Saturday, July 29, 2017

A taste of Heaven









HOMILY FOR THE 17th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, July 30, 2017:

A teacher, a tax collector, and a politician wound up together at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter informed them that in order to get into Heaven, they would each have to answer one question. St. Peter addressed the teacher first, “What was the name of that ship that crashed into the iceberg? They made a big movie about it.” The teacher answered, “That’s easy, the Titanic.” St. Peter let her in. He then looked at the tax collector asking, “How many people died on the ship?” He was a fan of the History Channel and answered, “1,228.” St. Peter let him in too. Then, turning to the politician, St. Peter said, “Name them.”

That joke could be a commentary on our current political climate, but it also raises an important question: Have you ever thought about what Heaven is like? Most of us, at one point or another, have wondered, is there a Heaven and what is it like? Jesus explores this in our Gospel today; and gives us a positive answer about Heaven (yes, there is a Heaven!) and some insight about what it is like.

This passage called to mind for me the very first time that I was in the presence of a Pope. It was 15 years ago and I was at a Wednesday Audience with Saint Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square. At that audience, the Pope reflected on the same passage we have today. He said the Kingdom of Heaven is an intimate relationship with God that can be experienced – at least partially – here on earth. He said, Heaven “is not an abstraction, nor a physical place amid the clouds, but a living and personal relationship with God.”

His comments mirror those that we hear from Jesus today. Heaven is clearly one of Jesus’ favorite topics, particularly in Matthew’s Gospel. In His first sermon in Matthew, Jesus said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” And, in the Sermon on the Mount, He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Over and over – a total of 51 times in Matthew – Jesus uses this favorite phrase of His: the Kingdom of Heaven. And so, it should be a favorite of ours too.

We often think about Heaven in extraordinary and supernatural ways – streets lined with gold, great and glorious mansions, all the food you can eat and not gain an ounce! We imagine some sort of celestial castle nestled in the clouds, twinkling stars and bright rainbows. Angels everywhere, zooming around God’s throne; the air alive with the sound of magnificent music.

But, notice that Jesus simply compares the Kingdom to very ordinary things. Jesus presents us with a farmer sowing seeds, weeds in a field, a tiny mustard seed, a piece of yeast and today – a buried treasure, a precious pearl and a fishnet thrown into the lake. Now that’s not meant to burst our bubble or lower our expectations, but to remind us that the Kingdom is both heavenly and earthly, and familiar. We pray this every time we say, “Your Kingdom come…on earth as it in heaven.”

So, what is this taste of Heaven that we can experience here on earth? The answer is right here in our Church. The closest we come to this dual dimension of heaven and earth is the Church and the Sacraments. The Church itself is the sign of our union with God in heaven and with humanity on earth. The mission of the Church is to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven among all people. The Second Vatican Council said that the Church “becomes on earth the budding forth of that Kingdom.”

Now we are far luckier than the individuals in the Gospel today. They had to first sell all they had and buy their treasure. But for us, the Kingdom of Heaven is a free gift purchased by the blood of Christ on the cross. And far from hiding this treasure, God shares them with us freely. Every time we gather for the Eucharist, we enjoy a taste of Heaven right here. The dividing lines between Heaven and Earth are erased; God comes down and sanctifies our gifts; we sing with angels and saints, “Holy, holy, holy.” Our treasure, our precious pearl of membership in the Church is the gift that all the money in the world could never buy. Our prize of the Sacraments is nothing less than God’s intense love and true presence leading us to eternal life.

Saint John Paul said, “When this world has passed away, those who accepted God in their lives and were open to His love…will enjoy communion with God which is the goal of human existence.” We get a taste of Heaven on earth through the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, a great foretaste of the happiness and peace and union we will one day know forever with God in Heaven.

St. Therese of Lisieux said, “It is not to remain in a golden ciborium that Jesus comes down each day from Heaven, but to find another Heaven, the Heaven of our soul in which He takes delight." My friends, “Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven.”

May the Lord give you peace!

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