Heaven is uncomfortable for me to think about. Sometimes talk about heaven juxtaposes Earth as an evil, tainted place and our bodies as temptations to be subdued until the day when our souls are finally freed.
I have long preferred to accept heaven as a mystery beyond my understanding and focus instead on the call to be a builder of the Kingdom of God here and now. Even the Catholic catechism admits that heaven is “beyond all understanding and description.” That is good enough for me — why try to put words to something beyond description?
As I’m raising my children, though, lots of questions have surfaced — questions I thought I could avoid. Earlier this summer, as we said a bedtime prayer, the topic of heaven came up. I think I was thanking Jesus for the sun and the breeze and asking for a little more patience and love. My seven year old interrupted me.
“But where is Jesus?”
Caught off guard, I ventured an answer that started with “Right here, in you and me” before segueing into some reference to the Eucharist which, eventually, led to the Ascension and that buzzword — “heaven.”
“But what is heaven?” The conversation was stretching me beyond my comfort zone.
Using the term “heaven” is especially tricky while raising kids in a Spanish-speaking environment. In Spanish, the word used for “heaven,” “el cielo,” is also used to refer to the sky. This double meaning could evoke images about heaven being some distant place with clouds and cherubs and an undoubtedly white, male, bearded God — ideas that I don’t care to reinforce for my children.
Summer waned on, and we entered the days of August. It is a time of year when I get nostalgic, because our previous parish — Assumption BVM – Kolbe House — always held the parish picnic to coincide with the feast days of our two patrons: St. Maximilian Kolbe on Aug. 14 and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Aug. 15.
We were only part of the community for four years, but the five o’clock Vigil Mass at Assumption BVM always felt like home — heaven on Earth, I might say. The interior featured a simple altar and large, stained-glass windows that let in lots of sunlight. Our regular cantor had a strong, smooth voice accompanied by guitar, equally conducive to contemplative reflection and joyful worship. This particular service was even bilingual — the perfect blend for my Mexican-American family.
All of these things were important, but what really made the parish feel like home were the people and the relationships we had with them. The pastor would greet us with a smile and a fist pump for my three year old. Several grandparent figures would check in on us; a welcome gesture for my husband and I whose families live far away. My toddler would excitedly wave to the kids from our family faith-sharing group (who would wave back with equal enthusiasm), all waiting for Mass to end so they could play outside on the lawn together.
The parish was also home to Kolbe House Jail Ministry and embraced the charism to offer sanctuary to folks who might otherwise feel excluded, marginalized and judged by God and by the community.
Assumption BVM was one of dozens of churches that has closed during the current moment of archdiocesan renewal. Looking back I can see how that glimpse of heaven on Earth might be one of the most accurate depictions of heaven I have stumbled upon.
In “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” heaven is described as “communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed.” It is a place where “the elect live ‘in Christ,’ but they retain, or rather find, their true identity, their own name.”
Heaven is where we are known and loved — in the most full and complete sense possible — by God and within community.
My former parish’s patroness, Mary of the Assumption, also illuminates some things about the intimate link between heaven and Earth. Theologian Kochurani Abraham preaches that, for women especially, Mary’s physical presence in heaven is an incredible affirmation of the sanctity of our human condition, calling it an invitation to “affirm our full humanity as radiating the divine.” Her assumption is an invitation to participate in the “already-not yet” — to give birth to the Reign of God “where people share, where they love the Earth and all its creatures, where they take a stance to include the excluded ones of this world into the table fellowship of life.”
All of this sounds a lot like how it felt to be part of the community at Assumption BVM: including the excluded, being known by name, living in communion, embracing the holiness of our humanity.
I know that my experience there is not universal, nor was that parish perfect in every way. How many among us have felt like we had to hide part of our identity from others in church? How many among us have felt judged or excluded due to our clothing, appearance, social class, gender, race, language, sexual orientation, politics or past mistakes? How often have our parish communities looked more like rival high schools full of cliques and bullying rather than co-builder communities of the Kingdom of God?
These internal concerns cannot take a back seat to outward-facing ministries. Living in community is the culmination of our lives of faith in a heavenly kingdom — no small detail to glance over!
Even with this insight, I might not be much closer to explaining a parallel-dimension understanding of heaven. So much remains a mystery. But I am comfortable in saying that we do not have to wait until the afterlife to feel the gaze of God’s knowing and loving glance. We can cast that gaze on each other, building parish communities that manifest God’s presence on Earth as it is in heaven.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Emily Cortina is a mother raising three bilingual, bicultural children alongside her Mexican husband. She is an advocate for transformative and restorative justice and believes strongly in parishes as mostly untapped sources of radical community. She works at Kolbe House Jail Ministry in Chicago, Illinois.