Churches and Heaven and Don McLean | 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time 2021

Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ss. Peter and Paul Parish
7 November 2021


Hearing about and helping to clarify your spiritual experiences is a joy of priesthood. When you come to the priest, you’re not looking for an expert in economics, accounting, human resources, or education. It’s good to know a little about those things, of course, but for the most part, I think the people of God are looking for something else from their priest. They don’t want him to be the CEO of a small-to-midsize company; they don’t want him to be activist for the sake of the world’s causes alone. 

On his visit to Poland in 2006, Pope Benedict said this: “The faithful expect only one thing from priests: that they be specialists in promoting the encounter between man and God. The priest not asked be an expert in economics, construction, or politics. He is expected to be an expert in interiority.” An expert in the spiritual life. 

I’m not an expert in the interior life. My own interior life, my own “interior geography” is still being explored, mapped, and catalogued. But I do pray, a lot. And I love Jesus Christ, a lot. 

And I am genuinely interested in your spiritual lives and experiences. 

Both in real life, and also in my late night YouTube excursions, every now and then I encounter stories of people who have died and gone to heaven. These stories always intrigue me, and while I am inclined to take the late-night YouTube ones with a grain of salt, I have met people in real life who I do think are the real deal in this regard. What’s something the people who have had this experience have in common? They’re different. Most of the stories include a moment where they confess that prior to the experience they were relatively lukewarm in their faith, perhaps just going through the motion, or had made their faith about something else than God…faith becoming an expression of a political view or social worldview, for example, instead of politics and social concerns being born from a true, Christocentric, and Biblical faith. 

What do they say about their experience: everything is bright, everything is warm, everything is calm, despite everything being known. There is a new reality to sin, and a new urgency about salvation. There is a new perspective of the beauty, love, and attractiveness of God. One person shared, “If you could see the beauty of God, you would never sin again.” 

Do you believe that you, too, die and go to heaven every time you come to Mass? 

This intriguing question is at the heart of everything about traditional Catholic architecture and worship. 

Why are the windows in old churches so high up? Why is everything in here bright, and filled with color? Why is there a railing and, once upon a time, why was there a gate? Why is the most ornamentation, the most lighting, the most color, focused around a box and a table and this ambo? 

When you enter a Catholic Church, you’re not supposed to feel like you’re still on earth, with all of its darkness and dreariness, with all of its preoccupations. When you enter a Catholic Church, you have entered a house of God, and true gate of heaven. 

Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands,

a copy of the true one, but heaven itself,

that he might now appear before God on our behalf.

In this place, in this time, during our sojourn in this strange land, we do worship God in what we pray is Spirit and Truth, but we do in a sanctuary crafted by human hands, which is a copy of the true sanctuary: heaven itself. Our faith tells us that when we come in here, we participate in one heavenly reality, the one liturgy that unites heaven with earth. 

Not that he might offer himself repeatedly,

as the high priest enters each year into the sanctuary

with blood that is not his own;

if that were so, he would have had to suffer repeatedly

from the foundation of the world.

Here we participate with great eagerness and devotion in the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, an entrance into the one Paschal Mystery by which heaven and earth, if only for a moment, seem to kiss. 

This is a sanctuary made by human hands, but it does serve as a copy or a model of the true sanctuary in heaven. Everything is sacramental in here. Everything means something, reveals something. Everything in here, from the windows, to the rail, to the altar, to the tabernacle, to the vestments, to the cups, to the music, and yes: to the priest and the people gathered here in communion. 

All of these earthly things parallel heavenly realities: “the book of the law, the people, the tabernacle, and the vessels for worship. All these [are] ‘copies’ in the sense that they [are] figures pointing forward to greater realities: the law written [not on stone tablets, but on fleshy, natural] hearts, the redeemed people of God [who cry out forever, ‘Holy are you! Hosanna to you! Worship and Adoration and Glory to you! DIGNUS EST AGNUS – worthy is the lamb to receive our praise!], the true tent [, the place of worship not made by human hands and the body not marred by divisions and sins], the true tent of Christ’s glorified humanity, which makes us believe that our humanity can be brought to glory with him, and the new covenant liturgy, by which the whole cosmos is sealed in the blood of the new and eternal covenant which God has established once and for all between himself and us. 

We don’t need to die suddenly on an operating table or have an out of body experience to die and go to heaven; we can experience a foretaste of heaven every time we come to Mass. There’s a lot of pressure to get our worship right, and there should be! As a priest, I need to make sure that when I come to celebrate Mass I can do so with a pure heart and a clean conscience, and that I am not just going through motions (which admittedly does happen sometimes) but truly leading the people of God in real and faithful worship. 

It requires that you, the people, have prepared yourselves well for this also. That you, too, are coming here with a pure heart and a clean conscience; that you have prepared by reading the Readings ahead of time, and not listening by staring off blankly into space and thinking about lunch; that you have done the work of coming in here with an intention for which you plan to offer this Mass; when the gifts are brought forward and the altar is prepared, make some conscious prayer that your intentions and needs would be placed on this altar as well, offered up as spiritual sacrifices acceptable to the Father. 

Then, for both priest and people – me and you – we must make the resolution that when we leave this place, we will have a similar reaction to the people who tell stories of having died and gone to heaven: that we really are new, that we really are different. 

For some reason, when I woke up this morning, I had American Pie by Don McClean stuck in my head. That’s one of my favorite songs of all time, but I don’t think I’ve listened to it in months. 

As I belted it out in the shower, I was stopped by this section near the end:

I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play

And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried, and the poet dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
And the three men I admired most
The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died. 

It’s pretty well known that American Pie begins with death of Buddy Holly in 1959, signaling for McClean the end of the innocence of the 50’s, and tells the story of the turbulence of the 60’s and the disillusionment of the 70’s. 

Are we experiencing now another change, another loss of innocence, another time of turbulence, giving way again to disillusionment? I tend to think so. 

Did you know there’s a gun range near downtown Naperville now? I have no opinion about it one way or the other, except to tell you this: on Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons sounds of gunfire ring out for hours over this neighborhood. I was made the mistake of reading a comment section on Facebook a couple of weeks ago wherein someone was lamenting the sound of loud gunfire over tranquil downtown Naperville. And someone replied, “I’d rather hear gunfire than the sound of the bells at Ss. Peter and Paul ringing all day and night.” 

I tend to think that a lot of people have come to believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost really have taken the last train for the coast. There’s a lot of people – and they’re not far away from here; they’re in our neighborhoods, our schools, our offices, perhaps even our pews – who truly believe that Jesus Christ, the man who pretended to be God, has been dead for 2,000 years and that the Gospel is a means to an ethically fine life but that it lacks any authentic power of its own. No power to heal, no power to transform, no power to make new. And as a result, many of us – myself included – have fallen victim to the belief that I remain dead in my sin and as a result are living lives on unspeakable loneliness. 

This is why I drone on and on about coming here and dying and going to heaven and being different. Because Naperville needs this witness! They need the witness that the Church offers life! That the Church offers refuge! That the life which the Church is so insistent that everyone deserves to live with dignity from womb to tomb is a life of abundance and not oppression; They need the witness that the Biblical vision of human sexuality is life-giving and that one’s past or orientation does not automatically exclude them from the Christian community; if it did, no one would be in here. 

This city, our city, needs the witness that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost have gone nowhere near the coast; but are here, in our midst, as the source of our life, the source of our joy, the source of something new, something different from the divisions and unreasonable assumptions that the world foists upon us. 

Brothers and sisters: welcome to the death of you; welcome to the place where everything that is not of God is given up, and shed away, so that room can be made for you to become to woman or the man, the child, the parent, the friend, the sibling, the priest that God so desires to craft you into. 

But now once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages

to take away sin by his sacrifice.

Just as it is appointed that human beings die once,

and after this the judgment, so also Christ,

offered once to take away the sins of many,

will appear a second time, not to take away sin

but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him.

Is that us? 

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