Going to Heaven
By Greg Rupik
In 2018 my grandfather, who we all called “Dadziu,” passed away after a long and happy life. At his wake, a steady stream of family and friends flowed past his closed casket at one end of the room, while my small nieces and nephews quietly played at the other end, innocently oblivious to the reason for the streams of tears and visitors. All of them except for Liana, that is. She had just turned eight, and flitted back and forth between both ends of the room, adjusting her demeanour accordingly. In a moment alone, without visitors, she was looking at the casket from my lap and I asked: do you know who’s in there? She said, “Dadziu’s body is in there, but Dadziu isn’t. He went to heaven.”
Like Liana, when we normally say the phrase “go to heaven,” we mean death. The phrase often brings to mind somewhat cartoonish images of souls leaving bodies, floating upwards towards heaven, sometimes with halos, sometimes with wings. The new Pixar movie Soul reimagines this slightly—with the main character finding himself, as a soul, on an ethereal escalator to “the Great Beyond”—but going to Heaven, here, is still death.
So, when I imagine Jesus’s Ascension (for example when I recite the creed, pray the rosary, or hear the stories in the New Testament of Jesus rising into the air, or disappearing from his disciples sight) I think I very often lump the story in with my own experiences and understanding of death. It’s Jesus “going to Heaven,” after all, and this event is often called “the end of Jesus’s earthly ministry.” I think this is relatively common, given our own experiences of death, and how we speak about it. It’s like all the Church has is a memory of Jesus’ past life, from his birth to his resurrection, but that it’s all in the past—like the memory of a loved one we try to keep alive. But I think that this is a mistake.
Luckily, I think it’s a mistake we can begin to correct relatively easily—and it involves allowing the stories of Jesus’ new, resurrected life in the New Testament to inform our imaginations; to let those stories mold and shape our own understanding of the Resurrection and Ascension.
The first step is to take a moment to appreciate the enormity of the claim that the disciples of Christ are making in the New Testament: Jesus was dead, but he’s alive again. The man that the disciples had spent years following and learning from, the man many of them abandoned, that some watched die, that some buried in a tomb, was alive once more. But it’s crazier than that. He is still alive now, 2000 years later. After he died, Jesus was raised to a new kind of human life, a glorified, divine human life. His humanity began to share in the eternal life of God in a new way.
Jesus was raised from the dead, and is still alive now.
What is Jesus’s new life like? Well, we know that it was different enough that even his closest disciples had trouble recognizing him: think of Mary Magdalene mistaking him for the gardener, or Peter not recognizing him from his fishing boat, or the disciples who didn’t recognize him while walking on the road to Emmaus. But in all of these accounts, Jesus’s new life is physical, gritty, and sensory: his disciples hear him speak—with their ears!—see him—with their eyes!—share meals with him, walk alongside him, touch him. He still bears the wounds of the crucifixion, but isn’t hindered or limited by them, or by his physical form. He is changed, but he is still human, still alive, and still teaches them, feeds them, and ministers to them in a way that continues to demonstrate God’s concern for them.
So, after forty days appearing to the disciples in this way, Jesus ascends into Heaven, disappearing in the clouds.
But he then continues to preach about God’s love. He continues to drive out demons. He speaks in new tongues. He travels the world. He heals the sick and feeds the hungry and clothes the naked and visit the imprisoned. God continues to act through Christ’s living body, because through his ascension, Christ’s body could become more than just the single man from Nazareth. Jesus’ ascension and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost allows every one of us to become a part of the Body of Christ in Baptism. Whenever we, as baptized Christians, are moved by love to serve anyone in need, we are—at that moment—the caress of Jesus in the 21st century.
Through our baptism, we become part of a New Humanity—a part of Christ’s ongoing, vibrant, continuing life in history. The history of Christ’s life is a vine that has grown through history and is still alive today in the communal reality of the Church. It’s not just a memory, or the image of a vine from the past that no longer grows. It’s a community that encounters Christ, alive, in the sacraments, and that creatively brings about the Reign of God in a world very different from the Judaean countryside. Indeed, the Bible doesn’t write about COVID-19 and Tik Tok. We are called to abide in Christ’s life, to ask the Spirit what the Father’s will is, and to bear new fruits in this new age.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going ahead of them to the Father’s House, to prepare a place for them. That is the Ascension. When Jesus “went to heaven,” he didn’t die—he made room for the rest of us in his glorious new life. And those of us who are baptized? We are already there. We are already members of the Body of Christ, which is risen, alive, and in Heaven. When we, today, share in Christ’s life, when we follow our Baprismal call to holiness using whatever gifts God gives us, we already taste and participate in Eternal Life itself.
Certainly Christ, the Good Shepherd, has prepared a place for many more people than just good Catholics in his heart. It’s his life, after all: he can welcome in whomever he pleases. But the fact remains that anyone who helps to bring about God’s Reign on Earth, who lovingly tends to the planet’s wounds, and who kindles the flames of curiosity and compassion in human hearts, acts concretely as a member of Christ’s living Body, and participates in his ongoing life today. Someone like that, through one baptism or another, has already “gone to Heaven.” So, was Liana wrong when she said Dadziu went to Heaven? No. He just got there and started living there way before he died.