and death.

Our desire for salvation, our own salvation and that of every living person, ought to shape everything we do in the Church. Think about life here in the parish: Why is it that we come together to worship? Why do we have a parish school and a religious education program? Why do we do Christian service? Why do we bother with parish council meetings, and sports, and even coffee and doughnuts? Because we want to go to heaven! And we want to help other people to go to heaven! Yes, there are other important reasons we do things. We want to serve others and make life better in our community, of course. But an even more basic reason for all that we do is that each one of these activities brings us a step closer to heaven.

Yet how often do we think about salvation? How often would you say you think about heaven or hell? After all, heaven is the destiny we want for ourselves and for other people. And it stands to reason that thinking about heaven more often and more clearly will help us to get there. Or, as one author puts it, “The love of heaven makes one heavenly.”

Today, we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, and that always makes me think of my own baptism in Christ the King Church in Detroit. The first day we begin to taste heaven is the day of our baptism, when the life of heaven is literally poured into us. The pouring of water is a symbol, and the reality to which that symbol points is the gift of the Holy Spirit being poured into our hearts. In Baptism, we are immersed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are freed from Original Sin and from eternal death. We are made God’s children and, as St. Paul tells us in Philippians 3:20, we become citizens of heaven. In other words, heaven is not first a prize to be won, but a gift given and received.

Heaven is a gift we receive, but that receiving is not a merely passive activity. In that sense heaven is a prize to be won by our cooperation with God’s gift. And while we become citizens of heaven, we are not the rulers of heaven, of our lives, or of our destinies. Jesus Christ is our King, and the Sacrament of Baptism comes with a call to live actively as servants of the one King of the Universe. Too often we treat Jesus as if He were merely a “member of Congress,” one voice among many competing in our hearts. The true Christian wants Jesus to be enthroned in his heart as King, ruling his thoughts, words, and actions. As Americans we chafe at the idea of obedience to one ruler, but that is because we’re dealing with flawed, earthly rulers. Jesus is God. He is perfect. And He always does what it best for us, what will bring us to heaven with Him.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus is not only a King Who rules and judges but also a Shepherd Who leads us and guides us through all the challenges and sorrows of this life. Jesus comes to find us when we are lost, brings back those who have strayed from Him, and He heals the injured and sick. Those who think of themselves as so strong that they don’t need Jesus are destroyed, just as those who don’t bother to love Jesus in the poor and afflicted of this world will be condemned at the Last Judgment. Heaven is eternal life with God, and if we live here on earth as if we don’t need God, or don’t need to imitate the love of Christ, then we cannot expect to live with God forever. Salvation is about grace, not magic, and grace needs to be received willingly.

So what will heaven be like? Of course we don’t know exactly, but sometimes we veer off to the other extreme and act as if we can’t know anything about heaven. Then we’re only one step away from thinking of heaven as something like “that big golf course in the sky,” which sounds like heaven to some, purgatory to others, and hell to those like me who can never control their slice. Whatever we can say about heaven, it will be completely beyond what we experience as life here on earth. It will be like being born from our mother’s womb into the wide world, and even more dramatic than that.

In heaven we will finally know perfectly what it is to be loved and to love. We will never be bored. Heaven is not about sitting on clouds plucking harps like the chubby cherubs in Renaissance paintings. That is only a symbol of the perfect rest and peace the angels and saints experience in heaven. We will be surrounded by holiness and love, by angels and humans who love God and each other totally. There will be no hatred, violence, anger or anxiety. No one will ever sin or even be tempted to sin.

But the peace of heaven is not just about the absence of conflict and evil; it also means that we will be perfectly fulfilled and content. Every longing of our hearts will be satisfied, because every longing of our hearts will really be about one longing: the desire for God. And in heaven we will finally meet God face-to-face. St. John tells us in his First Letter (3:2): “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

Jesus Himself tells us in John’s Gospel (14:2–3): “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.” To live in heaven is not just to be “somewhere up in the sky”, but to live in God’s very household, to see Him face-to-face. In the Old Testament, we read that no human can see God’s face and live (Ex 33:20), but in Baptism and the Holy Eucharist we are made more than human. Baptism makes us “other Christs” in the world, and the Holy Eucharist continues to transform us, to make us less and less earthly, and more and more heavenly, if we will just cooperate.

The British author C.S. Lewis once wrote that for many of us, the way we currently live, so attached to earthly pleasures, the joys of heaven would be an acquired taste. The Christian life is about acquiring a taste for heaven now, about becoming heavenly now, about making sure we never take heaven for granted. As He reigns from the Cross in today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the good thief, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”

This good thief, St. Dismas, inherits the Kingdom because he turns to Christ for mercy and forgiveness. He cooperates with God’s grace. May the Holy Eucharist we receive in the Sacrifice of the Mass help us to say “yes” to Jesus, to love as He loves, to bring some portion of heaven here to earth, so that we and many others can go from earth to heaven, to live with our King forever.

Fr. Charles Fox About Fr. Charles Fox

Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit, Michigan. Ordained to the priesthood in 2006, Fr. Fox serves on the faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He also serves as chaplain of the St. Paul Evangelization Institute, an international institute of evangelization-related apostolates, including St. Paul Street Evangelization. He holds a doctoral degree in dogmatic theology from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome.

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