Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
What’s heaven like?
Eye has not seen and ear has not heard, Saint Paul tells us, what God has prepared for those who love him.
And while everyone from comediens to advertisers for toilet paper have painted a picture of pearly gates, clouds, and half-naked harp playing cherubs, the scriptures and the liturgical tradition paint a quite different picture of our last and permanent occupation.
Three words best describe what we know of the glory of the Heavenly Jerusalem: perfection, presence, and praise.
Now we see as in a dark mirror, Saint Paul helpfully informs us, what we shall later be has not yet come to light. What we do know is that the chosen shall be in their glorified bodies, risen from the tomb and clothed in light.
Our bodies will be like the risen body of the Lord, a body not ultimately left for corruption, but destined for eternity in a state which is beyond the laws of biology and physics in “a new condition, a different one, that we do not know but which is shown in the fact of Jesus and which is a great promise for all of us: that there is a new world, a new life, toward which we are on a journey.”
And where shall these perfected persons dwell? We know that from the Lord’s merciful prophecy to the good thief hanging beside him: “today you shall be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) The definition of being in heaven is being in the presence of God: apud Deum, ante Deum, cum Deo, ad coram Dei
Over and again we will hear this theme echoed from the psalms in the Entrance Antiphons of Lent:
Come and show us your face, O Lord, who are seated upon the Cherubim, and we will be saved. (Cf. Ps 79: 4, 2 from the Entrance Antiphon of the Second Sunday of Lent.)
Of you my heart has spoken: Seek his face. It is your face, O Lord, that I seek; hide not your face from me.
Let the hearts that seek the Lord rejoice; turn to the Lord and his strength; constantly seek his face. (Entrance Antiphon for Weekdays in Lent)
Such are the people who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. (Entrance Antiphon for Weekdays in Lent)
Which leads us to one of the lines in the new Roman Missal most puzzling to many priests. It’s in the Second Eucharistic prayer in the commemoration of the dead, and what we pray for them is that God “admit them to rejoice in the light of your face...”
It’s an ancient image of heaven, standing before the face of God, which is reslendent in invincible light. We first hear it in the Aaronic Blessing that God “make his face to shine upon you.” (Number 6:25) We hear it in Saint Anbrose’s hymn, splendor paternae gloriae: Jesus, the incarnate image of the Father’s glory is resplendent in light, as one transfigured on Mount Tabor, as one radiant in glory.
And finally, Praise.
We are made for praise, and that is our destiny in the Kingdom of God, an occupation echoed in the Isaihan Sanctus which is sung at the end of the Preface of every Eucharistic Prayer, a prayer that transcends the boundaries of time and space. The moment of Christ’s death on a hill outside Jerusalem is about to become a moment in this morning’s Mass. The voices of the choir and the three seminarians in the back row are about to be blended with the choirs of angels and the saints. In the Sanctus the Kingdom of Heaven is already, but not yet, and the Lord Jesus returns to us in his Body and Blood. Just as he will at the end of time.
So what’s heaven like? Clouds, harps and white bearded Apostles? Not quite.
It is the full number of the nations, gathered together in Christ, being transformed into his one people and made perfect in his Kingdom, a place of perfection in his presence amidst eternal praise. Of such is the Kingdom of God, the fulfillment of our hopes and our final destiny.