Toward the end of the liturgical cycle (it begins on the First Sunday of Advent and ends with the Solemnity of Christ the King), we are asked to think about the endings of things: this world and where we are headed, and the world to come. Some of this is very scary! Thinking about the end of existence as a planet, whether through climate change, nuclear war or planetary collision, is the stuff of movies chock full of special effects!
After thinking about these things, though, we are reassured by the sunrise and the sunset, and we think all is right with the world. That is, until we get the night terrors again.
Once we cross over from the world of science fiction to the world of theology, we enter an unknown and mysterious place that has no rules and which frustrates all attempts at understanding and the use of the imagination. When we think of the ‘last things’ (that is death, judgment, heaven and hell), we often are captive of the way artists of the past have imagined things. When you say ‘heaven’, one often thinks of clouds and lots of angels playing harps. The angels themselves are either classically beautiful and sexless beings with oversized wings or little baby angels or ‘cherubs’ hovering around looking like they can’t find anyplace to land! If one were to be honest about such depictions, heaven seems like a really boring place!
Then when one turns to ‘hell’, however, we see lots of writhing figures screaming in pain surrounded by flames. While it is frightening, it pushes us to ask the question: if God is Love, why does He torture people, eternally?
One has to begin with the inaccuracy and the limitations of these mental pictures. Heaven is the realization of all our joys and hopes. What does that look like? No one knows. Hell is being eternally separated from Love (God) and being unable to ever love again. What does that look like? No one knows.
Every single representation of the joys of heaven fall short of the reality. It cannot be accurate since we are reflecting on a completely different sphere of existence that we do not even have language for. The symbols and the mental pictures provided by great artists like Dante in his Divine Comedy necessarily use imagery from this earthly environment. Otherwise, we would find the picture unreal and indecipherable. Because we cannot possibly understand what awaits us for our fidelity to God, it becomes useless to try. When speaking of Paradise, the Bible talks about a garden. To the people of the desert, a garden is an almost too beautiful image since they are surrounded by sand. But, to those from more fertile lands, it is a rather weak symbol of what awaits us.
The point that I am trying to make is that images of the afterlife are conditioned by one’s culture and the expectations of one’s native history. They are not to be accepted dogmatically. In fact, if they are accepted literally, then they can provide fodder in the arguments of atheists and nihilists who reduce the power of God to limited means and expectations.
It is always better to refer to the Scripture passage that opens up vast possibilities: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, God has prepared for those who love him (1 Corinthians 2:9).”
We are as limited in vision as a baby in the womb is of this present life. I often use the example of trying to explain to a baby in the womb what a pizza is! The child has never seen anything, nor does the child know what eating is since the child has never taken nourishment that way. And what of the concepts of roundness and tomato sauce and cheese and hunger and taste? The child does not even have a language to process these thoughts!
We are like this when we speak about the world to come. We don’t even have a language to phrase the concepts. We are limited by our experience and have not the slightest idea of the many avenues of creativity that God has to work with.
There are things about the future, both good and bad, that we cannot hope to imagine or understand. It is better to wait to be completely surprised by what is in store for us (hopefully of blessedness) than to be disillusioned by our weak and earthbound concepts.
I am content to let God be God and just trust that He knows what is best for me and that He has gone in Christ to prepare a place for me and that He will come back to take me with Him so that I can be where He is. That is what counts. To be with the One who loves me the most is going to be heaven, no matter which way it looks or feels. I will just wait and see and, hopefully, be filled with joy!
- Language and Truth by Monsignor Ferrarese
- Souls by Monsignor Ferrarese
- Christ on Ditmars Blvd by Monsignor Ferrarese
- To Admonish is to Love by Monsignor Ferrarese
- Working Together by Monsignor Ferrarese
- Separate and Mutually Supportive by Monsignor Ferrarese
- Creating Holy Things by Monsignor Ferrarese
- The Education of the Heart by Monsignor Ferrarese
- The Art of Wonder by Monsignor Ferrarese
- The Art of Letting Go by Monsignor Ferrarese
- The Joy of Obedience by Monsignor Ferrarese
- Vacation Time 1957 by Monsignor Ferrarese
- Get in Line by Monsignor Ferrarese
- Of Sheep and Blades of Grass by Monsignor Ferrarese
- Tradition! by Monsignor Ferrarese
- Ongoing Spiritual Formation by Monsignor Ferrarese
- Zeal by Monsignor Ferrarese
- Emerging from the Tomb by Monsignor Ferrarese
- The Centrality of Humility by Monsignor Ferrarese
- This Mysterious Presence by Monsignor Ferrarese
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