Today’s gospel passage is often taken as a reference to the heavenly abode: the destination for the soul once it takes leave of the body at death. We might be tempted to conceive of it as a retirement home of the spirit nestled in an ethereal woodland somewhere beyond the dome of the heavens where we will go and wait out the rest of history until God’s grand scheme is concluded. I won’t write that this isn’t what it is. Jesus is giving us an image of heaven, to set alongside a great many others (a wedding banquet, a throne room, etc.) but that there is more to this of immediate application to our life as individuals and communities now. Christians live in anticipation of seeing the Beatific Vision of God in His glory surrounded by the saints, angels, the whole company of heaven, but that vision has a relationship to how we are to live in this world. So, while this passage is strongly associated with our funeral traditions (a favourite of the scriptural repertoire, read often at either the vigil prayer service or at the Mass) we should read it on this occasion in light of the whole Biblical canon and understand that it also speaks to us about what our current home ought to be: our “house” should bear some resemblance to our Father’s.
This means delving a little into the significance of Jesus making pointed reference to the “many dwelling places.” Other images of Heaven give us mental pictures of a great assembly, with Christ and the Father enthroned, angels soaring overhead, the saints, the martyrs, standing rank upon rank offering unending praise. I must admit, that doesn’t entirely appeal to me. It looks, to my mind, very much like one of those huge arena concerts that rock super-groups once put on in the big sports stadiums: a sea of people swaying to the deafeningly over-amplified music of the pop star/idol. Don’t get me wrong, that can be quite exciting, but to go on forever? There is something quite nice about Jesus telling us that as much as heaven will be an experience of community, it also provides for us as individuals.
These verses from John are a personal favourite. It might have something to do with the translation I grew up with: “In my Father’s house are many mansions…” That’s from the King James Version (KJV), but I will quickly add this is the same translation as in the Douay-Rheims Bible which is the Catholic classic contemporary with the KJV. The Greek of the original (monai) is probably best translated by the New Revised Standard Version that we hear in the Mass–it simply says that in the Father’s house there are “dwelling places.” The older translation, coming as it did on the cusp of the transition of Western society from the Medieval to the Modern, captures the imagination in much the same way Gothic architecture plays upon the senses: it draws us out of ourselves and upward. Why would God’s place be just so many rooms? “Mansion” so better conveys the grandeur one would expect. There is also another connotation that is found in this rather antique English word: a “mansion” was also the name for a stop on a journey, a way-point of rest like an inn. And that is important to remember for the sake of our full understanding of what is being said about our life in the hereafter: the end of the road is not our arrival in Heaven, but rather when Heaven and Earth, the divine and the created are fused into a new creation. That is the culmination of God’s plan.
Of course, our problem here is that we are trying to imagine a spiritual reality with the visual vocabulary of the material world. Jesus recognized this in his preaching and teaching, and did his best to convey the idea that in speaking of the spiritual in terms of the material, we are working with poor analogies. That’s why when he speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven, he will say first, “it is like…” and then continue, “again, it is like…” and so on, presenting a number of different images and ideas to tell us that what is there will encompass and transcend what we know here in the physical universe of God’s creation.
So, what we are being told in this passage from John is something to add to our store of images and ideas about Heaven, and so qualify our understanding and keep us modest about just what we can know about this reality that is far beyond anything we’ve ever known. Yet, we aren’t to give up on coming to some comprehension of it. In the letter from Peter, we read that in this our earthly existence we are to, “be built into a spiritual house.” (1 Peter 2.5). We are spoken of in this verse as being the “living stones” that are the foundation, walls and roof of a “this world” construction.
So, what are we to build? Not just in terms of a Church, but to strive after as a society? What is apparent in this description of the place Jesus says is prepared for us is that we are not going to be absorbed into some greater entity, losing our individuality. Many human ideologies, some of them quite odious, have drawn on that beatific picture of all the saints gathered around the throne, that is, the entirety of humanity as one and declared that to be the ideal. The oneness is organized around nation, or race, or socio-economic class, or some other material characteristic. Of course, the scriptures have always given us a strong sense of disapproval of empire-building, of seeking unity around what is merely human. The most famous instance of world unity as expressed in a building project was the Tower of Babel.
Towers, for one, aren’t particularly nice places to live (indeed, in popular story-telling, they are almost always places of imprisonment, e.g. Rapunzel; or bastions of evil, e.g. the Lord of the Rings), and are constructed more as monuments to human striving, an expression of the ego (either of an individual or a collective), rather than to fulfill the practical needs of people. Indeed, the model for the Tower would have been the ancient ziggurat which was not a home for anyone, but rather a platform for priests and kings to gain access to the gods (and yes, to make celestial observations and calculate calendars–regarded by ancients as “religious work, think of the famous Three Wise Men). The story has God sowing confusion by dividing the people though giving the different groups each their own language such that they fell out with each other and could not complete their stairway to the heavens. That is often read as God meddling, but as scholars have pointed out, that is how we hear it as modern people. What the ancient audience would have gathered is that the confusion and chaos, the falling out into different and competing groups is the natural result of such a vainglorious project. Human unity, or let’s just say ‘community’ cannot be built this way even as we continue to see politicians in every generation propose one grand project after another as something to bring everyone together.
The community that God would have us make, the house He wants us to build here to mirror the heavenly home, is not one constructed to glorify us. Even insofar as it is built to the glory of God, it isn’t a monument to be gawked at, but a place where one can live. And the project does not depend upon the dumb obedience of us all, acting like Hebrew slaves making and hauling bricks for pharoah, but rather we are the living material from which it will rise. So, as individuals we must make ourselves fitting, and so fit into the foundation, the wall, the roof of this place that exists to make a home for ourselves and God.
How are we made fitting? Well, we can look to the early Church and the example found in our reading from Acts today (Acts 6.1-7). The Christian community is seen responding to a real need, the care of widows in a time when these women were among the most vulnerable in society. The first deacons are appointed whose task is to see to the needs of the disadvantaged and dispossessed. This is how we make the house that reflects the heavenly home prepared for us: we serve each other, compassion being the hallmark of our community, and as individuals come together to accomplish what no one of us could do alone; and we engage others as individuals, regarding them in the fullness of their human dignity, not as some undifferentiated mass.
The apostles at the Last Supper are confused by what Jesus has said to them; Philip gets up the nerve to request that Jesus “show us the Father.” Our Lord’s rejoinder is that if you have seen Him, you’ve seen the Father. Jesus shows us something of His Father’s house as a place where there is not only room for everyone, but a place where He is to be found as well. It’s pretty common to describe our parish church as “God’s House.” Let’s be sure that what we build and care for is no monument but a true dwelling place for God and ourselves, a mansion of the spirit for those on the journey and a home away from our heavenly home.