A few years back, all the priests of the Archdiocese attended a convocation at a very nice resort hotel. While in my room, I flipped through the hotel chain’s magazine, which promoted its other resorts around the world, and I was struck by the language used to describe what one could receive at these places. Words like healing, harmony, purification, wholeness, peace, renewal, bliss, nourishment. It was even claimed that my spirit would be inspired and my soul would be warmed.
After reading the magazine, I started seeing this language everywhere. The hotel bathroom’s dry skin cream was "renewing body lotion." The complimentary needle and thread was a "restoring kit." The tag on the bottled water encouraged me to "make my body happy." And the café downstairs promised that their coffee would "rejuvenate (my) spirit and refresh (my) outlook." Which is a lot of pressure to put on a cup of coffee!
Maybe this is just marketing language used around resorts and spas. Or perhaps all the talk about healing, restoration, wholeness, happiness, and peace is a reflection of a very real longing we all have: A longing not just for a little rest and relaxation, but for something deeper, something that strikes at the very center of who we are as human beings. A longing to be healed of our wounds, to have our brokenness made whole, to discover lasting peace and abiding joy. A longing for something we were made for but was somehow lost. A longing for resurrection and eternal life with God in heaven.
God himself speaks to this desire in today’s words from Scripture. In Maccabees we heard of an oppressed people’s hope that they would be raised to new life after their present suffering. The Alleluia verse proclaimed that Jesus is the first born of the dead. And in the gospel, Jesus defended belief in the resurrection against those who denied it.
Resurrection and heaven are also things we think about in the Church during this month of November. Beginning with All Souls’ Day on November 2nd, we pray for the dead that they might be welcomed into heaven and rise again to new life. This is our dearest hope for them. It’s also our hope for ourselves. As Christians, we long for heaven; we look forward to resurrection.
Yet there are some who criticize us for this. They say that to focus on the next life will lead us to avoid dealing with the problems we face in this one. To long for heaven, according to them, is simply an "escapist" way to avoid reality. But this isn’t true at all. Living in hope of heaven actually leads us to live better lives, not just for our benefit, but for the benefit of our fellow human beings, and indeed for the whole of creation.
Christians don’t ignore this world’s problems while we wait for the next one. Far from it! When we see suffering, pain, and injustices around us we think: "This isn’t right! This isn’t fair!" We know that God created us to enjoy peace, happiness, wholeness, and love, and when we see these being denied, we’re motivated to bring about change. Just consider the history of Western Civilization. It has been Christians- those who hope in heaven- who have abolished slavery, built hospitals, sheltered orphans, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, defended the poor, protected the weak, fought for justice. We have prayed and acted that God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Without belief in heaven, we might not have the courage we need to do the things we need to do. Consider the family in the reading from Maccabees. Their anticipation of the next life, their belief in heaven, their conviction that this life isn’t all there is gave them the courage to stand up for what’s right, and to make a witness for the truth, in spite of the consequences they would face for it. Hope in heaven made them brave! And the same could be said of countless numbers of courageous witnesses and martyrs down through the ages.
Belief in heaven is a powerful motivation for us to do the right thing. Think of it this way: If this life is all there is, what’s the point in being good? Why forgive those who hurt us? Why love our enemies? Why be chaste? Why give our money to charity? Why try to be a saint when it’s easier, and seemingly more fun, to be a sinner? Why not be selfish? Why not just eat drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die? Why? Because our hope for the next life depends on how we live this one. As Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamozov: "There is no virtue if there is no immortality."
In addition to changing our approach to life, belief in heaven can also transform our attitude toward death. Because if death doesn’t mean the end of our existence, then death is really not something to be feared. This is perhaps the major theme of the popular Harry Potter books, in which the key characters are distinguished by their approaches to death. The evil characters, especially Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort, fear death, and they seek to avoid it by indefinitely prolonging their lives. But they’re tragic and even pitiable figures. Voldemort was once told: "Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness." On the other hand, Harry Potter ultimately learns that there is life beyond death, and that it is in this life that he’ll be able to realize and enjoy the things he so desperately longed for on earth.
We all long for things we can’t fully realize in this life. Things like peace, joy, healing, and rest. We may be encouraged to find them at resort hotels. But that won’t do the trick, because our longing is too great. As Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft says, that’s like trying to fill the Grand Canyon with marbles. Our deepest desires will be satisfied only in heaven.