Because I’ve Been Struggling with “the Kingdom Of Heaven is At Hand”

Second Sunday of Advent

Dear readers,

I’m struggling with something. When you’re done reading my diatribe, will you let me know your thoughts?

Here we are, the second Sunday of Advent and the Gospel reading recounts how John the Baptist preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” I understand what this means on a chronological level. John is prophesizing that the Messiah is coming. But why does Christ then tell his Apostles to tell people the very same thing? “From that time Jesus began to preach and to say: ‘Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ “

Is Christ saying the end of the world is coming? That we need to renounce the world and long for God’s heavenly kingdom? Or is Christ saying the Kingdom of Heaven is right in front of us? Or is Christ introducing both of these concepts at once?  I am troubled when Christians refer to our earthy lives as a “vale of tears” only to be endured because our true home is heaven. This doesn’t match my own experience. Maybe I’m missing something.

My confusion and anger began on All Soul’s Day, when I tried to read the Liturgy of the Hours. The second reading was a sermon on man’s mortality by Saint Cyprian, a bishop. Let me be blunt: I just don’t “get” his sentiments. I was on board with his first sentence “Our obligation is to do God’s will” but he lost me by the sermon’s end. He talks about how Christians should not go kicking and screaming into our deaths. Okay, I get that. Here is where he and I part ways. “Why then do we pray for the kingdom of heaven to come if this earthly bondage pleases us? What is the point of praying so often for its early arrival if we would rather serve the devil here than reign with Christ? The world hates Christians so why give your love to it instead of following Christ, who loves you and has redeemed you?”

Living is not de facto serving the devil. Using the gifts with which God has blessed us is a privilege and a responsibility. Following Christ need not happen only when we die. Isn’t Christ about how we live, too? The world might hate Christians, but God loves the world and everyone in it.

Dualistic thinking restricted my spirituality for much of my life. I used to see the Church over here and the world over there. I used to fear the world outside my comfortable life of family and parish. I couldn’t understand the Church infuses the world. Saint Cyprian tells us we must wish to meet the glorious band of apostles.“Let all our longing be to join them a soon as we may,” he preaches. 

That’s not what I long for. I long to learn to love my husband and our sons more fully each day. I believe Christ brought them to me. I believe He is uses my struggles, past and present and future, to draw me closer to Him. I believe the love we share among family and friends and neighbors is beautiful because it give us a glimpse of the love Christ pours out to us. I believe I am supposed to be looking for the face of Christ everywhere – in the stories my students tell me of damaged lives, in the struggles I see in our small town, and so on, because He lives.

To refer to our lives here as “bondage”  feels ungracious. One could argue that Saint Cyprian’s sermon only applies to early Christians or those who live under fear of torture and persecution, such as our brothers and sisters in Iraq. But I don’t think he was limiting his remarks. And then this weekend when I started reading “Teacher Man” a magnificent book  by  the late Frank McCourt about  teaching in New York City public schools  I wondered again about how Christ wants us to envision ourselves in this world. Frank McCourt’s  his description of growing up Roman Catholic in Limerick, Ireland caught my breath. Among those McCourt forgives for his miserable childhood are “the bishop of Limerick, who seemed to think everything was sinful.” He continues: “I had spent childhood and adolescence examining my conscience and finding myself in a perpetual state of sin. That was the training, the brainwashing, the conditioning and it discouraged smugness, especially among the sinning class.” Is this Christ’s message? Is this how we want to pass on the faith to our children? I don’t believe so.

I’m not interested in arguing the particulars of Frank McCourt’s childhood or his issues with the Church because I know his was a common experience. How many adults, given the responsibility of instructing the faith, failed spectacularly? Our own sons endure CCD classes that are dull, uninspired and focused solely on rules and consequences. They receive not a word of guidance about developing  interior lives of prayer and faith.

This exasperates me. How do we learn and teach the truth of the faith in all its richness? I always discerned “the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand ” means it is within our grasp, that we can encounter Christ here and now. I asked myself: Is this just a remnant of my post-Vatican II, felt-banner, not-so-Catholic childhood?

So I looked it up. I went to a source that I consider official. It turns out I’m not so unorthodox.  The Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry for “The Kingdom of God”  fits my perceptions.

 “The various shades of meaning which the expression bears have to be studied. In the mouth of Christ the “kingdom” means not so much a goal to be attained or a place — though those meanings are by no means excluded; cf. Matthew 5:3; 11:2, etc. — it is rather a tone of mind (Luke 17:20-21), it stands for an influence which must permeate men’s minds if they would be one with Him and attain to His ideals.” 

 I’m going to keep praying and waiting for the Christ Child, who is with us. Right Now.
(photo courtesy of Karen Horton, whose husband’s blog is here)

  • ThereseRita

    I'm not sure I totally understand what you're saying but a couple of thoughts occurred to me:1. Once in a Bible study, a man said that he always thought "the Kingdom of heaven is as close as your hand" when he heard that passage. I.e., its really up to us to help the Kingdom to come to others etc. That observation has stayed with me.2. Even a cursory overview of the 2000 yrs of Church history shows how different truths are emphasized at different times & places by different teachers. I mean, I don't know who Cyprian was writing to but I usually take readings like that with a grain of salt bc it probably was highly relevant at the time & might be again someday, for all I know.3. I think it was JPII that said that heaven wasn't a place so much as it is a relationship. So, in that sense, you're right its not like we just hold on thru this vale of tears until we can get out of here bc, if we live under the gaze of Jesus, He permeates everything we do all day long. That said, there's the "already but not yet" aspect to living that the Church is a master at teaching us about, if we'll just listen. I mean, She never has tried to gloss over or ignore the amazing amount of suffering, loneliness and just plain aggravation that life in the here & now entails. That's where the Spirituality of Suffering comes in that, I think, is really unique to our faith. Of course, you probably know all this already…also JPII & B16 have a ton to say about it. JPII mentioned poverty, suffering & isolation many many times in his Christmas homilies too. You see, he didn't see any opposition between the fact that the "Christ Child is with us, right now", as you say, & that same Christ Child was born, lived & died in suffering.

  • Ruth Ann

    Hello, Allison, and happy 2nd Sunday in Advent. When I read your essay I see two issues: 1) the meaning of Matthew 3:2 "…the kingdom of heaven is at hand," and 2) the meaning of "the world" in the context of Cyprian's sermon. I believe they are two different things in two different contexts, so maybe it's not appropriate or feasible to conflate them. Matthew's statement occurred in the first century. Cyprian wrote in the 3rd century. Of course he would have been familiar with Matthew's gospel, but did he have that passage in mind when he wrote or sermonized?Here's how Matthew's verse is interpreted in the footnotes of my Bible: "'heaven'… is a substitute for the name 'God' that was avoided by devout Jews of the time out of reverence. The expression 'the kingdom of heaven' occurs only in the gospel of Matthew. It means the effective rule of God over his people. In its fullness it includes not only human obedience to God's word, but the triumph of God over physical evils, supremely over death. In the expectation found in Jewish apocalyptic, the kingdom was to be ushered in by a judgment in which sinners would be condemned and perish, an expectation shared by the Baptist. This was modified in Christian understanding where the kingdom was seen as being established in stages, culminating with the parousia of Jesus."The Catechism (CCC) has more to say about this. The kingdom is also called God's reign or rule. It has multiple meanings. It is a reign of righteousness , peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. It drew near with Christ's incarnation. It was announced in the gospel. It is present in Jesus. It remains with us in the Eucharist. The apostles were to proclaim this kingdom. The Holy Spirit forms us into a priestly kingdom (the Church). The Church is the beginning of God's kingdom on earth. In the Lord's Prayer we pray for the time when the kingdom will appear in its fullness—at the end of time, the time of Christ's 2nd coming.I checked Saint Cyprian's sermon where he seems to me to be talking about "the world" as St. John uses it in his gospel. St. John, in fact, was very dualistic in his thinking, and this is evident in his gospel imagery: light & darkness; truth & falsehood; living water & still water; the descent & ascent of Christ; earthly & heavenly thing. We can think of the world that way when we see and experience evil within ourselves, others, society, etc. These are forces that oppose God's kingdom and the Holy Spirit. These are the forces which Jesus came to redeem. The world is not yet perfect, so in that sense, it is a valley of tears.But another meaning of "world" is all Creation, everything that is kept in existence by our creative God and which He pronounced good—including human beings.I, myself, like all these aspects of thinking about God, because, frankly God is beyond our ken and we need all kinds of ways to think about Him and about reality. And even then we will see just a glimmer of the Truth, Goodness, Beauty. I find myself able to handle ambiguity.As for teaching our children or anyone else "the truth of our faith in all its richness" we plant seeds and allow grace to do its part. Going to school to learn anything is not exciting at all times. It can be interesting, though. Teachings of the faith and the life of Christ, the saints, etc. can be presented systematically. But life in the Spirit has to be "caught" by living it within the faith community. I don't think people in your generation should put so much blame on growing up in a certain era. God and His grace is always in the mix. He gives us what we need when we need it.

  • Caspar Ignatius

    Funny thing–I've been pouring time into studying sacramentality, so let's see if I've learned anything.It's one of those funny Catholic moments of both/and. The world is fair and fallen, so keep the condemnations and the congratulations at the same time.The world is fair, because God created it out of his sheer, superabundant love, an outpouring and plenitude of divine gift and favor. He created it so he could create persons who could be loved and love him in return–angels and humans capable of entering into relationship with him. We are called to communion with God, as the Pope has it, and since we are creatures, we must do this through the created order, through worship, which is thanks and praise, offering everything back to him.The fullness of worship is the highest act of love–self-gift. Giving ourselves totally to him as he has given himself totally to us by giving us being and a share in the divine life.Now, we fell, the demons fell, and so the world is groaning as though in labor until our redemption is complete–until the end of all things, the resurrection of the dead, and the life in the world to come. So yes, we are in bondage, the world is in bondage, but damaged, not destroyed. The world is still essentially good because the world still exists, and existence=goodness, as "I AM" is God, who alone is Good. But it is also fallen, and so tempts us to love it for its own sake as the highest good, rather than God. We tend towards idolatry of stuff, of things in this fallen world, putting them into the God-shaped hole in our hearts to try to fill it or cover it over, because it's easy, and it's here. We are in spiritual combat until the day we die. In the end, the world shall be restored to the medium of the message of the life and love of God. He shall be all in all, and everyone shall see as Ignatius saw. We shall behold the Beatific Vision, and the world shall be transparent to God as stained glass.You may enjoy Dr. Regis Martin's "The Four Last Things" or his collection of classic Christian poetry "Garlands of Grace." They capture that odd paradox of the great goodness and grief of the created order.

  • Anonymous

    Hey Batgirl, this is the Joker.Listen to Danielle Rose's meditation on the 3rd Luminous Mystery.The Kingdom of Heaven/God is the communion we experience with the body of Christ both here on earth and eternally after our death. Our breaking of this communion here on earth through sin is what St. Cyprian calls service to the devil.

  • Sara

    I just had time to skim over the comments, but I think you misunderstand the text of St. Cyprian — I believe this to be an exhortation to live the Kingdom of Heaven now. "Bondage," as he describes comes from our freedom to be tempted and to fall in to sin; whereas, the Kingdom (both here and in eternity) would be, as Anonymous states, living fully in the Heart of Christ/in a state of grace NOW…good thoughts and worthy topic to ponder — TKC!ps I have been re-visiting the topic of indulgences which is very related to striving to live God's Kingdom and to "bring it on" for others…

  • Joseph R.

    St. Paul said in one of his epistles that he wished that he could die and go be with God in Heaven, but he also recognized the call to remain here and continue to do God's work. He seems to be caught by choosing the better of two goods. Of course, the choice isn't really his, so he accepts continued life here.St. Cyprian seems to be talking about people who find their pleasure in this world for its own sake. In stead of finding blessings and opportunities for grace the world (as Paul did) they merely enjoy what it offers. Such people are hypocrites when praying for a swift second coming. That's why going kicking and screaming to our deaths is bad. It sure looks like we're attached to this life for its sake. We need to be ready to let it go (and I do mean all of it, good and bad) when the time comes.

  • Sandy C.

    Our RCIA teacher said something last week about the "Kingdom of Heaven" being a parallel to a term used in Isaiah (the scripture from yesterday's reading). I cannot remember the parallel term from the OT, but I will ask the teacher tomorrow. Very thought-provoking questions you ask!

  • Allison

    I am really moved by all the responses and I hope they keep coming. Your wisdom awes me. I am working today so can't respond in full to all. But I will…@Therese Rita: Thanks for this succinct summary of your thoughts. (I also love your blog) I like what you say: "different truths are emphasized at different times & places by different teachers. I mean, I don't know who Cyprian was writing to but I usually take readings like that with a grain of salt bc it probably was highly relevant at the time & might be again someday, for all I know." And then talking about the Spirituality of Suffering. It's fine for me to feel my life is not a series of struggles, but a look at the world as a whole reveals tremendous pain, loss and suffering.More later friends….

  • Pennycake

    'The first thing I think of is a quote from St. Catherine of Siena: "All the way to heaven is heaven, because He said I am the way."Catherine talks about Christ as the bridge between heaven and earth, divinity and humanity. The bridge between heaven and earth is already heaven, because it is Christ.I love this quote because it breaks down the dichotomy between means and ends. The Christian life is not a means to heaven. War is not a means to peace, freedom is not a prerequisite for following Christ. The Christian life is about practicing heaven now, on earth, even if it gets you killed. It’s not about making our way to Christ in some far-off eschaton; Christ is the way.', then, you are looking for the way by which you should go, take Christ, because He Himself is the way.-St. Thomas Aquina