The Nicene Creed states: “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Since Jesus calls us “children of the resurrection” in today’s Gospel, it would be worthwhile to ponder what resurrected life could mean. After all, the pharisees in Jesus’ time still struggled with the notion of a life after death.
In today’s Gospel Jesus replies to their conundrum about multiple wives by saying that this world’s logic, argumentation and rational thinking lacks the tools of mystical imagination required to envision the life hereafter. While marriage is an earthly reality, it will not be this way in our new home. What will it be like? I don’t really know.
My mom passed away at the ripe old age of 98. When I asked her if she wanted to live to see 100, she said: “Oh, I hope not that long!” She lived long enough to have small great-grandchildren at her feet, and boy did they have questions when she died.
“If Nan is in heaven, how come we can’t go there to see her?” “Nan died cause she was sick, right Grandpa?” “What’s it like up there?” “Did Achilles (their pet dog who died the same year) go to heaven to be with Nan?” “You’re old, so when will you die, Grandpa?”
How does one stretch the imagination of a young child to help them see beyond this concrete world into a world that lies beyond? It does not satisfy them to simply claim that this is a statement of faith that we believe. They want to know more. They want to examine this “after-life” stuff and it’s up to us to give them a faith-based picture of life after death.
That’s easy if you’ve been to New York and a child wants to know what you can explain about that experience. But none of us have been to heaven and returned to tell the tale. Oh there’s plenty of fascination with those who have been near death and returned to health describing their experience. But heaven is best left to the stories of Jesus who used very earthy descriptions to elevate the imaginations of his disciples.
Jesus uses some powerful metaphors to communicate his vision of heaven. He uses images like banquets and mansions and a place of safety and peace. If we take some time to examine the Beatitudes, we have a strong clue about the nature of heaven. Blessed are the poor, the sorrowing, the lowly, those who hunger and thirst for justice, those who show mercy, the peacemakers, the persecuted, their reward will be great, says Jesus. So heaven is a space or a place of fulfilment, contentment and peace. It’s interesting how strong our fear of death affects the way we look at the final moments here on earth.
There’s a rather ancient tradition of praying to St. Joseph for a happy death. Though nothing in Scripture mentions his death, he presumably died in the arms of Mary and Jesus. No better way to go, right? We also include Mary in our request for her prayers “now and at the hour of our death” in the prayer of the rosary.
Now there was a time when the only important thing to consider when close to death was the “condition” of our immortal souls. I remember in elementary school peppering the teachers with questions like: “if a person had committed a mortal sin and they were on their way to church for confession and got hit by a car and killed, would they still go to hell?” It was all about the right relationship with God at the last moment.
Thankfully we can appeal to the lot of the repentant thief on the cross who was promised paradise by Jesus right before he died! This seemed to offer a further example of the heavy emphasis the church placed on the last moments of life. However, when we consider our whole lives as a backdrop of our faith journey and a collective growing in our spiritual life, God’s mercy stretches across our whole lives.
Who knows what the repentant thief went through to come to this moment of asking Jesus to remember him? Whatever it was, we know it was enough! This is the way we are meant to consider the sum total of our lives: against the horizon of a loving merciful God who created us, loves us and has plenty of mercy and understanding for the times when we have lived a diminished life.
Speaking with people who are close to their last moments has led me to an awareness that the regrets people find heavy in their hearts have less to do with huge moral transgressions and more to do with relationships that were compromised. How often has a busy person suffered regrets at not spending more time with a spouse or children? When our time comes to bid farewell to this life and this world, we have been promised something wonderful to come next. This promise is the promise of Jesus.
Trusting in that promise takes a gigantic leap of faith. The key to finding comfort in his promise has much to do with our relationship with him. To know Jesus is to know the Father. To experience his healing mercy and his love builds the foundation for a rich spiritual imagination. So when Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you,” it should build some exciting anticipation about what kind of a place this could be. Surely this place will knock our socks off! That is, if there are socks in heaven!
I’d like to quote lyrics from a song I wrote many years ago that still teaches me: Touching the Holy, in this desert of sand, Jesus the healer has stretched out his hand. And power for living in the love from his eyes. In Jesus, the healer we have touched paradise. And then we’ll know when it’s time to go home. We’ll fix our gaze on eternity. Forever to be loved and now never alone. Jesus, the healer, is there to receive me. Jesus, the healer, is there to receive me.
Williston is a retired parish life director for the Diocese of Saskatoon and a former missionary with the Redemptorists. He is also a song writer and recording artist.