Live for Heaven
by Rev. Steven G. Oetjen
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.
Jesus said to his disciples: "Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover."
So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God. But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word though accompanying signs.
One of the things we pray for at Mass on this feast of the Ascension is that we "may in spirit dwell already in the heavenly realms" where Christ has ascended. In a sense, we already are living in heaven because Christ our head has ascended there in glory, and so his body is destined to follow. The Ascension of the Lord may have a hint of sadness, but above all it is a joyful occasion. It is not so much that Christ is departing from us as it is that he is going to where we are called to follow. He is leading us to heaven. By this feast, our sights are set on heaven. We are not meant for this earth, but even now we are meant to live for heaven.
For this reason, though, Christians are sometimes accused of not caring enough about this world. If we believe in heaven and have our sights set there, so the argument goes, that leaves us more likely to neglect the problems of this world. Belief in an afterlife gives us an excuse to flee from the world rather than pouring all our energy into correcting its injustices. This is an accusation we have to take seriously. Fortunately for us, on several occasions Pope Benedict XVI, while he was Cardinal Ratzinger, argued against this accusation and showed it to be false. one thing he pointed out was that our view of man and his destiny affects the way we treat each other here and now. If we recognize that each and every person has a destiny beyond this world, namely, eternal beatitude with God, then we must treat each other in accord with that dignity.
On the other hand, if we see man as purely material and having no destiny beyond the material, then we really aren't that different from the other animals. And so, we quickly begin to treat each other like animals. If "we die like dogs, we shall very soon live like dogs, too, treating one another like dogs or rather as no dog should ever be treated."
On another occasion, Cardinal Ratzinger made the argument in terms of having a proper perspective about the earth. The earth is not ultimate, and there is a great danger in thinking the earth is something that it is not. We cannot create a utopia here. He said, "The man who clasps the earth fast, who regards the earth as the only possible heaven, actually makes a hell of it for he is trying to make it something that it cannot be . . . No; it is only when we realize that we are wanderers that we become free from ultimate covetousness, free for one another.: those who see the world as all there is try to make the world perfect - according to their own standard of perfection - and they end up making the world a living hell.
Let us make no mistake. Heaven is real, and we should live our lives now with our sights set on heaven. We are pilgrims on this earth together, and we are destined for something greater. This is the truth of our situation, and if it is the truth, then the best way to live is in accordance with the truth. So St. Paul urges us to "seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at he right hand of God" (Col 3:1) and to "live in a manner worthy of the call you have received" (Eph 4:1).
Living for heaven is what makes us live rightly here on earth. In a sense, we are already with Christ in heaven, and he does not cease to be with us on earth. Our Gospel today from Mark makes clear that the Lord's presence and work on earth did not cease when he ascended. After he took his seat at the right hand of God, his disciples "went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.: Christ our head is in heaven, where we are destined to follow, and he continues his work through his body here on earth. If we in spirit dwell already where Jesus has gone before us, our lives here on earth will be transformed, and so will the world around us.