Gabriel Marcel once said: “To love someone is to say to that person, you at least will not die!”
He’s right. To cherish another person is to give him or her a meaning and permanence that accident and death cannot take away. But there’s a deeper meaning too: To love someone is to hold a place in heaven for him or her. What’s meant by that? It sounds fanciful.
This idea is present inside the Christian scriptures, but it’s also something we intuit in our hearts. Like Job, without the benefit of a belief in life after death but still knowing in his gut that ultimately love triumphs, we too know in the recesses of our hearts that love’s bonds are salvific. In the end, we won’t be separated from our loved ones, even if we walk different paths in life, except if the other positively chooses to be separated. We make places for each other in heaven through love.
What does this mean?
Jesus said: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Too often we understand this simplistically, taking it to mean that Jesus placed special power inside scripture, the sacraments, and the institutional church. True. But there’s more.
At another level, in saying that we can bind and loose, Jesus is saying what Gabriel Marcel is saying, namely, that to love another person is to assure him or her a place (if he or she wants it) in heaven. How does this work?
When Jesus walked the roads of Palestine for three years, a wondrous grace came to all who touched him. To touch Jesus, in love and sincerity, was to be healed, converted, made to walk upright, made to hear, and made to praise God. It also gave that person a place inside the community of life. To touch Jesus or to be touched by him was salvation.
But Jesus didn’t take this grace away when he ascended. He left it with the community of believers, the community of the sincere, which is now his body on earth, In fact he promised that we, his body, could do “even greater things” than he did.
And his body is not just the historical church in its scriptures, sacraments, church gatherings, institutional structures, and hierarchy. Rather, all of us together, and each one of us individually, make up the body of Christ on earth. Therefore when we touch someone or someone touches us in love and sincerity, if we are in inside the community of faith and sincerity, that other person is touching the body of Christ just as surely as people at the time of Jesus were able to touch him.
We are the body of Christ on earth and, like Jesus, have the power to bind and loose. Among other things, this means that when our loved ones (spouses, children, family, friends, colleagues) no longer walk the path of explicit faith and church with us, we can connect them to the faith, the church, the body of Christ, and heaven itself simply by remaining bonded with them in love and community. By being connected with us, they are connected to the church (since we are the church). Moreover, when we forgive them anything, including their non-church going, they are forgiven by the church and forgiven too, Jesus assures us, in heaven.
One of the marvels of the incarnation is that, if we want, our heaven will include our loved ones. In 1995, when Quebec was holding a referendum to decide whether or not to remain part of Canada, a popular slogan across Canada read: “My Canada includes Quebec!” We can say the same thing about our loved ones, even when they don’t go to church with us: “My heaven includes my children, my spouse, this particular friend!” Heaven will back that up. That’s Jesus’ promise.
Partly this is mystical, partly it’s simply the dynamics of love and family. What binds us together as family is much deeper and wider than simply who is at table with us on a given Sunday.
That’s one side of equation, the church side, but this also works the other way: Sometimes we, the church-goers (with our own moral and spiritual blind spots), are held inside the body of Christ, the community of the sincere, by those who love us (and don’t go to church with us), but who are at God’s table in some areas where we are not.
This idea is so wild and wonderful that it’s hard to believe. It’s always been this way. It’s not easy to believe that heaven is as accessible as the nearest water tap, or the nearest friend. When Pope Pius XII was giving the instruction for his Encyclical on the Body of Christ, Mystici Corporis, he told educators and preachers: “When you are teaching about the Body of Christ, don’t be afraid to exaggerate, because it is impossible to exaggerate so great a mystery!” What an apt description of the incarnation!