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Home to heaven

January 30, 2015
Father Mark Doherty

In his story “The Great Divorce” 20th-century English scholar and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis vividly describes the struggle we face in accepting the invitation into heaven. The gates of heaven are open to all; God bars the way to no one, but he cannot compel us to accept heavenly beatitude. Why is there a struggle? What does this struggle look like?

Lewis’ story begins with a group of recently deceased individuals getting onto a bus that takes them up to the entrance of heaven. Upon arriving, the passengers are struck by how “real” heaven is. The colors are brighter and sharper than anything they’ve seen, the air is richer, and even the blades of grass under their feet feel like so many sharp needles pricking the underside of their feet. There is more “there” there in heaven than on Earth.

Their bus having arrived, the passengers are greeted by heavenly inhabitants come to encourage them to accept the invitation to enter heaven. Here is where the drama begins. The passengers, each in their own way, begin to feel a point of resistance urging them to reject the invitation. As the blessed greeters encourage, a malevolent spirit discourages. The evil spirit takes a different shape for each of the passengers, but the strategy is always the same: doubt, leading to anxious fear, leading to discouragement and dejection.

The Gospel reading for today presents a striking confrontation between Jesus and the evil spirit. That this confrontation comes at the beginning of Mark’s narrative tells us that the battle between Jesus and the demons will be a central theme. Jesus, like Lewis’ heavenly greeters, has come to invite everyone into his Father’s house, to partake of eternal life, and the demons will do everything they can to mount a resistance. The demon in today’s Gospel is agitated by Jesus’ presence. The description provided makes it clear that the demons are no friend of Jesus’. They sense that Jesus is encroaching on their territory, and they want him gone.

Anyone who has sought to draw closer to God has felt this struggle. There is a correlation between the effort to invite God more deeply into one’s life and the pull to turn back, to quit. This is because while we remain comfortably where we are the evil spirit is content to let us “rest.” He consoles us, reassuring us that there is no “higher” life to be had. But if and when we begin to listen to the voice of Jesus calling us to a more “real” life where the colors are more vibrant and the air is richer, the evil spirit rouses himself to pounce on his escaping prey.

The evil spirit sews doubt as he suggests that the life to which Jesus invites us is not as good as the life we’ve had. He then sows fear by pointing out how much it will cost us to accept Jesus’ invitation: You will have to surrender your treasures, your jealousies and grudges, your lusts and pride, your dreams and life plans. It isn’t worth it, he tells us. And look how poor and miserable you will end up at the end, stripped bare of all treasure.

If we do not resist these temptations we will end up discouraged and dejected. To resist I must do two things: First, figure out what vulnerability the evil spirit is attacking within me and resist his advance there. How does he seek to sow doubt and fear in me? Second, I must seek to focus less on the evil spirit’s voice and more on Jesus’ encouraging tone. Jesus extends the invitation to the Father’s house to you and to me. Life in the Father’s house is better than anything we can make for ourselves or what the evil spirit can provide. Let us resist the attacks of the bitter demons and welcome more fully the presence of Jesus.

Father Doherty is a parochial vicar at St. Peter Parish, San Francisco, and a member of the faculty at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory.

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