The search for heaven is an acquired taste

Tom Bartolomeo
3rd Sunday Advent C 2013
Zephaniah 3: 14-18a; Responsorial Isaiah 12;
Philippians 4: 4-7; Luke 3: 10-18
Reproduced with Permission

"The people were filled with expectation." Graduating high school or college, starting a first job or getting married - they were times of great expectations for us. Often a prolonged anticipation of such an event would heighten our expectation or sometimes deepen our disappointment. The people who were drawn to John the Baptist wished that John were "the Christ". Despite his protestations John told them that the real Christ would come with a "winnowing fan in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" The chaff, the airy empty husks of grain which the wind would carry away when tossed about with the winnowing fan was not part of their expectation.

I know there are only a few of us who would not welcome the promise of heaven -- unable, though, to define or grasp the meaning of heaven which is a problem. It is not something you can scientifically study which is a problem. Jesus taught about heaven in parables, the first, about "a sower who went out to sow" seed. Jesus compared heaven to seed sown on hard ground, then on thin soil and in the weeds. These seeds died and bore no fruit, but seed sown on the good soil of faith grew and multiplied its presence in the world. In every parable about heaven Jesus told stories either about things which grew, a mustard seed, seed growing among weeds and yeast in flour or he told stories about things of value, a hidden treasure, a pearl of great price, or recognizing good fish from bad fish caught in the sea. Growth and value. Heaven is a taste we acquire in this world if our faith grows and increases in value. In the barren desert God's chosen people were led by Moses to a promised "land of milk and honey", but most of them rebelled along the way or after they had arrived. The journey did not meet their expectations. And what is our taste for heaven? We can only develop our taste for heaven here while we have the opportunity.

First, we begin by disavowing this world as Jesus taught, "unless you hate your life in this world you will not preserve it for life eternal." God will not allow us to straddle the fence between heaven and earth, one foot in and one foot out. We know we are called to abhor sin, that is, 'turning away' (the meaning of sin) from God, our Creator, Our Father and our heaven. In this world, however, evil is so familiar we readily adjust to it whose wages Saint Paul tells us is death, usually a "death by a thousand cuts" some would say. Random killings in malls and schools are just two of many examples. The horror is not death itself. Christ conquered death when he rose from the dead. The horror is sin, "Thou shall not kill." That is a sign of the "tribulation" Jesus spoke of coming before the end of the world which we heard in the Sunday gospel reading heard two weeks ago.

We humans are pilgrims and the sole survivors of this passing world. Some day our sun will burn out and all physical life on this planet will end but not our life-spirits. The people who were drawn to John the Baptist were also drawn to Jesus, would cheer him on in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey but then abandon him because they only had worldly expectations of Christ Jesus, a revived kingdom on earth. The echos of "Hosanna to the Son of David . . . Hosanna in the highest", would die out with Jesus' arrest and public trial and were replaced with shouts, "crucify him, crucify him", except for the good thief who in his pain on the cross alongside Jesus said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" and was told, "this day you will be with me in Paradise", Luke 23, 42-43. Would any of us not crawl up on that cross for such a promise of heaven?

There is a taste of heaven we should acquire, a repulsion for sin and the culture of death we live in. In the parable of the sower and the seed this would be good soil where faith and our taste for heaven would grow, not soil trampled upon, not shallow soil or soil chocked by weeds but a rich soil cleared of all deadly vices. On this soil a taste, a yearning for heaven, would grow in faith and hope and charity in value before God. All of us carry this yearning within us, including sinners and me. Everyone wants to be happy, yearns for happiness. Who does not wish to be happy? I've never met a man who complained about being too happy. Here and there we get a taste of it, not often enough, but a taste of happiness nonetheless. Think of those happy personal experiences we've had. How one way or the other they involve others, and if they do not how we will search out others to share our happiness. Even the little "thank you's" we share with each other are signs of gratitude and happiness. Imagine a world without 'thank you's'. We gather here at Mass, which literal meaning is "thanksgiving".

There is nothing sentimental about this taste for heaven. Misery, worry and distress have no place in heaven nor should they exist in this world. 'Misery loves company', we say. Misery, worry and distress are reserved for hell, not heaven. The 'happy fault' we call Adam and Eve's fall relieved us of our eternal misery when Christ bore misery up on the cross happily, willingly and without complaint. Would we deny him his victory? The taste for heaven begins and ends in love, manly-womanly love. Jesus told us that there is only one perfect kind of love. " A new commandment I give to you", he said, "that you love one another, even as I have loved you", John 13,34. This love, this taste for heaven, operates in all circumstances including sorrow and pain. Astonishingly, at his crucifixion Jesus opened heaven to two of his closest disciples, his mother and his Apostle John, standing beneath the cross moments before he "gave up his spirit". There Jesus said "to his mother, 'Women, behold, your son!' and to "his disciple", 'Behold, your mother', John 19, 26-27. The sorrow Jesus, Mary and John shared then and there bound them together in happiness for eternity in heaven, and they knew it.

We know we have acquired this taste for heaven - "not as the world gives" -- Jesus told us, but in the "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you always . . . . Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful", John 14:27. After his resurrection and before his ascension to heaven Jesus always greeted his Apostles, "Peace be with you." Such is the taste of heaven acquired in this world--peace, the first gift of heaven we may experience here. Peace be with you, and with your spirit.