The kingdom of heaven is near


Today’s Gospel features Jesus saying, “The kingdom of heaven is near.” The phrase could communicate many things: that Jesus is speaking about himself to the disciples, showing that God is present there, in this embodied person. It can also communicate the “reign of God,” the idea that God wants to establish a reign of justice in this world, that God came especially to bring justice to the poor and marginalized. Sometimes Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven in terms of growth: the yeast the leavens the bread, the mustard seed that becomes a whole tree. Then the kingdom of heaven might be the growth of the Christian community itself, or the growth of goodness and transformative love, which are not always perceptible in the world’s sin and turmoil, but always working and growing beneath the surface.

All of these meanings have meant something to me at different times in my life, but this past year another meaning has taken on special resonance: the idea that eternity itself is close at hand. All the Love that we have ever known—in time, in family, in friends, in mentors—is still there—in eternity, in a mysterious ever-present that accompanies us wherever we are. The kingdom of heaven is near.

In the past couple of years, I’ve “lost”, in some sense or another, three people who meant a lot: a friend/colleague to cancer; a family member who survived an accident but needs long-term care far from where I live; and a mentor/friend gone due to both geography and almost tragic mutual misunderstanding. All were painful losses—lots to mourn, lots to grieve, more boxes of tissues than I can ever count. Some of the grief was not even for myself so much as for others—the beautiful family of my colleague,  his newborn baby who will never remember him firsthand. What I’ve come to know, though, is that all the love and care that we have ever known is still there, always near, ever present; the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The source and sustenance of all Love is in God. The love we’ve known, the love we’ve given, even the love we wish we’d known, or had somehow done better, all there and preserved in God’s self, who has united himself to us. God’s love is as close to us as we are to ourselves— and even closer.

A friend of mine loves to cite Madeline L’Engle’s words, “Love is never lost.” I used to hear and interpret that psychologically, as though it meant this: when we love and lose a person that we love, they still remain with us as a memory, or as a personality trait, or they helped us to grow and so are still ‘with us’. Walking in a field or a garden in the summer always reminds me of my grandparents, with whom I spent long and happy summers as a child on their retirement farm in Canada. Memory is good, but still not as good as having my grandfather or grandmother actually there with me, picking yellow raspberries off the bush, berries so warm that they almost melt in your hand before they do melt in your mouth. Sure, so my grandmother lives on in me in my love of songbirds, but it’d be even better if she were here to share a meal, to hug her and to squeeze her hand, sticky with raspberry juice. Maybe I’m just greedy, but flesh and blood presence is better than memories.

I teach Augustine’s Confessions, and the restlessness of the heart that is never at peace until it rests in God speaks to me, and speaks even to the non-religious students in the class: there’s a kind of longing for home in the human spirit that is never complete, always waiting. God waits for us that way, too, with a patience and gentleness of heart that never forces but always meets our own longing where it is. If we felt no longing or restlessness, would we ever seek God? Would we ever know how much God seeks us out, too?

So part of it’s trying to becoming more comfortable with restlessness, more comfortable with longing, but in a way that is hopeful, with a kind of hope that is at least a little naive if not totally foolish. But also, something new has become clearer to me this year. The not-lostness of love is not merely about a psychology of memory. It’s about presence. All the love we once knew is there and can still be known, the way you recognize the sound of your child’s voice, even in a crowd— an unmistakeable presence.

We are all interconnected in God, all interconnected with one another, through the Spirit. God not only creates and sustains us, but also unites God’s very self to us. Through the Spirit being given to us, we share in the Trinity, not because we are God (we’re not) but rather because we are God’s beloveds. We are joined together in God and held in God’s love. All the love we have known is still there—grandparents, parents, old friends, family, mentors, new friends, too. It’s as close to us as we are to ourselves, even closer, because God is just that close.

Seeing each other in the flesh and blood is good, so I stay hopeful and keep risking looking naive and foolish. I do believe in the Resurrection; I’m counting on it. But every time we meet a beloved again, it’s not so much the restoration of something lost, but more of a reminder of what already is, was and ever shall be: the joy of love preserved in God, the joy of Love that is God. “The kingdom of heaven is near.”

*photo by Marina McCoy, view from Schoodic Pt, Acadia, Maine