What does it mean to age in heaven?
Wesson Link was born on Dec. 16, 2016, the second son of Gavin and Leslie. They, and his older brother Barrett, saw him through two heart operations to repair a birth defect, but Wesson died unexpectedly on Feb. 28, 2017. There was not much time to prepare his funeral, to ponder how to present a Christian acceptance of truly unendurable sorrow. Is there a greater sadness, one more challenging to our faith in God, than that of a parent burying a child?
Yes, we professed our confidence that Baby Wesson has gained the only destiny that matters: He has gone home to God. But the sight of that baby in the little casket was searing. On my own way home, I found myself thinking about what it means for a child to enter heaven.
Is there a greater sadness, one more challenging to our faith in God, than that of a parent burying a child?
None of us has been to heaven. Some might say, that leaves us with nothing more than speculation, but we have experienced something of heaven in the very way that it was first revealed to us, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whatever we know of that event, we know of heaven. And the Transfiguration, which took place before Christ suffered, enters the Gospels as the initial revelation of Christ’s transformed humanity, a glimpse of his glory to be revealed in the resurrection.
But how much do we gain, hearing the Gospel account of transfiguration? Two matters of great import. First, we learn that the disciples recognize him, even in his glory, as the Jesus whom they already know. This means that heaven does not cancel out the identities that we create while on earth. Lots of people think of the afterlife as something we melt into. Our personal identities are dissolved there. But that did not happen to the one whom we call the first born of the dead, neither in his transfiguration nor his resurrection. To the contrary, Second Timothy speaks of
the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began,
but now made manifest
through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus,
who destroyed death and brought life and immortality
to light through the gospel (1:9-10).
Second, we learn that the glorified Christ is radically different. He is the very same person but in a completely new way. We are talking egg and chick, cocoon and butterfly, Peter Parker and Spiderman. The takeaway is that we remain ourselves in heaven, though what we are like will be radically transfigured.
What about our age in heaven? I do not think that we want to suggest that it is the age at which we die. That would make the elderly the largest group there, though, admittedly, all ages would be represented. No doubt, some would want to suggest that we assume our very best age. So, for example, there are no web postings in heaven that say: “You remember how attractive she was in the ’80s? Look at her now!” No, that low conduct will be left behind.
More to the point, our age has a deeper meaning than the physical changes, which our bodies undergo. As we move through our lives, encounter new friends and new loves, as we experience life’s ups and downs, our humanity waxes. So to age is to expand in experience, to grow deeper into our own personhood. Otherwise, why bother to experience anything of life?
I think of my own mother, who became softer, more relaxed, wiser and happier as she aged. Should heaven erase her years, make her 21 again? Perhaps physically but certainly not spiritually. And whatever is going to happen physically—we do profess a resurrection of the body—is certainly more than wrinkle reduction.
No, in heaven we will learn that the years of grace, which we have been given, are—all of them—to a purpose. They have made us, more and more, year by year, who we are. On earth we think of aging as an ineluctable curse. In heaven, it will be revealed as a real ripening.
In heaven we will learn that the years of grace, which we have been given, are—all of them—to a purpose.
What then of Baby Wesson? Granted that he is with God, what of all the ripening that he was denied, here below? To say that it does not matter suggests that our lives on earth are not purposeful. On the other hand, can one be in heaven, be with God, and still be lacking—anything?
Again, we learn from reflecting on the Gospel, which insists that our lives possess great purpose, and that fact suggests that heaven is not monolithic. The great saints have forged a greater capacity for God than many of us, who move through our lives with such restraint. If heaven is not variegated according to the intensity of its saints, why put our shoulders to the plow at all? I suspect that the saints who speak of a protean paradise, a variegated garden, have it right. A cherry blossom is much smaller, but no less beautiful, than a sunflower.
Also, despite all of our talk of resting there, heaven certainly is not stasis. The saints are not preserved in amber. They cannot be because God is fathomless mystery. Throughout eternity, we will, so to speak, move deeper into God, become ever more our divinely bestowed destinies. He may enter heaven as Baby Wesson, but to live in God is to grow. His ever-deepening identity will be even more a pure gift of grace. Unlike ours, the many marks of sin, the wounds of human life, will be absent from that identity. Even in the resurrection, the glorified Christ retains his wounds, though they have transfigured into something of unimaginable beauty.
Three chosen apostles are soon to see the full ravages of sin, carved into the very flesh of the savior. Now, for a graced moment, they look upon what is yet to come, and at what is there from the beginning, in his identity as God’s Son.
That grace is not given to us, though there are moments in this life: holding a newborn baby; seeing a toddler tackle the first popsicle; watching a child hit the first baseball; seeing our grandmother, kneeling in prayer; or listening, as one of the dying saints prays the rosary, that we get a glimpse of who we truly are in the eyes of God, and also of who we will become in those very same eyes. Granted, they’re just little earthly glimpses, but the things of earth matter greatly in eternity.
Readings: Genesis 12:1-4a 2 Timothy 1:8a-10 Matthew 17:1-9