Quite recently, I happened across a catechetical video from quite a large Catholic apostolate which included a segment asking people about what they imagined Heaven to be like. Each person was well-spoken and sincere in his or her desire for reunion with deceased loved ones, the end of suffering and sorrow, and to experience the long-awaited peace promised by God. When it was over, I sat back stunned. There had not been a single reference to entering the presence of God, of joining in the Adoration of the Lamb, or even having the tremendous opportunity to whisper a “Thank You!” to Jesus Who made Heaven possible for those who love Him. I revisited the answers, the earnestness of the believers, and even the premise of the question, and again came up utterly disappointed in the takeaway: Heaven is about us, our friends, and our eternal comfort. Really?
The “Catechism” explains that “those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified, live for ever with Christ. They are like God forever, for they ‘see Him as He is, ‘face to face’” (par. 1023, quoting 1 Jn, 3:2). The transcendence of God is certainly beyond our grasp, and yet out of love for His creatures, He “opens up His mystery to man’s immediate contemplation and gives him the capacity for it” (par. 1028). The verse from the well-known hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy” comes to mind: for the saints who arrive in God’s presence will join countless angels in their perpetual Adoration, “casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.”
Now being restored to our loved ones is certainly one dimension of Heaven, and this is why we both pray for those who go before us and count on the prayers of those who follow us, but our love of them is magnified by the fact that we will all love each other in Christ. Having been joined to His Mystical Body in Baptism, the goal of the Christian life points to Heaven, which is “the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ” (par. 1026). Thus the love we had for Aunt Joan in this life — for her kindness, creativity, and sense of humor — will be nothing compared to loving Aunt Joan in Christ. All who enjoy the beatific vision will be transformed, and our affection henceforth will be lived shoulder to shoulder, adoring the One Who graciously lifted us into His love.
Integral to this Adoration will be our profound gratitude for the Lamb on the throne —the One Who took our sins onto Himself and bore our iniquities. Contemplating the nature of gratitude often brings to mind a Christmas morning decades past, when one of my children had figured out what Santa was all about. Careful not to disturb his younger siblings’ naiveté, he crept over to me to whisper a heartfelt, “Thank you!” out of their hearing. He was delighted with what he found under the tree, and needed a concrete outlet for his appreciation.
Just as the gifts we receive over the course of our lives don’t just drop out of the sky, Heaven isn’t an abstract setting for a disembodied glow. “Face to face” indicates the deeply personal joy that accrues when perfection meets Perfection — and our perfection having been won in the Passion of Christ should ground the encounter with a profound gratitude.
The “Catechism” notes, “This mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description” (par. 1027), which means we can never think about it enough. So if the centrality of God in Heaven is at all perplexing or off-putting, perhaps we have to revisit our relationship with Him and the attitude with which we have received His gifts, beginning with the Blood He spilled on our behalf. The Eucharistic banquet — Holy Mass here on earth and the wedding feast of the Lamb — are one in the same, communion with the God Who longs to see us face to face. While green pastures and family reunions may be enticing, it is the beatific vision that will illuminate them — and make authentic and lasting communion possible.
Anchor columnist Genevieve Kineke is the author of “The Authentic Catholic Woman.” She blogs at feminine-genius. typepad.com.