Message: You and I are here to form family.
You probably saw the news story about Pope Francis consoling a young boy whose dog had died. According to the New York Times, Pope Francis declared that "all animals go to heaven." Well, it turns out that the story is an urban legend created by overeager media. Still, it does raise a good question that I would like to address on Holy Family Sunday. Do animals go to heaven?
C.S. Lewis observed that pets form part of the diversity of our families.* A family might include grandparents, mom and dad, older sister, younger brother, plus dog and cat. Lewis notes, "They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself. The mother is not simply a different person from the daughter; she is a different kind of person." He adds, "The father and grandfather are almost as different as the cat and the dog. If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure. Its unity is a unity of unlikes."
Emphasizing diversity does not mean denying a certain equality. We are equal in the eyes of God - in him we each have incalculable value. The worst criminal as much as Bill Gates or President Obama has an eternal destiny. We not only have equality before God but we need to fight for equal treatment before the law.
In fighting for equal treatment, we shouldn't lose sight of a deeper truth. C.S. Lewis expressed it this way: "We are not made for equality. We are made for worship and obedience." Now, Lewis has a way of saying things bluntly. I know that the words "worship" and "obedience" don't sound immediately attractive, but stay with me and I will try to explain what they mean.
The root meaning of worship is "worthiness." It involves admiring someone superior to me. Plenty of people are superior to me - and I am glad of it. For example, lots of guys have greater athletic ability than I have - or have ever had. Were that not the case, we would have a pretty sorry football team in Seattle. While I hope none of us worship the Seahawks, we do experience something akin to worship: cheering them on, waving flags, wearing their emblem. Don't we feel something special in being the "12th man"? It lifts us up. For a moment a guy forgets himself and experiences a common identity.
We have within us a desire to idolize, to worship, to adore. That desire can go awry, but in itself it is good. And there is someone we can worship without hesitation. We celebrated his birth a couple days ago. We are made for worship.
And we are also made for obedience. Not blind unthinking obedience, but in order to work together, in order to form family we each have to give way a little bit. Obeying ones parents does not mean they have supreme authority over their children. Our children belongs to God. We see that in the first reading. When Abraham and Sarah finally had their own son, God needed to teach - in a dramatic way - that ultimately Isaac is not theirs. Their son belongs to God. Still, God wants a child to honor his mother and father - by letting them know what he are doing, where he is going and who he is with with. That is the heart of obedience - communication.
So we are not made for equality, but for worship and obedience. Worship and obedience lead to forming families. We need nuclear families: mom, dad, children. We need extended families. We need our parish family. I am your spiritual father and you are my family. And we form part of a larger family - the Church. In the next weeks I will be in Peru, not to take a break from you** but because we have unity beyond our parish boundaries. As your father, I want to bring as many of you as possible to the family that will endure - the Communion of Saints.
In concluding I return to the question: Will our pets be with us in heaven? Well, Pope Francis did address this in a way. He gave a talk on what the Church teaches about a "new heaven and new earth." He mentions that the Bible describes how God will transform this planet and the whole universe. We will spend eternity not in outer space, but here on a earth - a new earth, transformed by God. Will animals be part of that new earth? The pope didn't say, nor does the Bible. I for one would be delighted to have Samwise with me. He represents two beautiful things. Dare I say? Worship and obedience. To the extent he does not obey is my failing not his. He seems to want to always be with me and admire me - even I don't quite deserve such admiration.***
The bottom line is that you and I are here to form family. While we have a certain equality before God and before the law, family comes from diversity. Forming family involves worship and obedience, that is, a healthy admiration for others and a willingness to work together. Here on earth, because of our sinfulness, we cannot worship and obey without hesitation, but someday we will when we have a new heaven - and a new earth. As your spiritual father my prayer is that all of us - maybe even Samwise - will arrive that great family in Jesus. As Simeon said when Joseph and Mary brought the child Jesus: "My eyes have seen your salvation." Amen.
Here is a fuller quote quote:
"The very word membership is of Christian origin, but it has been taken over by the world and emptied of all meaning. In any book on logic you may see the expression 'members of a class.' It must be most emphatically stated that the items or particulars included in a homogeneous class are almost the reverse of what St. Paul meant by members. By members....he meant what we should call organs, things essentially different from, and complementary to, one another, things differing not only in structure and function but also in dignity. ....How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogeneous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself. The mother is not simply a different person from the daughter; she is a different kind of person. The grown-up brother is not simply one unit in the class of children; he is a separate estate of the realm. The father and grandfather are almost as different as the cat and the dog. If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure. Its unity is a unity of unlikes, almost of incommensurables. A dim perception of the richness inherent in this kind of unity is one reason why we enjoy a book like The Wind in the Willows; a trio such as Rat, Mole, and Badger symbolises the extreme differentiation of persons in harmonious union, which we know intuitively to be our true refuge both from solitude and from the collective." from "Membership" (The Weight of Glory)
**Well, maybe a little. Even in the best of families we do need some time apart for rejuvenation. We will not need that in the new earth. We will be as the song says "forever young."
***Dear God, please make me the person my dog thinks I am.
From the archives (Holy Family Sunday homily):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Audio Files of Homilies (Simple Catholicism Blog)
Are these homilies a help to you? Please consider making a donation to St. Mary of the Valley Parish.
Fr. Brad's Homilies (well worth listening)
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Parish Picture Album
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru
KRA's & SMART Goals (updated Dec 27, 2014)