In our Gospel for today, which Pope Francis has designated as World Day of the Poor, Jesus says a strange thing. He says that “Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away.” Christianity and many other religions have a concept of a place to which we will go after death. We Christians call it Heaven. But in today’s Gospel Jesus tells us that Heaven also will pass away!
During the civil war in Sierra Leone, the parish of Koidu where I worked had a school for the blind. The principal and 2 of his teachers were blind. Rebels once surrounded the school; the commander ordered the principal to collect the hens that were running around the compound so that his men could eat. The principal replied that he couldn’t because he was blind and unable to see the hens. The commander ordered the rebels to shoot the principal and the other teachers, but the principal pleaded with them not to. The commander then asked the principal if he believed in heaven. ‘Yes, I do,’ said the principal. ‘Well,’ said the rebel leader, ‘would it not be better that I shoot you all so that you can go straight to Heaven and leave behind the suffering that you endure as blind people?’ ‘Yes, we suffer’, said the principal, ‘but we still wish to continue our struggle here on earth.’ The commander withdrew his rebels and left the blind people to get on with living.
Life can be very difficult especially for the poor. However, most people don’t want to leave this world to go to a so-called better place. In properly understanding Jesus’ words, we are not going to a better place but to a better state of being, reaching the fullness of who we were meant to be.
During the summer, when I was home, I visited Glendalough and Glencolmcille, centres of intense Christian living centuries ago that influenced all Europe. Now they are in ruins, like the Gospel and the first reading foretelling the calamities and the destruction that was about to take place in Palestine and especially the destruction of the Temple. But something new came from the demise of these early Christian centres of worship: the Church that we have had for the past few centuries in Ireland and Europe. Now they have entered into their cycle of death and demise; many Catholics feel that this is the end of the Church or even of Christianity itself. But this is not true; all life goes through times of calamity, demise and death, and something new always emerges from it.
“Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not …”. Creation, earth, life and religion are always renewed through the word of the Lord. God is ever at work in the world bringing new life out of chaos and destruction just as it began in the Book of Genesis. As Church, therefore, we need to be constantly alert to help others who are experiencing the pain of destruction – especially at this time of climate change – to support the poor and most vulnerable who most feel its effects.
No one wants to leave life to go to an imaginary better place. We want to and should struggle together to fulfill our potential as human beings. Then we are in heaven by the time that we die!