A cautious child hesitates when told that after eating a vegetable three times it will be agreeable. No such persuasion is needed for ice cream or cake: It is the vegetable that is “good for you” that is suspect.
When the subject is heaven, the case is somewhat similar, but then it is the adult who has to be convinced that it is good.
There is something suspicious about eternal bliss when all we know about happiness is in terms of things temporal. The Beatific Vision is too distantly brilliant to be desired more than fireworks and champagne right now. Given the choice between winning the lottery and eternal salvation, human nature would pick the lottery — while giving pious lip service to salvation.
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But the point is: Our intelligence is defective in preferring what is temporarily delectable to joy that never passes away. The adult may suspect that “pie in the sky” is not pie at all.
“Christ was not only born on the level of the world, but even lower than the world.”
The child has an advantage over those who are older and more experienced in life’s promises and disappointments. For the innocent, it is entirely possible to imagine never getting tired or sick of ice cream and cake. Substitute milk and honey for that, and you have the Bible’s version of endless delight — even if you don’t particularly care for milk and honey the way a wandering desert people might have.
Jesus speaks of the joys of heaven with a caution: “I still have much to tell you, but you cannot yet bear to hear it. However, when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:12-13).
That is to say, the Holy Spirit expands and enlightens mature tastes so that they might have an appetite for those things of heaven that may not seem desirable from the perspective of temporal existence on earth.
The adult then must assume the trust the innocent child has, so that what may not at first seem better than what gives immediate pleasure, ultimately is better.
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
The Lord himself became a child, bringing the truth of heaven in a mysterious way that does not seem heavenly at all. As Chesterton wrote in “The Everlasting Man”: “Christ was not only born on the level of the world, but even lower than the world. The first act of the divine drama was enacted, not only on no stage set up above the sightseer, but on a dark and curtained stage sunken out of sight … But in the riddle of Bethlehem, it was heaven that was under the earth.”
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The third Sunday of Advent is mindful of heaven, the third of the Four Last Things — with thoughts guided by the angels and saints: “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2).
Fr. George William Rutler is a Catholic priest and the pastor of the Church of St. Michael in Manhattan. This article originally appeared in his parish church bulletin and is used by permission.