Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Aug. 15: What is heaven like?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Cartoons about life in heaven often show human beings on clouds with wings coming out of their shoulders, as if they had turned into angels. But human persons remain human persons after death and in eternal life. In other words, heaven is a place for bodies as well as souls.

In the Creed recited at Mass each Sunday, we profess our belief that Christ has risen from the dead in his own body, which was transformed with immortality. We don’t know what matter is like once it is beyond decay; but we know it’s not subject to the rules of space and time. It is Christ’s risen body that we receive under the form of bread and wine in the Eucharist; it can be present anywhere because it’s not limited by the rules of physics. We also say in the Creed that Christ, in his risen body, ascended into heaven. There’s a place for risen bodies in heaven.

On Aug. 15, the church remembers that the Blessed Virgin Mary’s body is also in heaven. She is not God, unlike her divine Son. She is taken up into heaven, assumed into heaven. Although she got there before us, the feast of her Assumption reminds us that our bodies will also be in heaven, after the general resurrection from the dead on the last day.

Religion is not just a set of ideas; it’s a way of life, for a few years here on earth and forever in heaven. This way of life presupposes the union of body and soul, here and hereafter. To live in heaven is to be with Christ forever; to go to hell is to live alone forever. In heaven, the blessed are in the company of Christ and all the saints, filled with the beatific vision of God; in hell, the damned are with only themselves, like staring in a mirror without expectation of ever being joined by anyone. We are with others as embodied spirits; we communicate using the “language” of the body. Heaven may not be a place of clouds and wings, but it is certainly a place of conversation.

Much popular science fiction and many tales of life in the future treat the human body as if it were a package enclosing a personality. People are imagined as if they could trade bodies and still be themselves. Bodies are malleable and disposable, mere instruments of a human will. This attitude leads to disrespect for the body. Abortion and pornography, human trafficking and sexual abuse, embryonic stem cell experimenting and self-mutilation debase bodies and are therefore destructive of persons themselves.

By contrast, the church tells us we must love our bodies, since they are ours forever. Disciplining the body by fasting and other forms of penance is to take the body seriously. The body will keep us connected to others in eternity if we live now with Christ and his Mother, who is also ours.

The bishops at the Second Vatican Council, writing of Mary in the church, taught: “…the Mother of Jesus, in the glory which she possesses in body and soul in heaven, is the image and beginning of the church as it is to be perfected in the world to come. Likewise she shines forth on earth, until the day of the Lord shall come, a sign of certain hope and comfort to the pilgrim People of God” (Lumen gentium, 68).

Mary’s glory is hers because she participates fully in the new life of her Son. Her glorified body gives glory to the source of all life. Like her Son, she desires that all will share his glory forever. “The church…will receive her perfection only in the glory of heaven, when will come the time of the renewal of all things” (Lumen gentium, 48).

Aug. 15, the feast of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, should be a day to renew our hope in him who makes all things new, Mary’s Son and our Redeemer. The entire archdiocese, and especially those who are struggling to keep up their hope, will be in my prayers at Mass that day.


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