December 2008 - Vol. 25

Homecoming by Michael O'Brien

Christians Have Lost Touch With Heaven! 

By Christoph Schonborn

Something very strange has taken place in the last few years: Christians have lost touch with heaven! Of the desire for heaven, our heavenly home, we hear hardly a word. It is as if Christians have lost the orientation that for centuries defined the direction of their journey. We have forgotten that we are pilgrims and that the goal of our pilgrimage is heaven. Connected with this is another loss: we largely lack the awareness that we are on a dangerous pilgrim path and that it is possible for us to miss our goal, to fail to reach the goal of our life. To put it bluntly: we do not long for heaven; we take it for granted that we shall get there. This diagnosis may be exaggerated, over-stated. The trouble is, I am afraid it is essentially true.

Against this loss and neglect, the Church's Easter message proclaims: “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1). “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). This profound and pressing yearning does not strive for just any kind of  “life after death” but is the desire “to be with Christ,” to live with him, to be “at home with the Lord”: “So we are always of good courage; we know that while we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. We are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6-8).

“At home!” For so many people, who have lost their homes or their homeland, the word home is a word of longing. The English word home (home town or homeland), like the German Heimat, has a strongly emotional, almost devotional resonance, which we do not find in the Latin patria or the French patrie. Home is not just a particular landscape, not just its language, its familiar landmarks, but above all the people who live there. When the people we were familiar with (friends, neighbors, acquaintances) no longer live there, then home has died, even if the landscape has remained. How often have the great artists and writers of our century expressed their pain at the loss of their homelands. So many people have eaten the bitter bread of exile.

 The Church is the promise of home. The man who has found the Church has found his way home. Paul speaks of this new home: “Our home [politeuma] is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Our home is in heaven, because it is in heaven that we find our true family. That is why Paul tells the faithful in Ephesus: “You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). And we have found a Mother: “The Jerusalem above . . . is our mother” (Galatians 4:26). Home also means having a house to live in: “In my Father's house are many rooms . . . I go to prepare a place for you. And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3).

 The Church is first of all, then, a heavenly reality. She has her origin in the life of God himself, in the unity of the Blessed Trinity, and so, in the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar, she is “first and foremost a reality established in time from heaven”. The foundations of the Church are above, which is why Saint Augustine says:

“Since our foundation [Christ] is in heaven, let us be built up toward heaven  . . for we are built spiritually, and our foundation lies above. Let us hasten, therefore, whither we are built.”
This look of longing toward the heavenly homeland is not an escape from our earthly responsibilities. On the contrary, hope for heaven, for full communion with Christ and all the angels and saints, is the very motor, the driving force, of Christian engagement in this world. Christian hope for the coming of God's Kingdom asks for both things from God: that his Kingdom may come in glory (or, as the Didache prays, “that grace may come and the world pass away”); and that his Kingdom may begin already here on earth.

[Excerpted from Loving the Church, by Christoph Schonborn, Archbishop of Vienna, Austria; translated by John Saward, © 1998, Ignatius Press, San Francisco. Used with permission.]

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