The following is my homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. The readings can be found here.
It’s interesting, if you think about it, that art and entertainment through the years has done more to shape our imagination about the afterlife than the actual Bible has. Really. When you think of heaven what do you think of? Puffy white clouds with a gate, angels with tiny little wings. Same goes for Hell, right? The devil is this red guy with horns and a pitchfork, surrounded by flames in the underground. Yeah… none of that is from the Bible.
The fact of the matter is that our image of the afterlife is more influenced by Dante’s Inferno, by Milton’s Paradise Lost, Groening’s The Simpsons. Okay, one of those things isn’t like the other, but I love The Simpsons’ take on heaven. There’s this one episode where Marge goes to heaven to talk to Jesus only to find out that there are two heavens: Protestant heaven, and Catholic heaven. Protestant heaven is basically British—it’s very formal, everyone has sweater vests, they’re playing badminton and croquet—while Catholic heaven is for the Irish, Italians, and Spanish—they’re drinking, singing, dancing, and fighting. It’s great. As if you needed another reason to be Catholic, our heaven is more fun than theirs.
What makes it funny is that we can see some truth in it, right? Heaven is sort of a reflection of who we are as a people, a representation of our experience on earth, a place where we would be comfortable. In most works of art, this is how heaven is portrayed: it’s the fulfillment of our desires, everything about what we are and like, only better. Our deepest fantasies are fulfilled and we can do anything we like. I think of the Robin Williams movie What Dreams May Come. In the movie, heaven is a magical, idyllic place where all you have to do is imagine something and it comes true. He runs around doing whatever he wants, creating what he wants, calling it “my heaven.” It is a reflection of who he is, a representation of his experience on earth.
At first, this might sound amazing. We might laugh at the Simpsons and find it great. But I’m not so sure. When I see images like this, I’m left wondering, is this it? As extraordinary as this conception of heaven might be—getting everything you want, a place just like our lives here—I’m left a bit empty with the idea of it. Is that all heaven is? Nothing more than a continuation of what we have here?
Our readings today suggest to us that this is far from the truth. In both our first reading and the Gospel, we hear stories teaching us that the kingdom of heaven operates a bit differently than our own world does.
In our first reading from the second book of Maccabees, we hear of a horrible situation. The Greek nation is persecuting the Jews, forcing them to abandon God, forcing them to deface themselves by breaking the Law of faith. Seven sons refuse, showing their faith in God, and so they are tortured and killed. How absolutely dreadful!
Can you imagine if heaven were just like our experience of earth, if there was still pain and suffering? We’d look around and say, is this it?
But of course it isn’t. For we learn that those who are faithful, those who endure suffering, will be raised up and live forever with God. In God, there will be no more suffering, no more pain, no more persecution. In this way, heaven is a reality quite unlike our own, one in which the just are glorified, in which the righteous live forever to worship God.
What wonderful hope this is for those who suffer in this world!
In our Gospel we hear a similar message, although it may sound strange to us at first. A woman marries seven different brothers and then dies herself, ending up in heaven. The Sadducees ask Jesus who’s wife will she be and he says none of them, for there is no marriage in heaven. For those who are happily married, those who feel called to the vocation of marriage, this might sound very strange, even saddening. Why would Jesus say this? Well, remember what marriage was like in Jesus’ day. It was not romantic, had nothing to do with soulmates. Sure, there was love, but marriage was about ownership. Women were the property of men. Alone, they had no rights, could make no decisions, held no property. They were themselves property. Seven times this woman was passed from man to man, needing protection, needing rights.
Can you imagine if heaven were just like our experience of earth, if there was still oppression and dominance of others? We’d look around and say, is this it?
But of course it isn’t. In heaven, there is no giving or taking in marriage. In other words, there is no giving or taking of people as property. Everyone exists as children of God, equal and loved by God. There is no more oppression or ownership, no more second class statuses or forced subservience. In this way, heaven is a reality quite unlike our own, one in which all have a place at the table, all can glorify God in themselves.
What wonderful hope this is for those who are oppressed in this world!
What our readings teach us of today is that there is far more to heaven than our projection, that heaven is not merely a continuation of our life on earth. As much as we can watch The Simpsons and laugh, as much as we can watch What Dreams May Come with wonder, they are nothing compared to what we should expect.
And yet, that’s not to say that heaven and earth are completely separate from each other either. Too often, again, shaped by images of entertainment, we have this idea that heaven is a far off reality, a place completely separate from our own. And in one sense, it sort of it. But remember what Jesus says throughout the Gospels: “the kingdom of God is at hand.” Not, on the other side of the veil. Not completely distant from us today. At hand. The kingdom that we seek, the one without pain or suffering, without oppression and dominance, that kingdom is inbreaking. It’s not fully here, but it’s on its way. Our world today is being transformed by that kingdom, ever renewed and made to look more like it. Even before we die we can have a taste, a peak, an experience of that reality that we hope for in full one day.
We see it, as I always say, in this celebration. This is a taste of heaven, right now what we are doing. Receiving the body and blood of Christ, singing praises to God, being renewed and transformed. This is completely otherworldly, a transcendent experience of heaven right here in our world.
But it’s not just here. It’s found anywhere Christ is found, where love overflows. It’s found in the self-sacrifice of parents who give of themselves to take away the suffering of their children; in volunteers at soup kitchens who feed people who are poor, who encounter the suffering servant themselves and care for them; in those who advocate for the rights of migrants and refugees, who defend the lives of those on death row, who offer aid to pregnant mothers unsure of how to handle what they’re going through. Wherever we see the love of Christ, wherever we see people acting not of this world but of God’s world, we are not just reminded of Jesus’ words, but we experience a taste of what he talks about.
Do you ever stop to think about that? Do you ever step back in the midst of something truly wonderful—an act of love, a beautiful sacrifice, the work of peace and justice, mercy and reconciliation—and realize, this is it? This is what I’m looking for. This is what I want with my whole heart. This is what I want for all eternity.
The answer we seek is not in The Simpsons and it is not in What Dreams May Come. Sometimes, it’s right in front of us, right in our midst, calling us to something different. Jesus invites us not only to seek the kingdom of God in the future, but right here in our present. Find it, announce it to others, and do everything you can to build it up.