The Last Four Things: Heaven; Advent III
For the third post in my Advent series on the Last Four Things I’ve asked Mark Schultz to write about Heaven. Mark is a postulant for the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of New York and an altar server at Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church in New York.
I’ve often thought, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of life, when the day-to-day of making various ends meet seems acutely oppressive or onerous: “I need a vacation.” And I think that’s natural. I think in the midst of our experience of this Vale of Tears, and particularly when the tears seem not too far away, I think we often, and very reasonably, think to ourselves: “I need a vacation.”
And I think that’s how we often think of heaven—it’s the alternative to the hustle and bustle of life; it’s the lovely existential vacation we hope to be able to take after the work of living is through. Heaven is an eternal rest and respite from all the stuff that makes living difficult, the stuff that manages to keep us from living the sorts of lives we think we ought to live or the sorts of lives we think we might actually deserve to live. Indeed, what’s absent from heaven, what makes heaven heaven, is a lack of all of that objectionable or disagreeable stuff that generally goes by the name of suffering. The work we don’t much like: not in heaven. The weather that, at best we don’t care for and at worst is so bewilderingly destructive: not in heaven. The violence that seems so often to characterize interpersonal and international relations: not in heaven. Terminal illness: not in heaven. The coffee we can’t drink without burning our tongue: not in heaven. The people with whom we’d rather not deal: of course not in heaven—unless they’re very much changed and have become miraculously more agreeable.
Whatever our lives on earth happen to be, heaven is, as the song goes, very much like it, “only much, much better.” Which is to say, not much like our lives on earth at all, because that suffering stuff that pervades our lives here on earth: not in heaven. The only real similarity between earth and heaven is us; we’re in both–suffering in the one, enjoying our eternal reward/vacation in the other.
I’d like to suggest, though, that heaven’s not actually about us in this way. (Nor is earth, for that matter. Surprise!) I mean: of course heaven’s about us. But its about all of us. Together. And what that could actually look like. I’d like to suggest that heaven’s not the Grand Tour of eternity; that it’s not vacation time; that it’s not a permanent disengagement from the suffering of the world. It’s so much more wonderful than all of that, and not so far far away as we might think.
In today’s Gospel, we heard about how Jesus responded to the followers of John the Baptizer who questioned him to see if he was really “he that should come.” Jesus responds, “Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.” Jesus is referring to Isaiah’s vision of the Messianic Kingdom (today’s Old Testament reading), in which “the eye of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an Hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.” God’s Kingdom is one of healing, of restoration to wholeness, and it has come among us in the person of Jesus Christ. If we want to see what that Kingdom actually looks like, it looks very much like Jesus healing the sick, raising the dead, preaching the Gospel.
And not just Jesus. Messias himself tells us we will do greater works than these, and he gives us his Spirit in order to enable us to do just that. He gives us his Spirit so that in our relationship with the sick, the blind, the lame, the dumb, the hungry, the poor, everyone, the unmistakable contours of heaven can be discerned—healing, wholeness, Good News.
It always amazes me that when John the Revelator describes the coming Kingdom, he describes a city—not fluffy white clouds and harp-wielding angels lounging about in some lovely and langorous idyll that we’ve somehow learned to call heaven. No. It’s a city. A city filled with people. A web of closely connected and interconnected lives orbiting about the Lamb who was slain but hath redeemed us by his blood. Not a bucolic fantasy more reminiscent of the Elysian Fields. No. Heaven is a city. And it’s recognizable as heaven because of the quality of the relationships between its inhabitants, a quality that is, in fact, not an abstract notion but the very wounded and risen Lamb at the center of the whole enterprise of life and its living. It’s love-in-action. It’s the very Life of the Trinity into which we have been called.
Which is to say: the business of Life and its Lord is the hustle and bustle of heaven. Heaven is a busy-ness of love, a real engagement with others, a real communion with others in which I am in you and you are in me and we are in Christ and Christ is in us. It is, in other words, Eucharist—a breaking for the world that looks like healing, like wholeness, like life. Which sounds very much like Good News to me.
Heaven’s not a vacation. It wouldn’t be heaven if it were. Thanks be to God!