Thirty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time • Year C

Jeremy R. Hiers, O.S.A.
Our Lady of Good Counsel Friary
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Readings
2 Macc 7:1-2,9-14
Ps 17:1,5-6,8,15
2 Thess 2:16–3:5
Lk 20:27-38

I recently heard a story about a kindergarten class whose teacher asked the students to draw a picture. As the class began working on the assignment, the teacher walked around the room and noticed one boy hard at work on his picture. She stopped at his desk to ask him what he was drawing. The student answered, “I’m drawing a picture of heaven.” The teacher gazed at the drawing and replied, “How can you draw a picture of heaven? Nobody knows what heaven looks like.” The boy looked up and said, “Well, everyone is about to find out!”

Have you taken time recently to ponder what heaven is like? It is a question all of us have likely contemplated at one point or another. Perhaps you have asked this question when you lost a loved one or went through a difficult period in your life. You may have even discussed this question in casual conversation with a friend or family member. A simple glance at the stars at night often invites us to wonder.

November is a time of both remembrance and looking forward. The month began with the Solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of all Souls. It will end with Thanksgiving, when many will be poignantly reminded of loved ones who are no longer with them. The month of November provides many opportunities to reflect on those who have gone before us in faith. Such remembrance may renew our own imagination of what heaven is like.

The Sadducees we meet in the Gospel ask Jesus a question about what heaven is like. While the Sadducees did not actually believe in life after death, they knew many of Jesus’ followers did. They therefore saw an opportunity to embarrass Jesus by asking him a seemingly ridiculous question they thought He would not be able to answer: if a woman marries seven times on earth, whose wife will she be in eternity?

Jesus responds by discrediting the entire premise of the question. In heaven the woman cannot be anyone’s wife because heaven is radically different from what we understand life here to be. It even transcends our understanding of human relationships and values.

While we believe in eternal life, we can often find ourselves tempted to make the same mistake as the Sadducees by allowing our own human reasoning and understanding to create false images of God and eternal life. Just a hundred years ago the human race could not have imagined smart phones, computer-driven cars, artificial hearts, or a cure to many of the diseases we have today.

We cannot even begin to imagine what technology will bring in the next 100 years. What makes us think we can begin to define what heaven looks like? This question sounds strikingly similar to the doubt posed by the teacher in our opening story. Yet, as the student taught the teacher, what harm does it do to allow our imaginations to wonder? Just as human imagination today will fuel the journey of creating the next generation of technology tomorrow, contemplating the mystery of heaven and the glory that awaits us will fuel our own journey of faith on earth.

Augustine had an opportunity to contemplate what heaven was like with his own mother just before her death. In Book 9 of the Confessions, Augustine and Monica find themselves in Ostia discussing what the “eternal life of the saints could be like.” As their conversation deepened, God gave them a small glimpse. This experience would strengthen Augustine’s own desire for heaven and fuel his lifelong journey of faith.

Our Gospel encourages us to keep searching, contemplating, and placing our hope in what awaits us, even if we cannot fully understand the mystery. The very act of contemplating where we are headed after this life can encourage us to remain hopeful. By remaining hopeful, our hunger for heaven grows. As our hunger for heaven grows, so does our perseverance through the struggles of this life. Augustine says that it is our hope for heaven that strengthens us to keep going:

“When a traveler gets tired of walking along the dusty road, he puts up with fatigue because he hopes to arrive home. Rob him of any hope of arriving and immediately his strength for walking is broken. So too, the hope for heaven which we have now is an important factor easing the pain of our just exile and sometimes harsh journey.” – Saint Augustine (Sermon 158, 8).

Life has been very difficult for all of us over the past several years. We have suffered together a pandemic, civil unrest, and increased violence. With the war in Ukraine, a potential recession in the near future, and even more political division with the upcoming election, our desire for heaven may be even greater than in earlier times.

Consider how our first reading takes place at a time when the concept of resurrection and the afterlife was first developing among the Israelites. It describes the gruesome death of three brothers who were martyred because they refused to renounce their faith. What gave them strength in the face of death to profess truth? It was their belief in the resurrection. Likewise, our belief and hope of heaven can help us through the difficult times we are living.

Every time we share the Eucharist, we get a taste of eternity. The meal we share on earth as we approach the altar is the same meal we will share together with Christ for all eternity. When we receive the Eucharist, we take a seat at the table of the Heavenly Banquet.

As we celebrate the Eucharist this November Sunday, we are invited to contemplate once again where we are headed. We are also invited to pray that hope of heaven will give us the strength to persevere through this difficult time in our nation and world.

Thank God for our faith. For we can truly trust that while we do not have all the answers today, the glory that awaits us not only exceeds our human imagination, but is also much greater than anything we may suffer in the present.