Will Marriages Be Acknowledged in Heaven?

I am often approached by widows and widowers after the death of a spouse with a question similar to this one, which was submitted to me at my “Question and Answer” column in Our Sunday Visitor.

I recently lost my husband of 46 years and long to be reunited with him one day. But some people have told me that our marriage ended with his death and that Jesus says we will not be married or considered spouses in heaven. This is difficult for me to understand. Will we even know each other in heaven or have anything special there between us?

One can certainly hear the pain in her question. It is perhaps a needless pain, born out of an unnecessarily strict reading of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus was responding to a hypothetical question posed by the Sadducees about a woman who had been married to seven different brothers and bore no children to any of them. They raise this not so much as a marriage question but as a way to make the teaching of the resurrection appear ludicrous. Jesus sets aside their argument in the following way:

Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him and put this question to him, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us, ‘If someone’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, his brother must take the wife and raise up descendants for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers. The first married a woman and died, leaving no descendants. So the second married her and died, leaving no descendants, and the third likewise. And the seven left no descendants. Last of all the woman also died. At the resurrection, whose wife will she be? For all seven had been married to her.”

Jesus said to them, “Are you not mistaken because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. Instead, they will be like the angels in heaven. As for the dead being raised, have you not read about the burning bush in the Book of Moses, how God told him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living. You are badly mistaken” (Mk 12:18-27).

The Sadducees posed this not so much as a question about marriage but as a way to make the teaching of the resurrection seem ridiculous.

The first thing to note is that Jesus speaks of marriage only in a passing way. His response to the question about the highly unlikely scenario is designed to teach solemnly on the reality of the resurrection of the dead. In His response, Jesus does not fully develop a teaching on the experience of spouses toward each other in Heaven.

Hence, we ought not to conclude that a long marriage in this world will have no meaning at all in the age to come. In heaven our body and our soul will be perfected. So, too, our fundamental relationships, both spousal and familial. They will not be discarded or simply forgotten. Surely those who are spouses here will experience a far more perfect union in Heaven. They will enjoy mutual understanding, love, appreciation, and spiritual intimacy far greater than they could even imagine. They will have this because they have it first and foremost with God; and with, in, and through God they will enjoy this perfected union with each other. The same would be true of our other familial relationships and bonds of friendship, to each according to what is proper and perfect. The married will enjoy this supremely, because marital bonds on earth receive special divine graces.

The early Church writer Tertullian affirms this view:

All the more shall we be bound to our departed spouses because we are destined to a better estate … to a spiritual partnership …. Consequently, we who are together with God shall remain together…. In eternal life God shall no more separate those he has joined together than in this life where he forbids them to be separated (Tertullian, On Monogamy, 10).

To be sure, some aspects of marriage do end with the death of a spouse. The marital vows that bind the couple to an exclusive relationship, forsaking all others, are only operative until death do them part. Thus, the death of a spouse permits the surviving spouse to marry again. In some cases, especially before the modern age, such marriages for widows or widowers were necessary for financial and familial reasons.

That a marriage ends by the death of a spouse speaks more to worldly realities than to heavenly ones. It still does not follow that one’s earthly marriage will have no meaning in Heaven. Even if a person remarries after the death of his/her spouse, surely both relationships will be perfected in Heaven, not discarded. As the relationships are perfect, there will be no jealousy or resentment between the first spouse and the second.

In His response to the Sadducees, Jesus surely does mean that there will be no new marriages in Heaven. There will be no wedding bells, no marriage ceremonies, for Heaven is already one grand marriage feast of Christ with His Bride, the Church.

Further, marriage is given here in this world for the sake of propagating the human race through having children. This need will not exist in Heaven, where there is no death. The Fathers of the Church emphasize this in their commentary on this teaching:

    • “For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven” as if He had said, there will be a certain heavenly and angelic restoration to life, when there shall be no more decay, and we shall remain unchanged; and for this reason marriage shall cease. For marriage now exists on account of our decay, that we may be carried on by succession of our race, and not fail; but then we shall be as the Angels, who need no succession by marriage, and never come to an end (Theophylactus, as quoted in the Catena Aurea).
    • In the resurrection, men shall be as the Angels of God, that is, no man there dies, no one is born, no infant is there, no old men (Pseudo Jerome, as quoted in the Catena Aurea).
    • For marriages are for the sake of children, children for succession, succession because of death. Where then there is no death, there are no marriages; and hence it follows, But they which shall be accounted worthy, &c (Augustine, as quoted in the Catena Aurea).

As for us living like the angels, the Lord speaks to immortality, but He also teaches that there will no longer be any need for sexual intercourse. This may seem like a drawback to some people, particularly in this hypersexualized age, but the intimacy between spouses in Heaven will be far greater than any mere physical union. When a great joy comes between spouses it eclipses lesser ones. Here too, the Church Fathers affirm this meaning:

    • Our Lord shows us that in the resurrection there will be no fleshly conversation (Theophylactus, quoted in the Catena Aurea).
    • Since all fleshly lust is taken away … they resemble the holy angels (Cyril of Alexandria, Homily 136 on Luke).

Married couples should look forward to a relationship that is perfected in Heaven, not set aside. While the juridical aspects of marriage may end at death, the union of hearts and lives will not. In Christ there surely remains a spiritual connection and covenantal union that stretches from Heaven to earth through prayer, and in Heaven the Lord will surely perfect what He joined on earth, giving spouses unimaginable joy and unity.

Set me as a seal on your heart,
as a seal on your arm.
For stern as death is love,
relentless as the nether world is devotion;
its flames are a blazing fire.
Deep waters cannot quench love,
nor floods sweep it away.
Were one to offer all he owns to purchase love,
he would be roundly mocked
(Song of Songs 8:6-7).

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Will Marriages Be Acknowledged in Heaven?

Does Your Parish Church Remind You Of Heaven? It Should!

Many Catholics are unaware that our traditional church buildings are based on designs given by God Himself. It goes all the way back to Mount Sinai, when God set forth the design for the sanctuary in the desert and for the tent of meeting. Many of the fundamental aspects of our layouts still follow that plan (and the stone version of it that became the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem). Traditional church buildings also have numerous references to the Book of Revelation and the Book of Hebrews, both of which describe the heavenly liturgy and Heaven itself.

The compelling effect of a traditional church is to say to the believer, you are in Heaven now.

In my own parish church (take a virtual tour here), the floors are the color of green jasper and the clerestory walls are red, symbolizing the fiery Love of the Holy Spirit. On the clerestory are painted the saints, gathered like a cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1; Rev. 7:9). In the apse is the throne-like altar with Jesus at the center (Rev 5:6); the seven lamp stands are surrounding Him with seven candles (Rev 4:5). In the stained glass of the transept are the 12 Apostles joined with the 12 patriarchs (symbolized by 12 wooden pillars). Together they form the 24 elders who surround the throne in Heaven (Rev 4:4). Above the high altar, in the clerestory windows, are the four living creatures also said to surround the throne (Rev 4:6-7). Additionally, on the floor of the sanctuary (see photo above) is a symbolic representation of the of the exterior of the ancient Jewish Temple. There is the flaming altar and, on either side, the eight tables where the animals were sacrificed. (I have written about these in more detail here: On The Biblical Roots of Church Design).

Sadly, in churches built after the 1950s, these biblical roots were often cast aside in favor of a “meeting house” design. No longer was the thinking that our churches should reflect heavenly realities, teach the faith, and follow biblical plans. Rather, it was that the church simply provided a space for people to meet and conduct various liturgies.

In some cases, the liturgical space came to be considered fungible in that it could be reconfigured to suit various needs: Mass today, concert tomorrow, spaghetti dinner next Wednesday. This idea began to appear as early as the 1950s. Pews were often replaced by chairs, which could easily be moved to suit various functions. Even in parishes that did not go so far as to allow spaghetti dinners in the nave (mine did in the 1970s), the notion of the church as essentially a meeting space still prevailed.

Thus, churches began to look less like churches and more like meeting halls. The bare essentials such as an altar, pews or chairs, a pulpit, and very minimal statuary were still there, but the main point was simply to provide a place for people to come together. There was very little sense that the structure itself was to reflect Heaven or even remind us of it.

That is beginning to change as newer architects are returning more and more to sacred and biblical principles in church design. Further, many Catholics are becoming more educated on the function of church art to impart meaning rather than just to look pretty. They are coming to understand the rich symbolism of the art and architecture, which reveal the faith and express heavenly realities.

Take stained glass, for instance. Stained glass art is more than just pretty colors, pictures, and symbols. Stained glass was used for centuries to teach the faith through pictures and symbols. Until about 200 years ago, most people—even among the upper classes—could not read well if at all. How does the Church teach the faith in such a setting? Through preaching, art, passion plays, statues, and stained glass.

Stained glass in churches depicted biblical stories, saints, sacraments, and glimpses of Heaven. Over the centuries a rich shorthand of symbols also developed: crossed keys = St. Peter, a sword = St. Paul, a large boat = the Church, a shell = baptism, and so forth. Thus, the Church taught the faith through the exquisite art of stained glass.

Stained glass also served another purpose: to act as an image of the foundational walls of Heaven. Recall that traditional church architecture saw the church as an image of Heaven. Hence a church’s design was based on the descriptions of Heaven found in the Scriptures. In the Book of Revelation, Heaven is described as having high walls with rows of jewels embedded in their foundations:

One of the seven angels … showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates … The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst ... (Revelation 21:varia).

Thus, because Heaven had great, high walls, older churches almost always had a lot of verticality. The lower foundational walls gave way to the higher clerestory and above the clerestory the vaults of the ceiling rose even higher. In the lower sections of the walls, extending even as high as the clerestory, the jewel-like stained glass recalled the precious gemstones described in the lower walls of Heaven.

Yes, it is amazing! I stand in my church and hear its message: you are in Heaven when you enter here and celebrate the sacred mysteries. Sursum corda! (Hearts aloft!)

Here is a video I put together on stained glass. Enjoy these jewels of light that recall the lower walls of Heaven as you listen to the choir sing “Christe Lux mundi” (O Christ, you are the Light of the world).

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Does Your Parish Church Remind You Of Heaven? It Should!

The Destination Must Direct the Way

Many people say that they don’t hear too many sermons about Hell anymore. I believe this is true in general, but I will say that I preach about it a good bit. However, I would like to point out that the same could be said about sermons on Heaven. Try to remember the last time you heard a sermon that dealt with the topic let alone inspired a longing for Heaven. Too many sermons focus on this world: how to live in it, how to deal with moral and ethical problems, and how to be happier in it. It is not wrong to preach about such things as long as it does not divert focus from our ultimate destination: Heaven or Hell. To be vague, uninspiring, or silent about our goal and desired destination is spiritually disastrous.

To illustrate, consider a man who sets out in his car for New York City from Washington, D.C. His destination guides every turn he takes, every navigational decision he makes. If he sees a sign that says, “South to Richmond” he knows not to take that exit. He doesn’t have to deliberate; the answer is clear because his destination is clear. Consider, though, what might happen if he were uncertain about where he was going or forgot: The road signs might cause stress and confusion. He might think, “Perhaps this is the way I should go … or maybe not. How do I know? Maybe there will be fun things to see and do along that route.” Soon enough he might be driving all over the map, lost in diversions, distractions, and—ultimately—dead ends. He might in fact see some pleasant sights along the way, but deep down he would begin to sense that none of this driving around was adding up to anything.

Without a destination we are lost, confused, and worried. To live without a clear goal is stressful because we have little basis on which to make good decisions; every choice seems difficult. With little ability to determine what is truly good for us, we focus on temporary pleasure, becoming easy prey for the hucksters of this world. So, our credit cards are maxed out, our hearts are divided, and we feel unmoored.

Where are we going? When was the last time we really thought about it? Too many of us are living unreflective, directionless lives. We don’t really know where we are going, but we’re sure in a big hurry to get there!

Have a goal: Heaven! Focus on it. Dream about it. Long for it. Make it direct your modus vivendi. We should want to die loving God and our neighbor so that we can go home to Heaven and be with God forever. Let every decision you make be in service of this one, clear goal. Carefully review your life and ask yourself, “Am I moving closer to my goal? How? What things have hindered me or diverted me from it?”

I have written more on this topic previously (When Was the Last Time You Meditated on Heaven? That Long? Try This.”)

Consider this beautiful meditation from Pope St. Gregory the Great, which is in the Office of Readings this week:

If anyone enters the sheepfold through me, he shall be saved; he shall go freely in and out and shall find good pasture. He will enter into a life of faith; from faith he will go out to vision, from belief to contemplation, and will graze in the good pastures of everlasting life.

So our Lord’s sheep will finally reach their grazing ground where all who follow him in simplicity of heart will feed on the green pastures of eternity. These pastures are the spiritual joys of heaven. There the elect look upon the face of God with unclouded vision and feast at the banquet of life for ever more.

Beloved brothers, let us set out for these pastures where we shall keep joyful festival with so many of our fellow citizens. May the thought of their happiness urge us on! Let us stir up our hearts, rekindle our faith, and long eagerly for what heaven has in store for us.

To love thus is to be already on our way. No matter what obstacles we encounter, we must not allow them to turn us aside from the joy of that heavenly feast.

Anyone who is determined to reach his destination is not deterred by the roughness of the road that leads to it. Nor must we allow the charm of success to seduce us, or we shall be like a foolish traveler who is so distracted by the pleasant meadows through which he is passing that he forgets where he is going (From a homily on the Gospels by Pope St. Gregory the Great, Hom. 14, 3-6: PL 76, 1129-1130).

In his Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul wrote,

This one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus. Whatever was an asset to me I count as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things as loss compared to the surpassing excellence of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him …. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been perfected, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me … (Phil 3: 7-9; 12-14).

Onward, upward, to the goal!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Destination Must Direct the Way

Stairway to Heaven: A Whimsical Look at a 1970s Song

In the Office of Readings for December 26th (Feast of St. Stephen, Martyr) there is a meditation by Saint Fulgentius of Respe describing love and forgiveness as the way by which the heavens were opened for St. Stephen. Saint Fulgentius commends the forgiving love of St. Stephen for his enemies and calls love a stairway to heaven:

My brothers, Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together…. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey’s end (St. Fulgentius of Ruspe, bishop, Sermo 3, 1-3, 5-6: CCL 91A, 905-909).

This is solid biblical advice, for God is love, and Heaven is union with God. Hence, we must walk in love and become God’s love to enjoy the perfect communion with God that is Heaven.

The 1971 Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven” is among the most popular rock songs of all time. When asked about the lyrics, the author, Robert Plant, said that he thought that their popularity stemmed from the fact that they are an “abstraction.” He added, “Depending on what day it is, I still interpret the song a different way — and I wrote the lyrics” [*].

Some of us back then wanted the almost mystical opening section of the song to have religious meaning. After all, it spoke of a stairway to heaven and of the “May queen.” If there really were a stairway to Heaven but a highway to hell, it would explain life well. However, there are many problems with the song’s lyrics. Its notion of that stairway to Heaven is ambiguous at best and antithetical to religious and biblical teaching at worst.

The lyrics of “Stairway to Heaven” are shown below in bold italics, while my commentary (much of it lighthearted) is presented in plain red text.

There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven

One can’t buy a stairway to Heaven with mere gold, and even if it were theoretically possible, we would never be able to accumulate enough. So maybe the lady should be less sure in her gold and more trusting in and dependent on God. Maybe she should concentrate on loving the light that makes her gold glitter rather than the glittering gold itself. There’s an old gospel song that says, “I’d rather have Jesus than silver and gold.”

When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for

No, actually, she can’t. Only Jesus opens the door, and He will be our judge. No one forces the heavenly gates open. Of Jesus, Scripture says, What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open (Rev 3:7). The woman’s gold is no good in Heaven; all that matters is knowing the gatekeeper, Jesus.

Oh oh oh oh and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

No, she isn’t. She can’t afford it.

There’s a sign on the wall
But she wants to be sure
’Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings
In a tree by the brook
There’s a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiving.

To some degree we love ambiguity because it allows us to avoid making decisions and being obedient to what is taught. However, sometimes words are very clear in their meaning and we must decide either to accept and live by them or to reject them and suffer any consequences. This is especially the case with God’s revealed word. As for our thoughts, we love to rationalize and make excuses, but deep down we hear the voice of God echoing; we know what we are doing and whether it is right or wrong.

Ooh, it makes me wonder.
Ooh, it makes me wonder.

Well, don’t wonder forever. Sooner, rather than later, we have to make some decisions. Do you want what God is offering or not? Do you want to be holy or not?

There’s a feeling I get
When I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving

Don’t look to the west; Look to the east where you will see Christ come again in glory. The west is the land of sunset and darkness. The east is the land of sunrise and light, Jesus, the Light of World. Above all, make sure that when your spirit is leaving it leaves to the east, to the light! Do not yearn for the darkness.

And it’s whispered that soon,
If we all call the tune

Then the piper will lead us to reason

And a new day will dawn
For those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter.

Yikes! Don’t ever think that if we call the tune we will be led to utopia. No, no, no! Let God call the dance; let Him set the tune and the path. Utopianism led to the horrifying killing fields of the 20th century. The forests are certainly not echoing with laughter; if anything, they are being consumed by the lustful blazes of a world insistent upon marching to its own tune rather than God’s.

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow
Don’t be alarmed now
It’s just spring clean
for the May queen

Well, I suppose that alarming movements in our life can alert us to trouble and summon us to positive change. Let’s let this verse stand, but the May queen referred to here can’t be Mary because she doesn’t need spring cleaning.

Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on

It is true that there are just two paths; there is no third way given! Conversion is still possible if you’re on the wrong path. But be sure to switch paths only if you’re not walking with Jesus.

And it makes me wonder
Your head is humming and it won’t go

In case you don’t know
The piper’s calling you to join him

Danger, Will Robinson! We learned that the piper is a symbol for the world. Do not follow this piper. Ignore his tunes!

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show

Ah, here is Mary! See, I told you this is a religious song!

How everything still turns to gold

Oops, where did that come from? I guess this isn’t Mary—unless she’s into the prosperity gospel.

And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last

Now there’s that crazy piper again with his worldly tune, still trying to mesmerize me and give me an earworm of earthly tunes!

When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll

No, sorry, only God can be all in all. We might all be one, but even together we could never be all. It’s great to be a steady rock, but that is only accomplished by building our house on the solid rock of Christ’s teachings.

And she’s buying the stairway to heaven

No, she isn’t. She can’t afford it—but she can ask Jesus!

Well, I guess we’re just going to have to accept that “Stairway to Heaven” isn’t the religious song we’d like it to be. Whatever “Heaven” is alluded to, it isn’t our heaven.

It’s better to listen to St. Fulgentius of Ruspe, who reminds us that the true stairway to Heaven is the way of love—and not mere human love, but divine love infused in the soul. It is God’s love that animates our actions and lifts us higher as we accept its movements in our heart. This love cannot be bought; it is offered freely.

It does “cost” us, however, as our favorite sins fall away, and our priorities and passions change for the better. As the fruit of love, these changes are accepted not because we must but because we want to.

Yes, love is the stairway to Heaven. An old song, older than this 1970s song says, “Love lifted me … When nothing else could help, love lifted me.” There is our stairway to Heaven, not purchased with gold but with the precious blood of Jesus.

What Do We Mean by the Communion of Saints?

This is the tenth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

Continuing our series on the Four Last Things, in today’s post we consider an aspect of Heaven called the Communion of Saints. I have discovered that it is frequently misunderstood. Many of you know that I write the weekly “Question and Answer” column for the Our Sunday Visitor newspaper. Every once in a while, someone poses a unique question, one that I had never thought of before. such is the case with the question below. It led me to reflect on the deeper experience of what we call the Communion of Saints in Heaven.

My answers are required to be no more than 600 words, so this response is relatively brief.

(There is an online catalogue of my “Question and Answer” columns available here: Msgr. Pope’s OSV Columns.)

Q: The descriptions in the Bible seem to describe a vast amount of people, and the paintings I have seen from the Renaissance make it look rather crowded and busy. Frankly, I hate big cities and crowds. Are these descriptions accurate or am I missing something? Doris Leben, Wichita, Kansas

A: The danger to avoid when meditating on Heaven is taking earthly realities and merely transferring them to Heaven. Even if there are similarities to things on earth, things in Heaven will be experienced in a perfected way, with unspeakable joy.

The more biblical and theological way to understand the multitudes in Heaven is not as a physical crowding but as a deep communion. In other words, the Communion of Saints is not just a lot of people walking about or standing around talking.

St. Paul teaches, So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members, one of another (Rom 12:5). Although we experience this imperfectly here on earth, we will experience it perfectly in Heaven. As members of one another we will have deep communion; we will know and be known in a deep and rich way. Your memories, gifts, and insights will be mine, and mine will be yours. There will be profound understanding and appreciation, a rich love and a sense of how we all complete one another and really are all one in Christ.

Imagine the glory of billions of new thoughts, stories, and insights that will come from being perfectly members of Christ and of one another. Imagine the peace that will come from finally understanding and being understood. This is deep, satisfying, and wonderful communion—not crowds of strangers.

Therefore, the biblical descriptions of Heaven as multitudes should not be understood as mere numbers, but as the richness and glory of communion. The paintings showing “crowds” should be understood as an allegory of deep communion, of being close in a way we can only imagine.

St. Augustine had in mind the wonderful satisfaction of this deep communion with God and with one another in Christ when he described Heaven as Unus Christus amans seipsum (One Christ loving Himself). This is not some selfish Christ turned in on Himself. This is Christ, the Head, in deep communion with all the members of His Body, and all the members in Christ experiencing deep mystical communion with Him and with one another—together swept up into the life of the Trinity. As St. Paul says, you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Cor 3:23).

Do You Desire Heaven? Really?

This is the eighth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

After some sobering reflection on death and judgment over the past several days, it’s finally time to talk about Heaven. Now that is a topic everyone wants to hear about! Yet there is a strange disconnect today. As it becomes easier and easier to satisfy our desire for instant gratification, we find it harder and harder to take the time to ponder a future paradise.

Almost no one talks about Heaven today—except perhaps at funerals—and then it is often to inappropriately presume the instant promotion of the deceased through Heaven’s gate.

The way most of our prayers sound today, it seems that we would be content to have God make this world a better place. People will ask God to improve their health and solve their financial problems, but rarely will they express any desire to go to Heaven and be with Him. It is almost as if we were saying to God, “If you’ll make this world a little more comfortable I’ll just stay here forever!”

Many older prayers speak of longing for Heaven. The “Hail, Holy Queen” laments that we live in exile, in a valley of tears, and are poor, banished children of Eve, who long to see the blessed fruit of Mary’s womb, Jesus. Many old hymns refer to being free at last, to flying away to Heaven some bright morning when this life is over, to looking forward to that day. Yes, soon and very soon we are going to see the King! Older churches were designed to remind Catholics of Heaven; their structures were often centered around the vision of Heaven.

Do you long for Heaven or are you just trying to make it through the day? When was the last time you heard a sermon about Heaven? Does the thought of it excite you? It is after all our reward, which eye has not seen and ear has not heard!

A big factor for the lack of longing for Heaven is that our lives are so comfortable these days. It is a kind of comfort that both distracts us from spiritual things and focuses us on worldly things. Our comforts also make the cross seem strange, even immoral. If Heaven is obtained through the cross, many say “It’s too much trouble.” They would rather focus on getting that new channel added to their cable television service or planning a cruise.

Add to this that we live in a world that is utterly upside down, a world in which most are not rich in what matters to God, a world that obsesses over passing and trivial things and pays little mind to eternal and heavenly things. Learning to love Heaven can mean some pretty radical things. It often means being willing to be 180 degrees out of phase with the world’s priorities and preoccupations.

St. Cyprian pondered this problem, which seems to have been evident to some degree in the wealthy city of Carthage:

[Regarding death] we struggle and resist like self-willed slaves and are brought into the Lord’s presence with sorrow and lamentation, not freely consenting to our departure, but constrained by necessity.

Why then do we pray for the kingdom of heaven to come if this earthly bondage pleases us? … If we should rather serve the devil here than reign with Christ?

The world hates Christians, so why give your love to it instead of following Christ, who loves you and has redeemed you? So banish the fear of death and think of the eternal life that follows. That will show people that we really live our faith.

Who of us, if he had long been a sojourner in a foreign land would not desire to return to his native country? Who of us, when he had begun to sail there would not wish for a prosperous wind to carry him to his desired home with speed, that he might sooner embrace his friends and relatives? We must account paradise our country (De Mortalitate, 26).

Heaven is something we must learn to love. In this it is like many of the finer things in life. Its appeal may not be immediately obvious, but having been trained in its ways, we learn to love it very deeply.

If we think that it is only natural to love Heaven, we must become more sober. The fact is, we have obtuse spirits. We live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures. We tend to love that which is destructive and harmful, and even knowing that, we are still attracted to it. We tend to esteem that which is foolish and passing, while glamorizing evil. We tend to call “good” or “no big deal” what God calls sinful.

G.K. Chesterton observed,

The point of the story of Satan is not that he revolted against being in hell, but that he revolted against being in heaven. The point about Adam is not that he was discontented with the conditions of this earth, but that he was discontented with the conditions of paradise (New York American, 12-15-1932).

If Satan revolted against Heaven even while still in Heaven, and Adam preferred something to paradise while still in paradise, how much more should we be sober about the fact that it is very easy for us, who have not yet seen paradise or Heaven, to despise or minimize the value of the glory of God’s Kingdom.

Help us, Lord, to desire Heaven, to learn its ways, to learn of you, and to love you above all things.

Party or Perish

The past three Sundays have featured shocking parables about our readiness, fruitfulness, and decision as to whether to accept and enter the Kingdom of God. The Lord has used the image of a vineyard extensively: a vineyard into which workers are dispatched at different times of the day but who have different attitudes about what is due to them at the end of the day; a vineyard into which two sons are sent, one of whom goes and one who does not; a vineyard in which are wicked tenants who refuse to render rightful fruits to the landowner and who abuse and even kill those sent to call for the harvest, including the landowner’s son.

The parables to the great and dramatic decision to which we are all summoned: Will we accept the Kingdom of God, entering into to and accepting its terms or not? It is a decision on which your destiny depends. Jesus is not playing around; he lays out the drama in stark and shocking ways. He is not the harmless hippie or mild-mannered Messiah that many today have recast Him to be. He is the Great Prophet, the Very Son of God, the Lord who authoritative stands before us and tells us to decide.

This Sunday’s Gospel is perhaps the most shocking and dramatic of all. In it, the Lord Jesus issues another urgent summons to the Kingdom. As with past Sundays, there is the warning of hellish destruction for the refusal of the Kingdom. This view must be balanced, however, by the vision of a seeking Lord who wants to fill His banquet and will not stop urging us until the end. You might say the theme of this Gospel is “Party or Perish!”

Let’s look at today’s Gospel in five stages.

I. RICH REPAST – The text says, The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast …

Of course the King is God the Father and the wedding feast is that of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. On one level, the wedding feast is the invitation to faith in general. More biblically, the wedding feast is that of the Lamb, which is described in the Book of Revelation (19:7-9). Hence it is also the Liturgy of Heaven in which we share through the Mass.

What a wonderful image of the Kingdom: a wedding feast! Most Jewish people of that time looked forward to weddings all year long. They were usually scheduled between planting and harvest, when things were slower. Weddings often lasted for days and were among the most enjoyable things imaginable. There was feasting, family, and great joy in what God was doing. Now consider the unimaginable joy and honor of being invited to a wedding hosted by a king!

Yes, these were powerful images for the ancient Jews of the Kingdom: A wedding feast, and for a king’s son at that! The joy, the celebration, the feasting, the magnificence, the splendor, the beautiful bride, the handsome groom, the love, the unity; yes, the Kingdom of Heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son.

Who would not want to come? We may well ask, if this is Heaven, who would not want to go?

II. RUDE REJECTION – The text says, … but they refused to come. A second time he sent other servants, saying, “Tell those invited: ‘Behold, I have prepared my banquet, my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready; come to the feast.’” Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. The rest laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them.

Here is a real twist to the story, an unexpected development. Why the rejection of the king’s offer? In our time, why the rejection of what God offers? Are these people crazy? In effect, Jesus explains their rejection in a two-fold way: worldliness and wickedness.

One group of those rejecting the invitation to the Kingdom of Heaven do so for worldly reasons. Jesus describes them as going one to his farm, another to his business. In other words, the things of the world, though not evil in themselves, preoccupy them. They are too busy to accept the invitation; their priorities and passions are elsewhere.

They think, weddings are nice but money is nicer; God and religion have their place, but they don’t pay the bills.

The goal of the worldly, is this world and what it offers, not God or the things awaiting them in Heaven. Things like prayer, holiness, Scripture, and sacraments don’t provide obvious material blessings to the worldly minded so they are low on the priority list. St. Paul speaks of people whose god is their belly and who have their mind set on worldly things (cf Phil 3:19).

So off they go, one to his farm, another to his business; one to watch football, another to detail his car; one to sleep in, another to go golfing; one to make money, another to the mall to spend it.

A second group of those rejecting the Kingdom do so out of some degree of wickedness. Jesus speaks of how they abuse and even kill those who invite them. Why this anger? For many, the kingdom of God is rejected because it is not convenient to their moral life. Many of them rightly understand that in order to enter the wedding feast of the Kingdom, they will need to be “properly dressed.” Of course “proper dress” here refers not to clothes but to holiness and righteousness, to living the moral vision of the Kingdom.

The invitation to the wedding feast of the Kingdom incites anger because it casts a judgment on some of their behaviors and tweaks their conscience. A great deal of the hostility directed toward God, Scripture, the Church, and her servants who speak God’s truth, is explained by the fact that, deep down, they know that what is proclaimed is true.

If their minds have become darkened or their hearts hardened by sin, they simply hate being told what to do or any suggestion that what they are doing is wrong. Being told to live chastely, or to forgive, or to be more generous to the poor, or to welcome all new life (even if there are deformities or disabilities), or that there are priorities higher than money, sex, career, and worldly access; all of this is obnoxious. Yes, the world often treats God and those who speak of Him with contempt. Some are even martyred in certain places and times.

Of course many who reject the Kingdom do so for multiple reasons, but Jesus focuses on these two broad categories, under which a lot of those reasons fall.

III. RESULTING RUIN – The text says, The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.

As with last week’s Gospel, there is a shocking detail to the story that is somewhat mysterious. How can such a violent punishment be squared with a vision of God who loves us?

It is not an easy thing to answer, but to respond by pretending that this is not taught or that this will never happen, is to reject the loving urgency with which Jesus speaks. He is not simply using scare tactics or hyperbole; He is teaching us what is true for our salvation.

Historically, this destruction happened to ancient Israel in 70 A.D., forty years after Jesus’ resurrection. After forty years the no of the invited guests (in this case, the Ancient Jews) became definitive and led to their ruin and the end of the temple.

It is the same for us. The Lord invites us all to accept His Kingdom as long as we live. If we are slow to respond, He repeats his offer again and again. In the end, though, if we don’t want to have the Kingdom of God, we don’t have to have it. Upon our death, our choice is fixed. If our answer is no, our ruin is certain, for outside the Kingdom there is nothing but ruins. We will either accept the invitation to live in the Kingdom of God and by its values or we will reject it and make “other arrangements.” Those other arrangements are ruinous.

Be sure of this: God wants to save everyone (cf Ez 18:23, 32, 33:1; 1 Tim 2:4). If Hell exists, it is only because of God’s reverence for our freedom to choose. Mind you, there are not just a few who reject the Kingdom. They live showing that they do not want a thing to do with many of the values of the Kingdom of Heaven: chastity, forgiveness, love of enemies, generosity to the poor, and detachment from the world. God will not force them to accept these things or to be surrounded by those who live them perfectly in Heaven. They are free to make other arrangements and to build their eternal home elsewhere. Compared to Heaven, everything else is a smoldering ruin.

IV. RELENTLESS RESOLVE – The text says, Then he said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’

When some reject the invitation, God merely widens the invitation. He wants His Son’s wedding feast to be full, so He keeps on inviting and widening the invitation. Here is an extravagant God who does not give up. When rejected, He just keeps calling.

V. REMAINING REQUIREMENT – The text says, The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to meet the guests, he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. The king said to him, ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’ But he was reduced to silence. Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’ Many are invited, but few are chosen.

Here, then, is a warning, even for those of us who do accept the invitation and enter the Kingdom: We must wear the proper wedding garment.

As we have already remarked, the garment referred to is not one of cloth but of righteousness. This righteousness in which we are to be clothed can come only from God. God supplies the garment. The book of Revelation says that the saints were each given a white robe to wear (Rev 6:10). The text also speaks of the Church in a corporate sense as being clothed in righteousness: Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure”—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints (Rev 19:7-8). Hence righteousness is imaged by clothing, and that clothing is given by God. At our baptism the priest makes mention of our white garment as an outward sign of our dignity, which we are to bring unstained to the judgment seat of Christ. At our funeral, too, the white pall placed upon the casket recalls the white robe of righteousness given to us by God.

Scripture speaks elsewhere of our righteousness as a kind of clothing that we “put on”:

  • Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light (Rom 13:12).
  • But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Rom 13:14).
  • And be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:23).
  • Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. (Eph 6:11).
  • Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness (Eph 6:14).
  • You have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator (Col 3:10).
  • Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. (Col 3:12).
  • But, since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. (1 Thess 5:8).

Hence, when the king comes upon a man “not properly dressed,” he confronts him. The man has no response and so is cast out. Recall two things. First, this is not about a dress code, but a holiness code. The clothes symbolize righteousness. Second, the garment is provided. We have no righteousness of our own, only what God gives us. Hence, the refusal to wear the proper clothes is not about poverty or ignorance of the rules; it is an outright refusal to accept the values of the Kingdom and to “wear” them as a gift from God.

Scripture says of Heaven, Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful (Rev 21:27). Scripture also warns us, without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14b). An old spiritual says, “None can walk up there, but the pure in heart.” Consider that Heaven would not be Heaven if sin and unrighteousness were allowed to exist there.

Only God can make us pure enough to enter Heaven, but He offers this gift of purity to everyone. Yet not everyone chooses to accept the garment of righteousness He offers. Not all will agree to undergo the purification necessary to enter Heaven.

The Lord concludes by saying that many are called, but few are chosen. Indeed, the Lord calls many (likely, all), but far fewer are chosen, for they themselves do not choose the Kingdom and the garment of righteousness. God ratifies their own choice.

Understand the urgency with which Jesus speaks and teaches. Our choices have consequences and, at some point, our choices become fixed. At that point, God will ratify what we have chosen. Notions of judgment, fixed choices, and Hell may be obnoxious to some; surely these teachings are sobering and even frightening to all. We may have legitimate questions as to how to reconcile the existence of Hell with God’s mercy, however judgment and the reality of Hell are all still taught—and they are taught by the Lord Jesus who loves us. No one loves you more than Jesus Christ, yet no one spoke of Hell more than He did.

The Lord is solemnly urging us to be sober and serious about our spiritual destiny and that of those whom we love. Hear the Lord’s urgency in this vivid parable, told in shocking detail. Realize that it is told in love and heed its message.

In the Gospel of Luke, the Lord told the parable of the Prodigal Son. In it, the sinful son returned to his father, who, joyful and moved, threw a great feast. The older son sulked, refusing to enter. Incredibly, his father came out and pleaded with him to come in. “We must rejoice,” he said. Oddly, the parable ends there. We never learn if the sulking son entered. The story does not end because we must finish it. Each of us is the son. What is our answer? Will we accept all the Kingdom values and enter, or will we remain outside? And what are we doing to ensure that our loved ones give the proper answer? The Father is pleading with us to enter the feast. What is our answer?

Heaven is an Acquired Taste

There is a tendency today to forget that Heaven is an acquired taste; not everyone wants what God offers. While everyone wants to be happy, often happiness is conceived of in an egocentric way. Heaven is thought of as a personally designed paradise where we will be happy on our own terms.

But that is not what Heaven is. Heaven is the Kingdom of God in all its fullness. Its values and qualities are manifold but include many things that are not immediately desirable to those who live with hearts and minds that are worldly and sinful. The Kingdom of God features ideas that are often unpopular: love of one’s enemies, generosity, love of the poor, and chastity. Heaven features God and His teachings at the center, not me and what I think. Yes, Heaven is a place where every aspect of God’s law is perfectly manifested. Yet many find some of these things not only undesirable but downright obnoxious; some even call them hateful and intolerant. To those in darkness, the light seems harsh.

Yes, Heaven is an acquired taste. This helps to explain that the existence of Hell is not due to a “mean” God trying to remove people whom He doesn’t like from His presence. It is a respectful acceptance by God of the free decision made by those who do not want what He is offering. They do not want to think differently or even be told what to think. They do not want to give up their favorite sins or have their hearts purified of unruly or disordered appetites. In the end, God will not force us to love what and whom He loves. He will not force us to live in His Kingdom.

In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis makes this very point. In it, many people come to “tour” Heaven, some of whom do not like what they find. Some struggle to adjust, others are resentful and say, in effect, “No thanks.” If you have not read it, I strongly encourage you to do so; it is an important book to read and ponder.

In yesterday’s Gospel, the Lord inquires after our hearts by giving us the images of buried treasure and a pearl of great price. The one who finds them goes and sells all he has in order to obtain them. Does this describe your heart? Does it describe the hearts of our family, friends, and compatriots? Often, the answer is no. Most people are not will to give up everything for the Kingdom of Heaven. Our hearts are disordered. We easily desire things that are sinful and harmful, and not so much those that are good, holy, and lasting. We prefer apparent goods to true goods. If we are faithful, the Lord can get us to that disposition of heart—but it takes time. At least grant Him your willingness to get to that place!

In yesterday’s Gospel the Lord also speaks of a dragnet. While he uses it as an image for the final judgment, that final judgement ultimately depends on the myriad judgments we make in our daily life. As you haul the net of your life ashore, what do you keep, finding it valuable, and what do you discard? Do you value what God is offering and retain it or do you more highly value other things in the net? What do you keep and what do you discard? The answers to questions like these points to your place in the net at the last judgment. God will gather into His Kingdom those who have desired it, not those who have rejected it.

Give the Lord your heart. Open when He knocks. Let Him create a desire in you for the very things He is offering. In the end, Heaven is an acquired taste, more so than we commonly imagine. Let God give you a taste for better and higher things.

This song says, “I’m trying to make heaven my home!”