Early each week I read the scriptures for the following Sunday. This gives me time to prepare, not only by consulting a commentary or two (to find out what the scripture is saying – and what it is not saying), but also through the week I keep next Sunday’s scriptures in mind (both consciously and subconsciously) as I carry out the rites, routines and responsibilities of priestly pastoral ministry. At the end of the week I usually have too much to say in a brief homily and face a key challenge of any good preacher: what to say, and, equally importantly, what to leave out.
Yesterday, when I looked ahead to the scripture readings for this coming Sunday, my thoughts went back to last Sunday’s readings. Many of the characters featured last week were faced with the tension between heaven and earth. Remember the seven brothers faced with death because they would not turn from God: they each embraced martyrdom calmly and confidently knowing that their earthly life was only the preparation for full resurrection to eternal life. In the gospel we met the Sadducees who did not believe that there was life after death. They confront Jesus with tricky questions and would not have been satisfied when Jesus responded by quoting Moses referring to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (who had all been dead for centuries): “God is not God of the dead, but of the living for to him all are alive.”
One of the first things students of theology learn is that the Kingdom of God has two “parts” or “dimensions”. Perhaps we are most familiar with the future reality of the reign of God? We know that when our earthly life is complete, we will be invited to share the fulness of eternal life with God. We might call this the “not-yet” dimension. However we also know that Jesus emphasised that “the kingdom of God is among (or within) you.” (Luke 17:21) This is the “now” dimension.
This reminds us that Christians do not simply strive to keep the commandments and faithfully follow the gospel in order to achieve the reward of heaven. Instead a Christian desires constant personal and present experience of the presence and action of God in their daily human existence. The true Christian is the one who has encountered the reality of God in Jesus Christ and who knows the depth and power of this divine and therefore transforming love. Such a person will consequently live the circumstances of earthly human existence in a new way: living the “now” while awaiting the “not-yet.”
The generations that preceeded us had a very deep awareness of the “not-yet” reality of the kingdom of God. They knew that they were created for heaven, and were ready to endure extraordinary hardships and even martyrdom to win the reward of eternal life. Today we tend to focus more on our present earthly existence.
However this earthly life is not automatically the present (or “now”) dimension of God’s kingdom. Sadly, for most people, life on earth is “toil and trouble” (Psalm 90) with only superficial and transient tastes of hope and happiness.
Our present earthly existence becomes heavenly when we allow ourselves to be encountered by the reality of God in Jesus. It is in this relationship with Jesus that all life has a “new horizon and a decisive direction”. (Pope Benedict XVI Deus Caritas Est)
The happy and healthy person will live today on earth with an ever-present awareness of the two dimensions of God’s life with us. Many of us remember this healthy tension from the Catechism: why did God make you? “God made me to know him, to love and to serve him in this world [ie the “now” reality], and to be happy with him forever in the next [the “not-yet” reality].
“Being Christian is not the result of
an ethical choice or a lofty idea,
but the encounter
with an event, a person,
which gives life a new horizon
and a decisive direction.