Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12
Every now and again one hears people speak of a certain person who died and, although never religious, deserved heaven because he or she was good, generous and selfgiving–more so than many religious people. Such sentiments reflect the notion of heaven being the reward and recompense for a life of virtue and the performance of good deeds. And whereas there is certainly truth in this assertion, it is also open to misunderstanding–one that detracts from the total gratuitousness and pure mercy of God’s saving love, and misrepresents the true nature of heaven. If heaven is only sought in the attempt to avoid hell or thought of as some place of reward and recompense for what is justly owed because of a life of virtue, then entry into heaven may not be assured.
This attitude is one that John the Baptist recognized in the Pharisees and Sadducees who, in this instance were seeking baptism not in the spirit of repentance, but in the hope of avoiding what John calls the coming wrath. It is well to remember that it’s not virtuous to desire to avoid the pains of hell since, with the exception of the severely mentally disturbed, human beings spontaneously avoid pain and pursue pleasure. Accordingly, avoiding vice and sin primarily out of fear of eternal punishment renders one’s virtue questionable and one’s notion of heaven confused and misconstrued.
Imagining that one can somehow earn one’s way into heaven by a life of virtue and good living makes sense if all heaven is, is an eternal version of our present world. After all, didn’t Christ promise that in my Father’s House there are many mansions? And didn’t he reassure his disciples that those who leave everything to follow him will have those very things returned to them a hundredfold? However, this symbolic language is not to be taken too literally as we recall that Christ’s definition of eternal life is this: that we should know the Father and Jesus Christ whom the Father sent. In other words, eternal life and that state we call heaven is neither a place nor being rewarded with things and mansions in the sky. Instead, heaven is the culmination and full flowering of what Baptism began when it initiated a relationship of love that, ideally, finds completion in our eternal union with Christ.
And, as in all relationships of love, one can only be invited into this relationship (and into heaven) and never earn or even deserve it–otherwise it would not truly be love. Accordingly, we are not loved because we have been virtuous or are good, but we have become virtuous because we have been loved and sought by our merciful creator. Thus God’s loving us doesn’t come in response to our growth in virtue and goodness, rather it is in the very act of drawing nearer to us that we are steadily made whole again. True virtue and goodness are the fruits of a deepening relationship with God and not the precondition for it. And so, whereas the virtuous person I described earlier (the one who was not religious) may well enter heaven, it won’t be because of all the good things that person did, but rather because, in some mysterious way, and perhaps without even knowing it, he or she was in a loving relationship with God from which his or her goodness flowed.
That we are loved into virtue is obviously not to suggest that we are simply passive recipients contributing nothing to our being made whole again. It is only to remind us that virtue and good deeds are neither means to certain ends–in this case entry into heaven–but, ideally, manifestations of what we are becoming as we grow ever more capable of loving the one who first loved us. And so all our striving for virtue and holiness is not to avoid what John termed the coming wrath or the fires of hell, but rather to enable us to receive the ineffable gift of finally gazing on the face of the one whose coming we anticipate and long for in this holy Advent Season.