What is Heaven?

(Homily 17th Sunday, Year A)

You may have heard of Pascal's wager. A wager is a bet, like saying, "I bet you ten dollars the next person to walk thru the door will be a male. If it is a man or boy, I win ten dollars; if a woman or girl, you win ten dollars." Even those of us who don't go to casinos still make wagers, whether to settle an argument or invest for the future.

Pascal proposes the most serious wager of all. There are, he notes, only two possibilities: either God exists or he does not exist. If you bet that he does exist and live your life accordingly, you have won everything. If he does not exist, you have lost some passing pleasures. However, if you bet that God does not exist and live accordingly, you risk exchanging fleeting happiness for eternal loss. That is Pascal's wager: bet on God and win everything or bet against him and risk losing all. And now is the moment you must place your bet. There is no time to whine about things being so extreme.

In today's Gospel Jesus proposes a wager as dramatic as Pascal's. The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds the pearl of great price, he sells everything he has and buys it. The question for us is: How much are you willing to lay on the line, what will you risk to purchase that pearl? Before you answer I suppose you would like to have a little bit more information, namely, what exactly is the pearl?

First, let me try to clear away some problems we have because of our limited horizons. Our field of vision often extends only to what we can measure and put a price tag on. Anything beyond that does not capture our attention. Like I tried to show in last Sunday's homily, the threat of hell seems remote to most of us. But even worse, our idea of heaven has become trivialized.

I remember when my dad died. We had a beautiful funeral with Archbishop Murphy as the principal celebrant. Someone asked me, "Do you think your dad got to see that lovely service and hear the music?"

I said, "Maybe, but wouldn't that have been a little unfair?"

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"Well," I said, "Suppose you take your bride to Niagara Falls for the honeymoon. Wouldn't it be a cheat if instead of going to the Falls, you drove her out to some muddy creek?"

Do you see what I am saying? God is the fullness of being. Things here can only dimly reflect him. When we stand before him any other joy, or pleasure, or beauty, or goodness will seem as pale as chalk. This joy which excels everything else is called the "Beatific Vision," seeing God face to face. (I Jn 3:2, I Cor 13:12, Rev. 22:4)

Heaven is way beyond what we now experience. We do not have adequate words or images to describe it. Still, some images are better and others are worse. Our culture unfortunately has developed stereotyped ways of talking about heaven. Some of them are "cute:" Good old Joe is now up in that big golf course in the sky. I heard a eulogy where this guy talked about his dad up in heaven "jumping from cloud to cloud." (Evidently his father liked to jump.) I try to control my facial expressions and just tell myself that these are harmless cliches.

Perhaps a little better are images of heaven as reunion. She is finally back with her husband (mother, son, sister) whom she loved so much. That at least expresses something about the "communion of saints." Nevertheless it leaves out what makes the communion possible: seeing God himself. I don't know about you, but the thought of heaven as a giant sharing session sounds to me more like the other place.

An image of heaven that I personally love is from a children's story called the Chronicles of Narnia. Narnia is a kind of heaven and it is ruled by a magnificent lion called Aslan. Aslan represents Jesus. After the children have spent some time in Narnia, Aslan tells them they must return to their own world. The children become very sad and bury themselves in Aslan's mane. Aslan reassures them that one day they will be able to return to Narnia. The children say, "it is not Narnia. It is you, Aslan."

Perhaps some day you and I can come to the point of saying, "It is not heaven I desire. It is you, Jesus." Our deepest longing is really not for a place, but for a person, Jesus himself. To be with him is the kingdom of heaven. Last week I gave you the definition of hell. Please now listen to the definition of heaven. "Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness." (Catechism 1024)

Heaven will fulfill those deep longings of your heart. It is the pearl of great price. It is Jesus himself. I urge you right now to make the best wager. I know some of you kick yourselves for not buying Microsoft when it was five dollars a share. But this Sunday you have an offer that is infinitely better. I say infinite in the literal sense. Take what you have, what you are and bet it on Jesus. I know you hope to hedge your bet: "I want to follow Jesus, but my life would be empty without alcohol...that girl...my pornography." Your life is already empty, but sell those things now, and you will obtain something of real value. Do I need to say again the situation is extreme? There is no time for bargaining to whittle the cost down. The price of the pearl is fixed: everything.

We saw a beautiful example of that when Derek Lappe introduced himself to us two Sundays ago. He asked us to pray for him as his diaconate ordination approached and he had a very specific request, "that I will be a holy deacon and later a holy priest." Holiness is making oneself a total gift to God. The desire for complete sacrifice characterizes youth. As we age, we start holding things back. Derek's commitment of celibacy might seem crazy to more timid souls. That is because they have grown old. Those who are young recognize that to bet on Jesus is a wager well worth making, ultimately an offer you cannot refuse. Stop holding back. Tomorrow is too late. Now is the moment to wager all on Jesus. He himself is the pearl of great price.


Jesus Teaching Concerning Hell


From Archives (for Seventeenth Ordinary Sunday, Year A):

2014: Life in the Spirit Week 4
2011: Hidden Treasure
2008: All Things Work for Good
2005: The Pearl of Great Price
2002: Either/Or
1999: What is Heaven?

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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