The beginning of 2020 should have been a warning to our family that it was going to be a rough year. Within days of the dawn of a new decade one of my most delightful cousins had died leaving a hole in our hearts that we have yet to fill. Only a day or so later a sweet and favorite aunt had also passed from this earth. We attended back to back funerals before ten days had heralded the new year. We provided ourselves with solace by insisting that there was probably a joyful celebration happening in heaven as all of our departed loved ones gathered in a welcome party for the newcomers whose loss we were still grieving.
Thinking the happy thought that our loved ones were in a better place was our way of dealing with the heartache that we were feeling. Somehow knowing that they would no longer feel the pain that had dominated their final days on earth provided us with comfort. Believing that they were joining those who had already left us seemed a just reward for the goodness that they had given all of us when they were at their lively best. Speaking of heavenly rewards was not just a belief of our faiths but also a kind of coping mechanism for dealing with the mysteries of life and death.
I do believe that we humans experience something beyond our time here on earth, but in all honesty I have little idea what that might actually be. We have a tendency to see heaven as a place much like our earthly reality but devoid of all pain, sadness, hatred. We imagine it as a kind of Garden of Eden, the way the world might have been if Adam and Eve had followed God’s directions. Since nobody save for Jesus has ever returned from the dead to describe what life after death is actually like we have to use our creativity to determine what that might be.
Obviously we do not take our bodies with us. Our skin and organs and bones eventually turn to dust. Perhaps it is only our souls, our essences that somehow find a state of perfection, a Nirvana in which there is eternal contentment. That feeling of perfect bliss may be all that we need. It is possible that we will only join those who have gone before us in a great cosmic mix so unlike anything we have ever experienced that there would be no need for reenacting our earthly practices.
I have often wondered if we do indeed see the people who have died before us. If so, how do they look? Do they take the form of their most perfect moments on earth or do they remain as they were when they died. Will my father be a thirty three year old man and my mother a woman of eighty four years or will they be a young and beautiful couple? Will I only know them by a feeling rather than a physical presence? Will I have proof that they are there because they somehow greet me or will I simply understand that we are all together in a great mix of the entirety of human history?
Such questions have been the stuff of philosophers and theologians for centuries and nobody has a concrete, inarguable answer. All of our human ideas about heaven are based on requiring a great leap of faith and for some who require scientific proof for the existence of things it is too much of a stretch to accept. Nonetheless I am a believer, albeit one who would be loathe to think that I have a clear picture of what heaven will be like.
Stories of the resurrection of Jesus describe him as having his earthly appearance but also a kind of aura that made him other worldly. The apostles saw him but did not totally know him because he was different in ways that they found hard to convey with words. I suspect that heaven will be unlike anything we have ever before experienced. It will be mind boggling but we will be in a stage in which we do not need explanations. What is will be.
To steal an idea from one of my cousins, life is a tapestry of many threads all woven together to hopefully create a beautiful and unique story of joy and sadness, blessings and tragedies. This is what it means to be alive on this earth. There is a concreteness about our time here that is represented in things but heaven is ethereal. It is about who we have been without the trappings that we all too often use to judge ourselves and one another. I’d like to think that in heaven we are only about what is most important and we no longer see our differences but only what makes us perfect children of God.
We often discuss heaven and whether or not it exists. We describe what we think it may be like if it is indeed real. As someone once told me once we are dead there are only two possibilities regarding heaven. Either there will be no heaven and since our brains are dead we will not care or there will be a heaven and those who have been deniers who nonetheless get there will be pleasantly surprised. Still it is a most pleasant possibility to consider. Maybe heaven ultimately is whatever we most want it to be. For me it would be an eternal reunion and an ongoing festival of love.