8 May 2016
Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord
Astronomers think that the universe is about 14 billion years old, and we usually hear about the Big Bang Theory as the reason why. With that, there was a giant explosion that sent matter spreading out in all directions. And, in time, the universe started to cool down, and the matter started to combine to form stars and planets and all the rest. And so, the universe as we know it came into being.
But what about Heaven? And I don’t mean “heaven” as in “the earth and the heavens.” That’s the same as saying “the earth and the sky and everything beyond the sky.” The “heavens” are certainly up in the sky: the clouds, the stars, the sun, the moon. When we see artwork showing Jesus ascending into Heaven, it’s usually an image of him rising up into the clouds—which is an image we get from Scripture.
But he didn’t go to join the birds flying in the sky, as beautiful as the birds are. He didn’t go up and sit down on a cloud, as big and powerful as clouds can be. He didn’t ascend to “the heavens;” he didn’t become part of the vast “spirit” of the universe. He ascended to Heaven. So where’d he go?
We know a lot about the universe; how old it is, and we have some theories (scientifically speaking) of where it came from and how it works. But what about Heaven? How old is it? And where did it come from, and how does it work?
You know, we Catholics talk a lot about Heaven: whenever we get together for a funeral, our focus switches to Heaven; when we talk about baptism, we talk about Heaven; when we talk about our life here on earth, we talk about “getting to Heaven.” There’s even a connection between what we do here at Mass and Heaven. And yet, what do we really know about Heaven? I would bet more than we think.
Today, with the Solemnity of the Ascension, we celebrate not only Jesus’ going up to “sit at the right hand of God the Father;” we also celebrate the birth of Heaven. We’ve all seen depictions of angels and saints (and the angels is another question)—we’ve seen those depictions of all the faithful gathered around God, worshiping and adoring, singing and praise in perfect love.
But that gathering we call “Heaven” had a very definite starting point: it was when the first human being finally saw God face-to-face and was completely satisfied. And that human being is Jesus. Of course, the Son of God has known the Father since before time began; so there wasn’t anything especially new in Jesus the Son of God having ascended to the Father. What was new was Jesus’ human nature. That hadn’t ever been there before, mixed into the relationship between God the Father and God the Son.
The day that human nature was lifted up into the life of the Holy Trinity was the day that Heaven began. Before the Ascension there was no Heaven. There was God; there were angels. But there weren’t any human beings. But with the Ascension, that all changed, and Heaven was born. You have to hunt around a little bit in our Catholic Tradition to find this, but it’s there.
And so, how old is Heaven? Oh, about 2,000 years old—give or take a few years. But it’s so tied up with the eternity of God that time is pretty much irrelevant in Heaven. And we wonder (as we should): well, what is it? Is it a place? Is it some sort of parallel universe or something? What is it? How does it work?
Of course, any answer we try to give is going to fall short. After all, we can’t really describe the infinite with our finite human minds and our limited ways of expressing ideas. But we’re certainly going to try.
In 2010, a little book came out called “Heaven is For Real.” I imagine many of us have read it, or at least heard of it. It’s about a four-year old who goes into surgery, slips into unconsciousness, and visits Heaven. And the book is about him retelling what he saw there in Heaven. He talks about meeting relatives who died long before he was born; Jesus was there, and a bunch of others were there in long white robes and golden sashes. It’s really a very interesting read.
In 2000, there was another book published called “My Descent into Death.” Only here it was an atheist’s experience. He, too, had slipped into unconsciousness during surgery, and he went on a bit of a roller coaster ride—first being tormented by merciless beings, and then hearing a voice that told him to pray to God. He resisted the idea of praying to God (he was an atheist, after all), but at some point he did.
He writes: “I didn’t know how to express what I wanted and needed, but with every bit of my last ounce of strength, I yelled out into the darkness, ‘Jesus, save me.’ I yelled that from the core of my being with all the energy I had left. I have never meant anything more strongly in my life.” But he recalls there appeared “far off in the darkness . . . a pinpoint of light like the faintest star in the sky.”
He came to see Heaven more so from a distance. But he saw Jesus; he came to him as a “luminous being,” radiating nothing but pure love. The man conversed with other people who were there. He writes: “They all seemed to know and understand me and to be completely familiar with my thoughts and my past. . . . It felt like they were closer to me than anyone I had ever known.”
Both the little four-year old, and the adult atheist characterize Heaven as the experience of relationship—a perfect relationship of pure love. And this is how the Catholic Church has understood the nature of Heaven. Jesus was the first human being ever to worship God and love God and be in relationship with God perfectly. After him, the whole community of Heaven began to grow. Heaven is perfect love (foreshadowed, of course, by that perfect love we know as the Holy Trinity).
But, you know, that little boy and the atheist had different experiences of that perfect love. There’s a universal aspect to Heaven, but there’s also an individual aspect to Heaven as well. Pope Benedict (XVI) writes how our experience of Heaven is necessarily unique—because our relationships with God are each unique. It’s kind of like if I were to ask everyone here to describe the image of the Sacred Heart. There’s only the one image, but each of us sees it in a little different way. And so it seems to go in Heaven. There’s only the one God, but we each relate to God in a little different way, and so our experiences of Heaven are going to be unique.
But we also know that an essential part of Heaven is community. It isn’t just “me and God;” it’s “me and God” and everybody else who’s also in relationship with God. Now, on this Mother’s Day weekend, we, of course, give special attention and honor and thanks to our mothers. But for many people, their mothers have passed away. Like Jesus, they were “taken from our sight.” But, like Jesus, they’re still with us.
They’re still with us (and us with them) in the communal life we know as “Heaven.” In the 1980s, there was the song: “Somewhere Out There.” “Somewhere out there beneath the pale moonlight, someone’s thinking of me and loving me tonight. And even though I know how very far apart we are, it helps to think we might be wishing on the same bright star. And when the night wind starts to sing a lonesome lullaby, it helps to think we’re sleeping underneath the same big sky.”
It’s actually a nice image of how we relate to those who’ve passed away. Two people, separated by death, and yet together gazing on the same “bright star” of God. Of course, in Heaven (and the perfection of love and relationship) we’ll see them again, and be side-by-side as we love God and the whole Communion of the Saints together.
But we would make a mistake if we thought Heaven was only for the future. Heaven is the experience of perfect love and relationship with God and one another; it’s the experience of everything that’s human and good coming together with what’s divine. And that experience begins here.
You know, when we think of a book, there’s a preface and introduction, all the chapters in the book, and then maybe a postscript or an epilogue at the end. And when we think of our human life, where do we usually put Heaven? Probably at the end, as a postscript for when the chapters of our life are filled up. But that’s not right.
Heaven starts much earlier; maybe like the first or second chapter in our life story. Every time a person is baptized, and commits him- or herself to life with God, there’s a little bit of Heaven. Every time we give or receive charity, there’s a little bit of Heavenly sunlight coming through. Every time we feel compassion, or pray, or give thanks to God for a beautiful day or whatever, there’s the experience of Heaven growing in us and through us.
Heaven is all about the perfection of our human nature—and we’re made to love and be loved. And when we reach that perfection, we’ll discover that there is no end to the book; there is no postscript to the story of our life with God and our neighbors . . . other than “they lived happily ever after."
With the Ascension of Jesus, the idea of living “happily ever after” with God and our neighbors became a reality. Heaven came into being. It’s a great day to celebrate! And we celebrate it with the Eucharist: one Host, one Cup, and we all share in it as fellow citizens of Heaven—today, now, and forever.