The law of the Catholic Church has multiple sources, but one of the most important is the Code of Canon Law, the most recent edition of which was published in 1983. You will find the whole code compiled in one large volume, and at the end of that volume you will find Canon 1752, which tells us that “the supreme law of the Church” is “the salvation of souls.” Every law of the Church — from laws concerning the way we celebrate the sacraments, to those which govern the way priests lead parishes, to laws about how the Church handles her material resources — is subordinate to this one great priority: that we go to heaven, that we’re saved from hell, and sin, and death.

Our desire for salvation, our own salvation and that of every living person, ought to shape everything we do in the Church. Think about life in our parishes: Why is it that we come together to worship? Why do we have parish schools and religious education programs? Why do we do Christian service? Why do we bother with parish council meetings, and sports, and even coffee and doughnuts? Because we want to go to heaven. And we want to help other people to go to heaven. Yes, there are other important reasons we do things. We want to serve others and make life better in our communities, of course. But an even more fundamental reason for all that we do is that each one of these activities brings us a step closer to heaven.

Think about life in our parishes: Why is it that we come together to worship? Why do we have parish schools and religious education programs? Why do we do Christian service? Why do we bother with parish council meetings, and sports, and even coffee and doughnuts? Because we want to go to heaven.

Yet how often do we think about salvation? How often would you say you think about heaven or hell? Today, I would like to focus on heaven. Heaven is the destiny we want for ourselves and for other people, and it stands to reason that thinking about heaven more often and more clearly will help us to get there. Or, as a quotation often attributed to Shakespeare puts it, “The love of heaven makes one heavenly.”

This Sunday, we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, and that always makes me think of my own baptism in Christ the King Church on Grand River and Six Mile in Detroit. The first day we begin to taste heaven is the day of our baptism, when the life of heaven is literally poured into us. The pouring of water is a symbol, and the reality to which that symbol points is the gift of the Holy Spirit being poured into our hearts. In baptism, we are immersed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are freed from Original Sin and from eternal death. We are made God’s children and, as St. Paul tells us in Philippians 3:20, we become citizens of heaven. In other words, heaven is not first a prize to be won, but a gift given and received.

Heaven is a gift we receive, but that receiving is not a merely passive activity. In that sense, heaven is a prize to be won by our cooperation with God's gift. And while we become citizens of heaven, we are not the rulers of heaven, of our lives, or of our destinies. Jesus Christ is our King, and the sacrament of baptism comes with a call to live actively as servants of the one King of the universe. Too often we treat Jesus as if he were merely a “member of Congress,” one voice among many competing in our hearts. The true Christian wants Jesus to be enthroned in his heart as King, ruling his thoughts, words and actions. As Americans we chafe at the idea of obedience to one ruler, but that is because in our government we deal with flawed, earthly rulers. Jesus is God. He is perfect. And he always does what is best for us, what will bring us to heaven with him.

The Gospels reveal to us that Jesus is not only a King who rules and judges but also a Shepherd who leads us and guides us through all the challenges and sorrows of this life. Jesus comes to find us when we are lost, brings back those who have strayed from him, and he heals the injured and sick. The Gospels tell us that those who think of themselves as so strong that they don’t need Jesus are destroyed, just as those who won’t bother to love Jesus in the poor and afflicted of this world will be condemned at the Last Judgment. Heaven is eternal life with God, and if we live here on earth as if we don’t need God, or don’t need to imitate the love of Christ, then we cannot expect to live with God forever. Salvation is about grace, not magic, and grace needs to be received willingly.

What will heaven be like? We don’t know exactly, but sometimes we focus too much on our ignorance and act as if we cannot know anything about heaven. Then we are only one step away from thinking of heaven as something like “that big golf course in the sky,” which sounds like heaven to some, purgatory to others, and hell to those like me who can never control their slice. Whatever we can say about heaven, it will be completely beyond what we experience as life here on earth. The change we experience will be like being born from our mother’s womb into the wide world, and even more dramatic than that.

In heaven we will finally know perfectly what it is to be loved and to love. We will never be bored. Heaven is not about sitting on clouds plucking harps like the chubby cherubs in Renaissance paintings. That is only a symbol of the perfect rest and peace the angels and saints experience in heaven. We will be surrounded by holiness and love, by angels and humans who love God and each other totally. There will be no hatred, violence, anger or anxiety. No one will ever sin or even be tempted to sin. 

What will heaven be like? We don’t know exactly, but sometimes we focus too much on our ignorance and act as if we cannot know anything about heaven. Then we are only one step away from thinking of heaven as something like “that big golf course in the sky,” which sounds like heaven to some, purgatory to others, and hell to those like me who can never control their slice.

But the peace of heaven is not just about the absence of conflict and evil; it also means that we will be perfectly fulfilled and content. Every longing of our hearts will be satisfied, because every longing of our hearts will really be about one longing: the desire for God. And in heaven we will finally meet God face-to-face. St. John tells us in his First Letter (3:2): “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

Jesus Himself tells us in John’s Gospel (14:2-3): “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.” To live in heaven is not just to be “somewhere up in the sky,” but to live in God’s very household, to see him face-to-face. In the Old Testament, we read that no human can see God’s face and live (Exodus 33:20), but in baptism and the Holy Eucharist we are made more than human. Baptism makes us “other Christs” in the world, and the Holy Eucharist continues to transform us, to make us less and less earthly, and more and more heavenly, if we will just cooperate.

The British author C.S. Lewis once wrote that for many of us, the way we currently live, so attached to earthly pleasures, the joys of heaven would be an acquired taste. The Christian life is about acquiring a taste for heaven now, about becoming heavenly now, about making sure we never take heaven for granted. Christ our King does not invite everyone to “inherit the kingdom” (Matthew 25:34), but only those who have cooperated with God’s grace, who have listened to the command of Jesus to love, and who not only “talked the talk” but “walked the walk.” May the Holy Eucharist we offer and receive each Sunday help us to say “yes” to Jesus, to love as he loves, to bring some portion of heaven here to earth, so that we and many others can go from earth to heaven, to live with our King forever.

Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.