August 21, 2009

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Eternal life with God is a mystery and our profound hope

Eternal life is a mystery and a profound hope. No one knows the details of what eternal life will be like, but our faith gives us some important clues.

Scripture speaks of it using images of happiness or joy: life, light, peace, wedding feast, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise.

We also know, with the certainty of faith, what eternal life will not be like. Let’s start with the negative and work our way to the meaning of the positive images given to us in Scripture.

The myths of ancient peoples often suggest that life after death will simply be a continuation of earthly life. That’s why hunting or farming implements—and in some cultures jewels, furniture and even slaves—were placed in the graves of their former owners. Life after death is the same as earthly life—only better, happier and lasting forever. This is not what we Christians believe.

In classical Greek and Roman thinking, life after death was ghost-like, shadowy and insubstantial. Even in the Old Testament, Sheol, like the Greek Hades, was viewed as a place less vivid or real than earthly life.

The immortal soul is separated from the body, which decays and returns to elemental matter. The disembodied soul then remains in a permanent state of spiritual existence. This is not what we Christians believe.

To our ordinary way of thinking, “eternal life” suggests that life as we know it goes on forever. We can hardly imagine what heaven will be like; if we think of it in natural terms, we can’t help but be turned off by the idea of our current existence, with its suffering and sorrow, continuing forever—endlessly—like the witch’s curse in a fairy tale. This is not what we Christians believe.

What, then, do we Christians believe about life after death and about the hope that was promised at the time of our baptism?

If we look carefully at the words of our Lord in the Scriptures, we can begin to develop an understanding of what life with God in heaven will be like. We mustn’t fool ourselves here. Eternal life with God is a mystery and a profound hope. We will not fully understand it until we experience it, by the grace of God, at the end of time.

But through Christ’s death and resurrection, we have been given some fundamental insights into the true meaning of life after death. What the Apostles and martyrs and all the saints tell us, and what the Church has consistently taught since the Holy Spirit was given to us at Pentecost, provides us with some fundamental truths concerning the mystery of eternal life.

Pope Benedict XVI addresses this mystery in his encyclical letter “Spe Salvi” (“Saved by Hope”). The pope writes, “What in fact is life? And what does eternity really mean? There are moments when it suddenly seems clear to us: Yes, this is what true life is—this is what it should be like. Besides what we call life in our ordinary language is not real life at all.”

Quoting St. Augustine, the Holy Father continues: “Ultimately we want only one thing—the blessed life, the life which is simply life, simply happiness. In the final analysis, there is nothing else that we ask for in prayer. Our journey has no other goal—it is about this alone” (“Spe Salvi,” #11).

We believe that human beings who die in God’s grace and friendship, and who have been purified, live forever in Christ. They are in heaven, which is not a place according to our earthly understanding. Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of our deepest human longings, the state of supreme happiness. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1023-1024.)

In “Spe Salvi,” Pope Benedict comments on the difficulty we have imagining what eternal life must be like. He says it is certainly not “an unending succession of days in the calendar.”

Rather, he teaches that heaven is “more like the supreme moment of satisfaction in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality.”

Using a very powerful image, the pope goes on to say, “It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists” (“Spe Salvi,” #12).

Eternal life is a blessed communion with God and with all who are in Christ. It is “a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy” (“Spe Salvi,” #12). The Lord himself tells us, “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (Jn 16:22).

This is our most profound hope: to be with Christ and to be overwhelmed with lasting joy. †

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