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Bishop's Homily for the Ascension of the Lord

I would like to reflect today on the sufferings of heaven.

By Bishop Larry Silva
May 24, 2020

[Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, Honolulu (private; live-streamed)]

I would like to reflect today on the sufferings of heaven.

If what I just said jolted you or made you squint with that “What?!” look, I can understand.  As we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord into heaven, we often think of heaven as a place of pure bliss, of everlasting joy and happiness, where there are no tears or pain, no crying out, and no suffering.  In heaven we will be fully aware that we are in the presence of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that eternal community of pure love.  We will see Jesus, who suffered so much for us, seated at the right hand of the Father in glory and majesty.  We will be with the saints and angels, singing forever, in a thousand different ways, “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts!”  So how could there possibly be sufferings in heaven?

We need to first realize that Jesus is one person with one Body.  Ever since his resurrection from the dead, his ascension into heaven, and his outpouring of the Holy Spirit, he has made all of us who believe in him one with him in his Body.  He is the head of the Body, and we are its members, its hands, feet, its backbone and its heart.  We are incorporated – that is to say, embodied – in Jesus in our Baptism, when we are immersed totally in the name of God himself, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  So the Head of the Body has ascended into heaven, and many parts of his Body are already there with him.  But many of us are still here below, not yet ascended, not yet taken up into those clouds of glory.  We still live in a world of much sin and suffering.  So how could those who are already in heaven be uncaring about our suffering here below?  If they are experiencing the fullness of love, how could they not be concerned that other members of the same Body of Christ are still suffering below?  Isn’t this exactly why we ask the Blessed Virgin Mary and the other saints in heaven to intercede for us?  Why don’t we just leave them alone to rest in peace, rather than bothering them in their bliss because of our trials and tribulations?  The answer is because the fullness of their love impels them to care about sisters and brothers who are suffering.  The etymology of the word “compassion” is to “co-suffer,” to share the sufferings of those who struggle.  I am sure one of their greatest joys is to suffer with us here below, to plead to the Lord to guide us away from temptation and sin, and to comfort us in our sufferings.  Perhaps this is the meaning of the two men in white who appear to the disciples who are looking up to heaven to the Ascended Jesus.  They come to tap them on the shoulder to tell them, “Look here below.  See what is not yet immersed or baptized in God’s love.  And take up the crosses involved in seeing that they are immersed in that love.”  Yes, the Head is in the glory of heaven and gives us the assurance that the ideal of eternal bliss is not just a pipe-dream but a reality; but the rest of the Body is still in the process of being born into that eternal light, a birth that is filled with stress, anxiety, and pain.

And so I am more and more convinced that there is suffering in heaven, but a suffering full of hope and never despair.  It is the suffering of compassion for those still below who struggle to be faithful and to live in the light.

How many times have we heard of medical personnel or chaplains who witness terrible suffering in the patients they visit and in their loved ones, yet who feel a joy that they are able to be with them in their sufferings?  How many of our friends who dedicate themselves to feeding the homeless, some of whom are smelly, dirty and obnoxious, often say how fulfilled they are that they can alleviate at least a little suffering for these brothers and sisters?  How many of those who suffer criticism and defamation because they boldly defend the rights of the unborn, of immigrants, or of battered women and children are nevertheless happy even when they suffer for the sake of righteousness?  How many suffer rejection and ridicule because they insist on proclaiming the truth about the dignity of the human person, about marriage and sexuality, and about the value of every human life feel strength and happiness because they know they are being truly compassionate?  These are the kinds of sufferings that are heavenly, that seem on the surface to be unbearable, but that deep down bring the greatest joy.

Yes, one day, when all is fulfilled and this world ends, then no one in heaven will suffer any longer.  The pure bliss and everlasting light we imagine will be the full reality and no longer a dream.  But for the moment, the Body of Christ is birthing its way into heaven.  The Head has gone first, and today we rejoice that Jesus has opened the way.  But while the rest of his Body is in the process of being born into eternal life, there is still suffering, but it is a suffering that causes every member of the Body to pull for the birth of every other member, so that all things can be placed under Christ’s feet, including death, suffering and pain.  Meanwhile, it is the joy of the Head and of the members who are already born fully into eternal life to suffer for those of us below.  And heaven therefore is to be compassionate, even now.  We look up to where our Head has gone and rejoice that he has led the way into heaven, but we also stay focused on the sufferings of those below, so that all can be fully immersed, soaked, baptized in the God who is eternal love, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.