In the light of the Resurrection, what’s on your “bucket list”?

Listen to mp3 file
5th Sunday of Easter, Year C: May 2, 2010
Acts 14:21-27; Ps 145:8-13; Rev 21:1-5; John 13:31-35

Each year on Easter Sunday we rejoice in the truth that our Lord Jesus Christ rose from the dead. And then the Church gives us an entire Easter Season, lasting 50 days: to continue rejoicing in his resurrection; to understand what his resurrection is; to understand the life that he opens for us, now and in the future; and to apply this to how we live our lives now; that is, to allow ourselves to be transformed by Christ’s resurrection. And certainly one Sunday is not enough for all of that!

So, have we gotten the message? Do we understand the life he has opened for us? When we hear in the second reading, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away,” do we understand what it means? Do we understand what it has to do with Christ’s resurrection? Do we understand what it has to do with us?

Polls regularly show that about 85% of Americans believe in heaven. And one poll, that was conducted in 2005 by ABC News []—found that, of all those Americans who said that they believe in heaven, 78% believe that heaven is a place where people exist, not physically, but “only spiritually.” And if we focus in on the respondents of that poll who identified themselves as Catholic, we find that 96% of those Catholics believe in heaven—which is higher than 85, although we may wonder, what about the other 4%?—and of those Catholics who say they believe in heaven, 84% said that they believe that in heaven people exist “only spiritually.”

Are they right? In heaven, do people exist “only spiritually”? Is this the message that we proclaim during this Easter Season? To answer that question, we need to review the Church’s teaching of what will happen after we die. And in that teaching we find that what happens after we die comes in two big phases.

Phase #1 lasts from the moment that a person dies until the moment of the Resurrection. For those of us who die before Christ comes again, the Catechism teaches that in death our soul separates from our body: our body remains on earth and decays, while our soul goes to meet God [CCC 997]. At that very moment of our death, we—that is, I or you, individually—will undergo a particular judgment—our individual judgment—and we will receive our eternal retribution in our immortal soul. There are three options at this point:

  1. entrance into the blessedness of heaven—immediately;
  2. entrance into heaven through a purification—that is, Purgatory and then heaven;
  3. immediate and everlasting damnation—that is, hell. [CCC 1022]

For those who enter heaven, whether immediately or after purification, the Catechism says that it is “the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.” [CCC 1024] But during this first phase we experience this only in our souls—while our bodies remain on this earth.

This first phase comes to an end, and Phase 2 begins, on the “last day,” when Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. On that day, Christ will raise all the dead, “both the just and the unjust” [CCC 1038]: for every single human being, reuniting their body and their soul; but our bodies will not be raised to the ordinary earthly life like they have now, but they will be changed, transformed, to be like Christ’s glorious body was once he was raised from the dead [Phil 3:21; CCC 997, 999].

That day, the beginning of Phase 2, is when we come to share fully in Christ’s resurrection. And, indeed, the entire universe will share in it, as it is transformed to become the new heaven and the new earth, that St. John spoke about in the second reading.

Then we will undergo the Last Judgment, the “general judgment,” when Christ will judge every person and when we will be sent to eternal punishment or eternal life: not only our souls, not only “spiritually,” but our souls reunited with our risen bodies.

As we will proclaim again in just a few minutes, we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. So, the people who answered that poll: when they say that heaven is only spiritual, if they are thinking only of Phase 1, they are correct. And whether they are fully right depends on whether they are thinking precisely of Phase 1, knowing that Phase 2 will come; or whether they don’t believe in Phase 2—whether they have missed the message, as so many do, that our bodies will be raised, and that we will then experience eternal punishment or eternal life, in our soul and risen body.

And what will that life be like? What difference will it make, to go from only the soul, in blessedness or damnation, to soul and risen body, in blessedness or damnation?

Well, what do our bodies mean to us now? Which one of us would like to lose one of our limbs? Or keep all our limbs but lose the use of one of them? Or lose movement throughout our entire body, through paralysis? Which of us would like to give up one of our senses: give up sight; give up hearing; or any of the other senses? If all of that means so much to us now, then what will it mean when our body has been transformed? What will it be like to experience life after the resurrection? Two people know what that is like: our Lord Jesus and the Blessed Mother—for they, right now, have that risen body. But I bet if they tried to tell us about it, we wouldn’t understand. Just trying to tell someone born blind, who has never seen, what it is like to see. We have no idea, not really, of the glory that awaits us, until one day we will experience it ourselves!

Now we know that there are people in our society who are what we can call philosophical materialists: they believe that nothing exists besides physical matter, and so they believe that once we die, that’s it. They don’t believe in heaven. But what about the 85% of Americans who do? What about the 96% of American Catholics in that survey who do believe in heaven? What about us here today, who I expect do believe in heaven? Have we been fooled into thinking that heaven will be boring?

I think many of us have. And I say that because I know that I had been fooled into thinking that heaven would be boring. I was partway through my seminary years when one day I realized that unconsciously I had been assuming this. I had been assuming that all of the chances I would have for personal growth, exciting experiences, personal achievement, were all in this life, and not in the life to come. I thought heaven would be nice and all, but without all that really important stuff. And if I wanted to do it, then I had to do it now. And this unconscious deception gave me an unconscious fear that made me reluctant to commit myself to one lifelong path and to let everything else go.

And that fear to commit, and to let go anything less than perfect, and to accept any ongoing burden or ongoing pain, is rampant in our society among people who say that they believe in heaven. And so we find that divorce and betrayal and abandonment, and many more horrors are rampant—as so many try to make a heaven for themselves on earth, and end up making a hell for those around them.

To believe in a boring heaven is a hidden, unconscious deception. And the moment we bring it to light and look at it, we recognize that Jesus Christ did not become incarnate, and suffer and die and rise again, to open for us a boring heaven! And that the Triune God, infinite and eternal, the source of all being, all goodness, all beauty, who created all the galaxies and stars and planets, mountains and oceans, all the plants and animals, and every human being, with all the wonderful and admirable and loving things that we see in each other—that such a God would not create a boring heaven!

The Scripture tries to give us ideas of what this could be like using images of jewels, gold, precious stones; of light with no darkness at all; of a wedding feast, the wedding feast of the Lamb; of trees beside a river with such abundant fruitfulness that they bear a crop of fruit every month; of paradise. Our Holy Father has described it [Spe Salvi, 12] as “plunging into the ocean of infinite love,” and being “simply overwhelmed with joy.” What we can be sure of is that everything that this life has to offer, in pleasure and in pain, is only a shadow—is really nothing at all—compared to the glory that awaits us.

So, what does this mean for our life now?

A useful tool for answering this question comes from a movie that was in theaters a couple years ago, called “The Bucket List.” And, while I haven’t seen the movie, I know what its main idea was, because it spread to others in our society: the idea that one of the characters had of making a list of the things he wanted to do before he “kicked the bucket”—before he died. He called it the “bucket list.”

So what goes on a “bucket list”? In the list in the movie, and in other lists that we find on the Internet, what goes on those lists is a list of experiences that the person wants to have; or of achievements they want to accomplish. In other words, these are lists of people who either don’t believe in heaven, or who think that heaven is boring and that this life is their only chance to accomplish and experience those things. But this is not the truth. 1400 years ago, Pope St. Gregory the Great warned us not to “be like a foolish traveler who is so distracted by the pleasant meadows through which he is passing that he forgets where he is going.”

To make a “bucket list” is a great idea. But, with the new heaven and the new earth in view, what should we write upon it? Not experiences and achievements: we will have far greater opportunity for those in eternity. But time is running out on other things. The Catechism tells us [1021], “Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ.” That is what needs to go on our “bucket list.” On the top we could put, as we hear in the Gospel reading: “to love others as Christ has loved us.” And we could continue with things like these:

  • To enter into true prayer and worship of the Triune God
  • To turn away from sin and become holy
  • To stop looking to take from others around us, and to find our fulfillment from them; and instead to look for what we can give to them to strengthen and heal them
  • For those called to marriage and family: to help your spouse, your children, your family and friends, to become fit for the kingdom of heaven.
  • To allow the resurrection life that Christ gave us in our baptism to really change our lives, inside and out, and make us saints.

As St. Paul said in our first reading, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

Fifty years ago, a young man named Jim Elliot, who graduated from the same college that I went to, gave his life as a martyr along with several other young missionaries who were working, like St. Paul, to bring the Gospel to a tribe that had never heard it. In his journal, some years earlier, Jim Elliot had written: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

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Published in: on May 2, 2010 at 5:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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