Homily: “On the Four Last Things, Part 4: Heaven”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2018.

Home is where the heart is. That proverb apparently stems from a Roman author who lived about the time of Jesus: Pliny the Elder, and so it apparently is about two-thousand years old. And it is a proverb that we immediately sense has truth to it. When we are home, we can find rest—literally the rest of sleep, but also mental and emotional rest; or if our lives have anxiety, at least it is being at home where we often can best confront what makes us anxious. When we are at home, things make sense. When we are far away from home, especially after a spell of time, what do we want but to get home. Home is where we rest after our vacations.

One of the often unsettling aspects of the Christian life is that our sense of home is altered radically. Radically, in its literal meaning: at the root, or to the root. It is changed radically, and permanently. And it happens at our baptism. As the waters of baptism dropped down upon us the heavens from above, our sense of ultimate home was relocated from the here and now as can be perceived by our senses to the eternal present of heaven: invisible, spiritual, beyond time and space. In the words of Saint Augustine: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” As I have spoken about the tension of Advent we can also speak about the tension of our own identities as baptized people: we are both already at home being incorporated into the Body of Christ at Baptism, and we are not-yet there. The waters and holy words of Baptism are the voice and tangible presence of God Almighty’s voice which sweeps us up at that moment into permanent relationship which is rightly analogous to marriage.

I will readily admit there is a simplicity to this teaching that for many if not all of us can be difficult to fathom. At Baptism we are grafted into the Body of Christ’s Church, and His Body is in heaven. So baptism stretched us into heaven—but what gets in the way of this simplicity of all this? It is our conscience, not pure in Christ but impure. How do we purify our conscience? A time-tested way is to meditate upon the Four Last Things.

With Death what was said is that we die daily to ourselves as we seek to offer what is most precious to us all to God on His Altar at the foot of the cross—the action of doing so is the baptismal life, and our model is the woman (probably Saint Mary Magdalene) with the alabaster jar and her expensive oil of pure faith. With Judgment what was said is that it is the revelation of truth when we are close enough to the Light of light to see more clearly our shadows—this in some sense is the baptismal life with a greater degree of maturity and sobriety, and a model here is Saint John the Baptist who taught that “He who is coming after me is mightier than I, Whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” And then with Hell what was said is that the choice to follow Jesus Christ in His footsteps of peace stem from our openness, when confronted with the judgment of Christ, to have the humility to ask, “What shall we do?”—there is yet a greater degree of baptismal sophistication which is paradoxical because asking such a question seems so elementary, but it is more sophisticated because our works are not done for ourselves but for God—and our model or guide here is Saint James, who taught: “As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.” These, then, are three of the Four Last Things.

Heaven, the fourth of the Last Things, is wrapped up into the other three, and indeed, the Christian conceptions of Death, Judgment, and Hell are all predicated upon Heaven. Heaven is where rest, service, and worship are all one. And we see that in Saint Luke’s account of the Visitation of Blessed Mary to Saint Elizabeth. Mary, always our primary example of how to follow Jesus as His disciple, makes her first action after the  Gabriel’s message quite fruitful: out the door of her home she does on what was probably a five-day journey the purpose of which was evangelization: Mary proclaimed the Gospel to Elizabeth. For those five days, the redemption and salvation of the world was known to Mary and Mary alone. We do not know what the specific words of Mary’s greeting were—probably they were “Peace be with you,” which was customary. Elizabeth heard the greeting of peace from Mary, and the babe (Saint John) leaped in her womb, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit. These are strong images that suggest that both Elizabeth and John were at this moment baptized—after all, she is filled with the Holy Spirit, which means John too is likewise filled. They both are full of grace.

And Mary’s song—what one Anglican priest called “Our Lady’s Hymn”—proclaims is the immediate presence of heaven through God’s action in her, which she accepted: her “Yes” to God. The whole world has become full of joy, full of grace as it was for Noah and his family after leaving the Ark. Heaven was shining forth through Mary—her voice, her presence, her song.

Heaven, then, is where our heart is. And our heart is truly in heaven when we have by God’s grace, Him always being our helper, we cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light—that having inwardly digested the Sacred Scriptures, as Mary and Elizabeth had, we can embrace and hold fast the pure joy shared by these two women at the news of the advent of their Lord.

Let us pray: O Holy and ever blessed Spirit, who did overshadow the Holy Virgin-Mother of our Lord, and caused her to conceive by a miraculous and mysterious manner; be pleased to overshadow our souls, and enlighten our spirits, that I may conceive the holy Jesus in our hearts, and may bear him in our minds, and may grow up to the fullness of the stature of Christ, to be perfect in Christ Jesus. Amen.