We have been househunting, and we have been much occupied by all the balancing of pros and cons and competing desires that choosing a house usually provokes. Condition, space, room size, lot size, neighborhood, nearness to work and to school—considerations such as these have been bouncing in and out of our heads as we search for a house suited to our needs and likes.
My preoccupations make me unusually aware that I am writing in the month of November, dedicated to remembrance of the souls who have left their earthly home and are being prepared for their heavenly one. And readers will be seeing this in December, the month brightened by Jesus’ birth among us, His “exile” from His heavenly home, undertaken to make it possible for mankind to return to God.
So thoughts of leavetakings and homecomings are filling my mind. And I wonder why it is so hard for us to consider heaven our true home. Why do we feel, when we attempt to imagine ourselves among the angels and the blessed saints, as if we were all uncomfortably straining to be good, like children dressed in their best clothes at a late-night party for grownups? And why do we feel a little bit as though the Christ Child “came home” to Bethlehem, when in reality he was, insofar as it was possible, “leaving home” for our sakes?
Each year we hear again the story of the arduous journey to Bethlehem, ending with “no room at the inn” on Mary and Joseph’s arrival. And yet, perhaps because Christmas creches carry a glow from childhood Christmases, Mary and Joseph and the Babe and the animals all look so cozy, grouped on the straw, awaiting the shepherds and the wise men from the East.
Perhaps Bethlehem seems so homelike because it is the place from which the Holy Family fled to exile in Egypt. But artists have even managed to render that flight in homely fashion. Often the Holy Family is portrayed interrupting their progress to picnic in the shade of cool trees. And charming legends cling to the journey like that attributing the color of rosemary to the Virgin Mary’s blue cloak, thrown over some rosemary as she rested on the way.
Jesus’s hidden years in Nazareth are bathed in a dreamy domesticity, with Joseph at work in his shop, the Boy Jesus at his elbow, Mary sewing or baking bread. I recall a late medieval painting of the Holy Family in Nazareth complete with baby toys for Jesus—He is in a surprisingly recognizable baby walker.
What are we trying to do when we tame the Incarnation so? Partly, I think, we want to draw close to Christ by drawing Him closer to us, by translating His earthly life into familiar terms. The pre-modern habit of ignoring anachronisms when portraying scenes from the past rested on sound instinct. If we care too much about accurate detail, and become too archaeological in our visualization of the past, the strangeness of these superficial differences will strike us more strongly, and it will be harder to get through or beneath them to enduring human qualities. We will consider people of the past odd or quaint, and whether we are attracted or repelled, we will be less likely to respond to them as fellow human beings or to take to heart the lessons they are teaching.
So the urge to domesticate Jesus, to make Him at home here on earth with us, has some justification when it is inspired by a desire to make His life and His lessons part of us. But I think we are also tempted to make Jesus less demanding and less threatening by stressing His resemblance to us. And unless we are very careful we can minimize the enormous chasm lying not only between Jesus and ourselves, but between our crippled earth and His radiant home.
Part of us wants to remain part of the earth—not part of the new earth prophesied by St. Paul, but our familiar fallen one. It is so wrapped in sweet associations, so tolerant of our own fallen condition.
Death is horrifying for many reasons: the separation from loved ones, the ghastly sundering of soul from body, the fear of God’s judgment. But even heaven’s goodness, should we reach it with God’s gracious help, is daunting. Our description of heaven is mostly a list of things the earth is not.
Heaven is our intended home, but it does not seem adapted to all the requirements of happiness that most of us would name. That is because—Heaven knows!—most of us are not yet worthy of heaven. Another way of saying this is that we are not yet suited to it. When you buy a house you usually have some alterations in mind, either at once or down the line, to make it conform to your tastes or convenience. Heaven is the home that we must be remodeled for. Purgatory is not just a place of punishment but a workshop in which the parts of us we refused to alter on earth must be attended to.
And purgatory is clearly necessary for most of us: however much we are drawn to some images of heaven, we still shrink from others; we are unfit for heaven because we are still unfitted for it. But ultimately, if we are so blessed by God, we will find a perfect fit between our deepest desires, our most profound longings, and heaven’s superabundant goodness. Shame and guilt and fear, envy and vanity, anger and sloth, all our humiliating idolatries and ambitions, every drag or impediment to joy, will have been purged. We will become capable of undiluted joy because all the sediment of self-will that clouds our earthly joys will have been cleared out. Then will come the final homecoming, which all earthly homecomings only palely approximate.