Sermon on the fourth Sunday after Easter

by a Dominican friar

“It is expedient for you that I go away.”

We are now more than half-way through the fifty days that stretch from Easter Sunday to Pentecost. At the beginning of Easter-tide, the sacred liturgy naturally sets before our minds the glorious fact of the Resurrection of Our Lord. As we move through this season, however, a new theme is proposed to us by the liturgy, which is the theme of Heaven. We are still ten days away from the feast of the Ascension, but already the Church wishes us to think of that great journey which Christ will take on the fortieth day after Easter, and of the destination where He is to arrive.

Where do we find the theme of Heaven in the liturgy of today’s Mass? I find it especially in three places: the collect, the epistle, and the gospel. First of all, it is present in the collect. We pray, “O God, who makest thy faithful servants to be of one mind and of one heart, grant to thy peoples to love that which thou commandest and to desire that which thou promisest, so that, among worldly changes, our hearts may be fixed there where the joys are true.” Notice two properties which this prayer attributes to the life of Heaven. First, there is perfect unanimity among the blessed. The saints are “of one mind and of one heart”, as according to the Acts of the Apostles the first believers were in Jerusalem, but even more so. On earth, even among good people, even among holy people, there are always different points of view. What seems more important to one person may seem less important to another. These disagreements are not necessarily caused by sin; they can come from the differences in temperament which exist by nature between one person and another. Even in the Acts of the Apostles, we read that St Paul and St Barnabas had a sharp disagreement about whether to take St Mark with them on a missionary journey, after St Mark had shown some lack of constancy on a previous expedition. It seems that St Paul was more inclined to strictness, and St Barnabas more inclined to indulgence. So, on earth, even saints can disagree, and sometimes disagree about important matters.

In Heaven, that will not be the case. Why not? In Heaven, the blessed are no longer guided by their natural temperaments. They have the clear vision of the divine essence; they see God, who is infinite wisdom. The blessed are ruled immediately by this vision; in Him, they see all the truths which they need to know, and so they understand perfectly all that they should do. None of the blessed will ever try to prevent any other from doing or desiring anything; each of the blessed will be glad about what all the others do and desire. They are of one mind and one heart, because they all see God, with whom, as St James says, there is no variation or shadow of change.

The second characteristic of Heaven which this collect mentions is that the joys there are true — ubi vera sunt gaudia. The collect contrasts these joys of Heaven with worldly changes — mundanas varietates. No joy which will disappear is a true and perfect joy; it is at best the shadow or image of a true joy. The so-called joys of this world, even when they are not sinful, are very imperfect. People make great efforts to acquire them, without knowing if they will be able to do so, and if they do succeed in acquiring some brief joy, it passes quickly and always leaves some sadness behind. Not so the joys of Heaven: they do not pass, and they do not contain any bitterness. The blessed, living always in the presence of Jesus and Mary, move from joy to joy, and do not grow weary. As the psalmist says, “Thou shalt give them to drink from thy torrent of thy pleasure” (Psalm 35:9). So much for the collect.

The theme of Heaven is present also, even if in a less explicit manner, in today’s epistle. St James writes that “every good and perfect gift comes down from above, from the Father of lights”. This passage, I believe, is the only place in Scripture where we find this phrase, “the Father of lights”. What does it mean? We can understand it first in a material way, to mean that God is the Creator of all the luminaries in the universe, of the sun and all the other stars. We can understand it also in a rational way, to mean that He is the Creator of all intellectual beings, both men and angels; for every created intelligence is a kind of light and, in fact, a light which is superior to any constellation of stars, however beautiful. Most of all, we can understand this phrase, “Father of lights” in a supernatural way. The light of faith, by which we walk on earth, and the light of glory which fills the mind of the blessed, are participations in the uncreated Light which is God Himself. By giving us the light of faith, God has made us His children; and our adoption will be perfect when we see Him as He is. 

Heaven, then, is the place from which our adoption as children of God has come. That is why we call it our Fatherland. Our Lord became incarnate so that we might have a way to return to our Fatherland. Think of a child on earth, who has never seen his human father. Perhaps his parents were separated before his birth by the chances of war or revolution, and now they have no way to find each other again. The son as he grows up often hears good things from his mother about his father, about what a good and noble man he is. Then one day the son learns where his father is, and he has a chance to make the journey to meet him.  How excited would this son be, at the prospect of finally seeing his father! We are the adopted children of our Heavenly Father. If we think about that, surely we will be eager to go to Heaven. There, Christ will show us the One who is His Father and ours: His by nature, ours by grace.

The third place in today’s Mass where Heaven is mentioned is the gospel. Our Lord says to His disciples, “I go to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, Whither goest thou?” It is almost as if He is disappointed. If we tell our friends about something great that is going to happen to us, we want them to ask us some questions. Well, Our Lord is telling the disciples that He is going to Heaven. It would have been a proof of their friendship if they had asked Him some questions. But they seem to be too sad to ask anything. So, perhaps, to rouse them from their sadness and to stimulate their minds, He expresses Himself in a very mysterious way. Talking about the Holy Ghost, He says this: “When he comes, he will convince the world of sin and of justice and of judgement. Of sin, because they believed not in me; and of justice, because I go to the Father, and you shall see me no longer; and of judgement, because the prince of this world is already judged.”

From these mysterious words, we learn that one of the acts of the Holy Ghost is to manifest the justice of Jesus Christ. The Holy Ghost manifested this publicly, through the preaching of the apostles. The apostles preached that Christ had been raised from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father. This resurrection and ascension manifested that Our Lord was not only just, but that He was and is ‘the Just One’.  “The Just One” is one of the titles by which He was referred to by the first disciples after the Ascension. When St Paul was blinded on his way to Damascus, he is taken to the house of the disciple Ananias, and Ananias says to him: “The God of our fathers hath preordained thee that thou shouldst know his will, and see the Just One” (Acts 22:14), that is, that you should see Christ, whom St Paul saw as he was on his journey.  

Thus the very fact that Christ ascended to Heaven, that He has placed His body and soul beyond the reach of sinful men, manifests His justice to those on earth. And not only to believers: it is remarkable that even those on earth who do not believe in Christ, usually praise Him for His virtue. Since Pentecost, the Holy Ghost causes some testimony to be given to Christ’s justice even by unbelievers, though much more, of course, by believers.  

But in Heaven itself, the justice of Jesus Christ is perfectly manifested. That is part of the happiness of Heaven: we shall be able to contemplate the actions which Our Lord performed on earth, and we shall see how everything which He did on earth was in perfect conformity with the Father’s will. The book of the Apocalypse says, describing the Heavenly Jerusalem, The Lamb is its lamp. Just as a lamp enlightens every part of a room, so that whatever we see in the room, we see by the light of the lamp, so the holiness of Jesus Christ enlightens every part of Heaven. Whatever the blessed do or say, their hearts are always turned towards Him, who is the true Melchisedech, that is, the true King of Justice.

St Augustine says that Paschal-tide represents on earth the life of the world to come. So, in this second half of Paschal-tide, let us raise our hearts often to Heaven. For He has gone to prepare a place for us, and we do not know when He will come to take us to Himself.