During the course of the beautiful Marian hymn Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen), there is the poignant phrase: “And, after this, our exile, show unto us the Blessed Fruit of Thy womb, Jesus”. This an important and often overlooked point. For, we take for granted the future oriented nature of our Christian Faith.
The Old Testament is really about how to live on this earth: How God wants the individual, the family and the nation to live their lives in this world. A careful perusal of the Covenant or Testament with the Hebrews will find very few instances where heaven or hell are invoked and explained.
God chose a people here on earth and taught them how to live according to His will, to live that will simply because it is the will of God and is the best way of spending our years on earth. What happens after death is not explored or even mentioned. Because of our future orientation as Christians, we tend to read into the Old Testament our own perspectives.
Even in the time of Christ, it was only the Pharisees that believed in a future life (i.e., the Resurrection at the end of time). The Sadducees, who had control of the Temple of Jerusalem, did not believe in it since they did not find it in the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) which are considered authoritative in Judaism.
Clearly, Judaism is a much more ‘this worldly’ religion that seeks to reveal to the Chosen People how it is best to live in this present life so as to have this life blessed by God. There is no clear teaching about the afterlife in Judaism. Rather, there are a range of theological opinions, none of which bear the weight of being defined by revelation.
Christianity is by its very nature an ‘other worldly’ religion, teaching all the baptized (the illuminated ones) how best to live in this life so as to be happy forever with God in the next life. The repentance that Christ preached was not only to establish the Kingdom of God on earth but also to prepare one’s soul or being for the ultimate choice we must make: either for or against God; in other words, where we intend to spend eternity: away from God (called Hell) or with God (termed Heaven). Purgatory is a state in which the unfinished business of spiritual growth can be accomplished before one enters the presence of God.
Therefore, in our Catholic theology, we see our short time on earth as a form of exile. This occurred, biblically, when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden and forced to live on this earth in pain and the sweat of the brow. So, in the beautiful prayer of the Hail Holy Queen, there is the phrase: “after this, our exile, show us the fruit of your womb, Jesus” as already mentioned. While our time on earth is short, it is decisive for our eternal reward or punishment: Heaven or Hell. An image I sometimes use in homilies is saying that eternal life is like a book with countless volumes and pages. Our life on earth is merely the first page. But it is very important since it is the title page and shows the volumes of our lives to be either an eternal tragedy or a comedy leading to joys without number.
We are writing that title page right here and now. What kind of book will our eternal life be? Seen in this way, our time here on earth, short as it is, is of extreme importance. Every moral act, every decision we make, has eternal consequences. This includes even the most private: the ideas and movements of the heart that only God and the person in question is aware of. Every day is weighed down with significance. Rather than trivializing our brief earthly life, it makes everything gain in power and significance.
We are on our way to our eternal home. This life is a key part of our journey. But it is not the destination. This must be accepted since it affects everything in life. Our pains and difficulties can be seen as opportunities to prove our loyalty to Christ and thereby become important elements in the direction of our brief life on earth.