Human Ascension into Heaven

[If I could preach on the Solemnity of the Ascension, I would say this…]

Pietro Perugino Ascension

Jesus ascended into heaven. [Spanish]

But wasn’t He always in heaven with God? Don’t we say: God from God, light from light, true God from true God. Eternal with the Father. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen?

Yes. But what about the earthly pilgrimage of the Lord Jesus? His human pilgrimage?

When did His earthly pilgrimage begin? Same place all human life begins—the mother’s womb. But, whereas our earthly pilgrimages end with… correct: death, Jesus’ earthly pilgrimage did not end with death.

A lot of people thought it had ended with His death. Usually when condemned men died on crosses in the occupied territories of the Roman Empire, that spelled the end of that particular person’s earthly pilgrimage. When Jesus gave up His spirit and bowed His Sacred Head in death—it seemed to all observers that a human pilgrimage had ended.

But in this case, it had not. By no means. He rose from the dead on the third day, Easter Sunday morning. And He spent another forty days as a human pilgrim on earth. Walking, eating, talking, etc., like we do. Except that now He could not die. Because in His human flesh, He had already overcome the power of death.

Jesus’ resurrection has taught us that death does not go on forever, like infinity. It has a limit. And Jesus’ human life extends beyond that limit of death.

unbornIf you find this difficult to grasp, it’s no wonder.

Let’s go back for a moment to the beginning of Jesus’ human pilgrimage, in the womb of the Virgin. We have a hard time really grasping, really getting a lock on that reality.

After all, we have a hard time conceiving fully the reality of any human conception. Do I understand fully how I myself came to be in my mother’s womb? How my human pilgrimage began? Does my mind ‘get’ every aspect of it? Every biological, historical, relational, anatomical, nutritional, sociological, ontological aspect of my own conception in my own mother’s womb? Hardly. And there are lots of other aspects besides. I for one cannot claim to understand fully even a single one of those aspects.

Then, in Jesus’ case, you throw in something else. When the Holy Spirit conceived Him in Mary’s womb, God Almighty, eternal and ineffable, began a human pilgrimage. God became a tiny baby. That’s what we call a genuinely unfathomable mystery.

Guess what: The same degree of mystery attends the end of the Lord’s pilgrimage. We believe in the Incarnation, because God has given us the gift of faith. We need that same gift of divine faith to hold in our minds the sublime reality of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven.

Yes, we know as a simple fact that His earthly pilgrimage did end. But it ended like this: Not in a cemetery, but with a human being, body and soul, entering into…

Heaven. The realm of God. Eternity. Perpetual peace. Utter happiness that nothing can disturb. Endless joyful music that never gets boring. A meal that never leaves you tired or bloated. Fearless, comforting friendship. Wisdom with no darkness at all.

The pilgrimage of the Lord Jesus ended with this.

In this, and in nothing less, lies our Christian hope. In our pilgrimage on earth, we must often drink the cup of bitterness. This world, beautiful as it can be, does not know justice. It does not know truth. We will truly enjoy happiness only when we share in the undisturbed communion that binds the divine Father with the divine Son.

Jesus, every bit as human as we are, has entered into that communion completely. Therefore, we fellow human beings can hope to get there, too.

How We Know There’s A Heaven and Hell

Anyone who gives you a cup of cold water to drink will not lose his reward. (Mark 9:41) The reward for humble divine love: Heaven. [Spanish]

Better for you to enter into the Kingdom of God than to be thrown into Gehenna. Where the worm of conscience never dies and the fire never goes out. (Mark 9:43) That would be… H. E. double hockey sticks.

Who taught the human race about heaven and hell? Were we born knowing about heaven and hell?

First, this question: How do we know that bodily death doesn’t just mean: The End. How do we know that our souls have an eternal destiny, be it good or evil? How do we know that our souls are immortal?

TitanicWe know for a fact that our souls are immortal for a very simple reason. There’s nothing, other than God, that can destroy a human soul.

Yes, an iceberg can sink a huge ship, like the Titanic. Yes, a flash flood can turn a four-lane highway into a moonscape of potholes the size of pickup trucks. Yes, a teething puppy can turn a new pair of gym shoes into some very expensive dog bones.

But no known force can destroy the spiritual reality of knowledge and free will that animates the human body. We are obviously more than just a delicate chemical balance of elements. We do things like: Shout out the answers during Jeopardy! And propose marriage. And pray for our beloved dead, memorializing them with stones and monuments.

None of this would make any sense at all, if we were just over-grown orangutans. No: the spiritual dimension of our lives gives definitive evidence that we have a higher calling. To live eternally in communion with everything true and good. In other words, we certainly have immortal souls.

So: Were we born knowing that an immortal soul can suffer punishment forever in hell?

I would say: We kind of were born knowing that. We naturally fear the prospect of offending the all-powerful Creator. And we naturally fear death. Not because we fear “nothingness;” nothingness is nothing to fear. What we fear is: an unknown somethingness that involves just punishment.

But our natural fear of sin and death is vague. Most of the precise stuff we know about hell comes from the great teacher and preacher of hell in the Bible. The biblical figure who talked about hell the most.

The prophet Ezekiel? Elijah? Job? Certainly someone from the Old Testament? No. Line for line, verse for verse, the #1 Hell Preacher in the Holy Bible is… Jesus of Nazareth.

heavenstair“Enter through the narrow gate. Because the way is wide that leads to destruction.” “Just as weeds are gathered up and burned, so will it be at the end of the world.” “Do not be afraid of the one who can kill the body, but not the soul. Rather, fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell.” There’s a lot more, in the four holy gospels.

But before we get freaked-out: The Lord Jesus’ teaching about hell is so stark and precise because hell is hell compared to heaven. Jesus fundamentally came to the earth for one reason: To offer us heaven.

Jesus is Himself heaven. He is the eternal Light, the eternal Beauty. He united the Undying Glory to the human race, in Himself. In the holy… Incarnation.

Some non-Christians object to our doctrines of heaven and hell on the grounds that we unfairly teach that only Christians go to heaven. In point of fact, we don’t teach that. We believe that God offers heaven to everybody.

But we do teach: Only Jesus Christ offers heaven, because only Jesus Christ is heaven. Heaven is something so unimaginably wonderful that only the Incarnation could have given the human race the idea.

The eternal Father has prepared this kingdom–Jesus’ Heart. Where every tear will be wiped away. And, as we read in the Sunday-Mass gospel passage, it comes as a “reward.”

Now, without the saving sacrifice of Christ, we could never hope to receive such a reward. But since He offered Himself for us as a living Lamb that constantly gives forth life, we can not only hope for the reward of heaven, we can actually do things that harmonize with Christ’s love and thereby draw us closer to heaven.

Things like giving a cup of cold water to an honest thirsty pilgrim. As we talked about last week: God, in His humility, reconciled us to Himself as one of us. So when we see someone thirsty, we know it’s Him, giving us a chance to love. When we see someone suffering, someone struggling, someone spiritually at sea: we know it’s Him, beckoning us to love.

We have immortal souls. We fear eternal damnation. We hope for everlasting happiness. We love our way there.

True Heaven

Biltmore Asheville

You believe in God; believe also in Me. (John 14:1)

Almighty God made the heavens and the earth. He knows all and governs all.

Every generation of mankind gets born basically knowing this. Knowing that the Creator made us. Mother Nature herself puts within us an overwhelming desire: to know God and to have His friendship.

Then we encounter the confusion and disinformation of this self-obsessed world. It tries to talk us out of the most basic truth, the truth of intimate prayer. The fact that the God Who made us has a plan for us, loves us, and draws us to Himself constantly, so that, in the end, we can share His blessedness.

The world wants us to obsess about far-lesser things. Like switching from cable to Netflix. Or: does the style of my car really suit me? Or: What will I have for dinner?

But: Above all this; before all this; encompassing all this: our Creator, our God. Prayer. Our Father. Thy will be done. Give us our daily bread. Deliver us from evil.

ice cream coneThis great God to whom we pray made the heavens and the earth. And He raised Jesus from the dead.

Some divine things remain altogether mysterious to us. We can’t quite imagine the act of making the heavens and the earth out of nothing. Not to mention knowing everything and guiding everything with perfect wisdom.

But we can feature the facts of Jerusalem in 33 AD; we can picture them with no problem: Unjust men mercilessly executed the great teacher of love for no good reason. They laid His expired body in a tomb on Friday evening. Then, on Sunday morning, some of His disciples saw Him walking around, very much alive and well.

We can see these historical events of Easter in our mind’s eye. Then we wonder: How did this occur? What power intervened? Who exactly was it, that overcame the cruel blow which left the Lamb of God dead and cold?

The answer is: God. The Creator. The same unimaginable power that made everything, knows everything, and governs everything. He raised Jesus from the dead.

And that’s when God really showed His true colors. Yes, He shows His true colors every time He makes the sun rise. But He really revealed Himself when He raised Jesus from the dead.

Jesus said: “Believe in God; believe also in Me.” We believe in God Almighty, the Creator, Who raised Jesus from the dead. And we believe in the Christ of God. As Jesus put it: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)

As I mentioned, mankind gets born religious. But we have a lot of religions on earth, and our religions can and do partake of the confusion of the fallen world. Some of the natives of these lands imagined a heaven with unlimited supplies of pipe tobacco. And in the Arab world, there’s something about virgins.

Charles Bosseron Chambers Sacred Heart of JesusBut our religion aims at one thing: Jesus Himself. We hope for no greater reward. God can give us no greater reward than His only-begotten.

Now, fair enough: some of us might get distracted sometimes. Maybe some people daydream of bowling in heaven, for all eternity. Or eating endless ice cream cones, one after another. Or dozing in a hammock on the back porch of the Biltmore down in Asheville, with a servant ready to bring a mint julep whenever you want one.

But no reward we can imagine truly reveals the perfect, unending happiness that Almighty God has prepared for us in Christ. Anything that we could fantasize about falls short of the truth, no matter how lavish or luxurious. Our imaginations cannot exactly help us with this, except when, asking for the Holy Spirit’s help, we imagine Jesus Himself.

We can imagine Him. His face. His peace. His loving gaze.

On the Lord’s face, the true blessedness of heaven shines out. The undying love of God dwells in His Heart. It operates there, expresses itself through Jesus’ Body, and touches us. We find the reward that our souls seek in communion with Christ, the man, the Nazarene, God our brother. Nowhere else. To see Christ is to see the Father. Our hearts can rest in Him. Here, and only here: divine blessedness.

Philip didn’t understand. “Lord, show us the Father, then we’ll be satisfied!”

We can hardly blame Philip. He clamored like a child. Lord, we believe in You! Give us unlimited ice cream! Or maybe a Lexus to drive in heaven forever!

But Jesus says, No, my children. Do you not know Me? The Father wills to give you a place in His house. And His house is My Heart.

The Silence of the Saints

All Saints Fra Angelico

St. John received a vision of heaven.  As we hear in our first reading at Holy Mass today, one of the elders in the vision asked St. John to speak about the heavenly scene.  But he wouldn’t.  Instead, John confessed that he did not know.

As St. John had written in one of his letters, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed” (emphasis added).  As we sing in our psalm for today’s Solemnity, “Who can ascend the mountain of the Lord?”

The Catechism puts it like this (1026-27):

Heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ.  This mystery of blessed communion with God and with all the saints is beyond all understanding and description.  [emphasis added] ‘No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor has the heart of man conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him.’ (I Corinthians 2:9)

The qualities outlined in the Beatitudes—poor in spirit, mournful about the sin of the world, meek, merciful, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, peaceful, and clean of heart… If we try to synthesize our idea of these qualities in a human personality, I think we could add one more:  Quiet.  Not loud.

We can safely say: when we try to put the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount into practice, we wind up speaking less.  We speak a great deal less than we would if we had never heard of Jesus Christ.

As we cultivate this quieter life, we can listen for the great, secret silence of heaven.  Yes, we know from reading Scripture that hymns of transcendent harmony resound up there, like rushing rivers.  But, from here, the music of heaven sounds like…silence.

That silence of the saints contains the great secret.  This unutterable secret lies at the very center of Christianity.  Anything and everything that we know—pumpkin pies, autumn-leaf-covered mountainsides, warm fireplaces, kisses from your honey—all these things, good and sweet as they are, are less good than heaven.  Heavenly goodness shines in the distance, the secret that defies all description and utterly exceeds the conception of man.

May we hold that secret in our Christian hearts by faith.  The secret of the saints is the goodness we strive for.  That secret makes life worth living.

Sermon-on-the-Mount Sense & Motivation

moses_ten_commandmentsThe Commandments do not come from some place far away from our experience. Granted, the Lord spelled them out as a list of ten on Mount Sinai, which does seem like a long way away from here. But the tables given to Moses do not say anything which we do not, in our heart of hearts, already know. Starting with the first commandment, that we acknowledge God. Truth is, all the rest of the commandments follow from #1.

And we know, practically from the womb, that a glorious Power greater than us made all and governs all. We know that our job, our common task, our vocation as human beings bound together by our inherent social nature, is: To serve the grand designs of God as faithfully and as lovingly as we possibly can. We cannot consistently maintain any other vision of life, unless we lull ourselves into living a lie by repeated acts of self-debasement. God’s plan involves glorious goodness beyond what we can imagine. He gives us the insight and the honesty to know that we must diligently and consistently serve His plan. Humbly. That’s why we exist.

So when the Lord Jesus ascended His own mount and gave a sermon explaining the Ten Commandments, unfolding all of their profound demands, He was really explaining to us the most fundamental imperatives of our own hearts. He explained what our own consciences demand of us when we give ourselves the peace and quiet to hear it.

Continue reading “Sermon-on-the-Mount Sense & Motivation”

Seek the Above

Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. (Colossians 3:2)

From time immemorial, man has conceived of three levels. 1) Here—the observable cosmos. 2) Up. 3) Down.

Here: the earth, the universe…day-by-day life with baseball games and back-to-school sales and train wrecks and summer movies. This level involves constant change, time passing, uncertainty, potential (that can be fulfilled or not), injustice lurking in every corner, fleeting pleasures, the possibility of a steak being good or bad, etc.

In the Name of the Father...
In the Name of the Father…
In other words, nothing on this level is sure, nothing absolutely permanent. Twinkies may or not be available in the future. It might rain tomorrow; it might not. This level has excitement. But Fate is fickle. It would be nice if the Redskins went to the playoffs this year. But they might not.

On the other hand, the other two levels—the upper and the lower—they are more stable. Their realities endure.

Continue reading “Seek the Above”


Anyone spend time meditating on Revelation 21 lately? And why not?

Easter season. Things we believe in. So far we have considered the following:

We believe in one thing, namely ______. God.

Two fundamental mysteries of faith: __________ and _______________. Trinity, Incarnation.

The articles we believe, spelled-out in the __________. Creed (not the band).

We see, hear, smell, taste, touch the external, material elements of the sacraments; we believe they give us invisible ________. Grace.

Ok. The next topic regarding our faith, appropriate for the Easter season: The triune God brought about the Incarnation, accomplished everything summarized in the Creed, and gives us grace in the sacraments, all for one ultimate reason: So that we can get to ______________.

Continue reading “Heaven”

To An Unsinkable Location

Just over a month ago, the world marked the 100th anniversary of the demise of the RMS Titanic. The unsinkable ship went down to the murky north-Atlantic deep. Like a floating city of lights, clean and fine and elegant in every appointment—it darkened; it fractured; it foundered. Now all its intricately carved banisters and mantelpieces, all its monogrammed china and crystal martini glasses—all of it lies in the mud, covered with aquatic mold.

Maybe you remember the scene in the Leonardo DiCaprio-Kate Winslet movie: the ship’s designer, on board for the maiden voyage—he knows that the Titanic will sink in one hour. He has surveyed the ice-berg damage, knows where the holes in the hull are, and he has reached his inescapable conclusion. The huge ship is slowly going down.

Continue reading “To An Unsinkable Location”

Father’s House

“In my Father’s house, there are many rooms.”

As we remember, our Holy Father Pope Benedict gave the homily at the funeral of his predecessor. The Mass took place in St. Peter’s Square on a Friday of the Easter season, seven years ago. For many of us, that day was as sad as any day we have lived through.

Cardinal Ratzinger concluded his homily with a beautiful, consoling image. He recalled how the late, great pope had come to the window on the preceding Easter Sunday and had given his blessing.

That was the last glimpse that the world had of John Paul II. But, Cardinal Ratzinger added: can’t we imagine him now, at the window of the Father’s house? Let’s ask him to give us his blessing from there.

The Father’s house has many rooms. On this subject, the Lord Jesus speaks to us with the tenderness of a father to his children:

Would I have told you that there is a place in heaven for you—if there really weren’t one?

There, there, child. Imagine all you want about the Father’s house. Imagine how light, and peaceful, and spacious, and sweet-smelling every room is. Imagine all you want about how easy it will be to visit everyone you love, and how there will be nothing but time, to relax and be happy together. Imagine it all, as well as you can. You will never be able to imagine it any better than it actually is.

In Here, Lord?

The Lord be with you… (et cum spirituo tuo)

Weddings in ancient Israel involved a number of customs we do not observe. The business in the parable about virgins waiting into the night with lighted lamps may leave us a little confused. When we go to weddings, we don’t usually see that.

But the end of the parable touches a familiar chord: At a wedding banquet, you want to be inside, as opposed outside. The food, music, and dancing take place inside. Outside, it is either cold, or there are a lot of gnats, mosquitoes, and crickets.

Or—even if it is a beautiful, crisp fall day, and the wedding banquet takes place on the lawn or in the garden—you still want to be inside the hedge or the fence, not outside it. You don’t want to show up at the garden gate and have someone say, “Ah. No dice. Take a walk. I never knew you.”

When the Lord Jesus walked the earth, He wound up inside sometimes and outside sometimes.

Continue reading “In Here, Lord?”