31st Sunday of Ordinary Time: Gospel – Mk 12:28-34
"Stephen’s Return from Heaven to Share what it is Like"
Preached by Fr Philip Heng, SJ at Church of St Ignatius – Singapore
on 4 November 2012
Jesus in today’s Gospel reminds us of how we should live our Christian faith. In His words of Wisdom He says to us, “You must love the Lord your Godwith all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all yourstrength . . . and also to love your neighbour as yourself.”
All of us have heard this theme time and time again in our homilies; andrightly so, as Jesus Himself says that these are the two commandments are inseparable and the greatest of all commandments. To help us reflect on this theme, I would like to choose a very different angle from what we usually hear preached. Instead of trying to urge us to love God and our neighbours more, I would instead like to share with you a true story ofwhat heaven is like. I believe this angle of our reflection is relevant because if we can have a deeper appreciation of what heaven is like, then perhaps, we will be moved more fully to want to live the life that Jesus wants us to live.
This is a true story of Stephen Tan, one of our parishioner who died at the age of 72, on 28th August, two months ago. Stephen’s wife Audrey has given me full permission to share the story. Stephen went through our parishRCIA journey and was Baptised about two and a half years ago. I remember Stephen vividly; he would sit at the back of the class and show great interests in what is being presented. And when I asked him, “uncle, are you able to follow the session”? He gave me a big smile and said, “Yes, I do.”
The late Stephen Tan
Stephen’s close friend Tony told me just before the funeral Mass that hefelt Stephen coming back on the same morning of Stephen’s death. He felt Stephen putting his arm around his shoulders and asking him to type an sms message for Audrey, his wife; Stephen’s wife. Tony said that as he knew that it was Stephen; so he was not frightened at all and he was fully conscious throughout the time he was typing the message; occasionally he was moved to tears. It took Tony three hours to type the message that Stephen dictated to him; and the message is as follows:
“Dear, the reason why you are able to receive this message is because I have communicated with Tony is because he has been sent by Our lord as an angel to guide and guard you well ahead of the end of my days on earth.” (According to Audrey, Tony and his wife were invited to stay in their home; and they were there for three weeks up until Stephen’s death.)
Dear, as I watch down from heaven I could see how sorrowful all of you were at my bedside this morning at my passing. Thank you is not the least amount of words that I could say to you for all the love that you showered upon me all these years. I must say that all these years you have remained asmy adorable, lovable and capable wife. It must have been my greatest fortune in life to have you as my wife. For all these while, I am aware that the Lord will recall me to his kingdom, as such I have led a peaceful and contended life (take note of this phrase) all these while despite my physical ailments as I knew I am in good hands, yours and His. So Dear, I have been looking forward to this very day to be called home by our Almighty Lord.
Dear, I must say to you that Heaven is so pure, peaceful, bright and godly.I see those chubby angels circling around me. Everything around me, all objects are so full of vibrant colours and energy! Dear I must say to you that I am so joyful as our lord gives me a new lease of life and I am back to my old self exactly like the first time you met me, tall, handsome, always smiling confidently, humorous and patient listening ears and passionate heart. Dear, Heaven is so fun a place ...the slide is the rainbow and I was gliding down of it now with angels holding on to my hands!
During and after the mourning period, there is no need for you, Avena(Stephen’s daughter)and everyone else to tear for me too much as my spirit is so pure, angelic and energetic to the point that I even wish you canshare my such wonderful and joyous experience living in the realm of Heaven.
Fr Philip Heng, S.J. with Stephen's daughter (Avena) and wife (Audrey)
Dear, do not let everyone who mourn my demise; my soul and spirit has attain eternal peace. This attainment is really a gain and never a lost. Thus Dear, while everyone of you is praying for me, I would want you and everyone who miss me to know that let there be little or no sorrow as I am now living in eternity while always keeping a caring and loving eyes on you, Avena and all those I love. I would like to express my gratitude to Janet (Stephen’s maid who had cared for him so well in the past years; especially during his illness) for her untiring efforts in looking after me. When the ritual and process is over, simply to return to normal and vibrant life as you always are. My brave and lovely wife, trust that there will come a day when I open my big and strong arms to welcome you to the kingdom of Our Lord where we not only can rejoice our reunion but also to lead an eternal life forever together.
Dear, I will pen off now but this is not a good bye. This is because poor Tony has been faithfully and dutifully jotting and capturing what I wish to share and say to you and everyone else whom I love; he deserves a rest. May Lord bless you, Avena and all those I love always and forever. Romans 8:38 -39 “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord's”
At the wake, I asked Audrey what she thought about the sms message that Tony says is from her husband Stephen. For Audrey, she says that actually, there are very clear signs that the sms message is from Stephen. The first and most obvious clear sign is that no one else except Stephen calls her “Dear”. Moreover, the chubby angels; the cherubims were a very personal experience between Stephen and her; there was no way Tony would have found out; they had visited the Sistine Chapel in Rome, and after the visit Stephen had developed a special liking for those chubby angels and upon their return, Stephen got her to printeight different postures of these angels and past them on her office wall. Audrey also said that when she once asked Stephen what he desired in life, he said, “Peace and contentment in life.” Stephen in his description of heaven again uses this phrase to describe the heaven that he is now in.
Another very surprising point is that Tony himself admits to me is that therehe is a staunch Buddhist and has literally no knowledge of Christianity, it would be impossible for him to know how to quote St Paul’s letter to theRomans 8:38-39 and how to find it. It was only with Stephen’s guidance to google the verse was it possible for him to find and quote it.
Avena, Stephen’s daughter too told me at the wake that she can see why her dad has chosen to sms her mom. Being computer savvy he knows that sending an sms is the clearest and best way of communicating what he wanted, for if her dad had asked Tony to commit his message to memory, then we would never be sure whether Tony had remembered the message accurately or not. Avena then adds; even all the grammatical mistakes in the sms are very typical of my dad’s writing.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, I can imagine an atheist at his death bed feeling totally devastated and gripped with fear as death to him would be like plunging into a huge black hole that has no end; death to an atheist who does not believe in God is losing everything that he has built in life and loved in life; including his family and loved ones. Death for so called “free thinkers” (if there is such a thing at all) or to agnostics may not be so tragic, but still intensely threatening and frightening. And those who claim that they “don’t care what happens after death are simply not making any sense . . . if we care about what happens to us during our lifetime,we cannot say we don’t care what happens to us when we die because regardless of what we think, we still have to face the truth of what happens to us after we die.
When I heard the story of Stephen at the wake from Audrey and Avena, andlater confirmed by Tony before the funeral Mass, I was deeply touched andtruly amazed. While it was not at all surprising to know that Stephen has gone to heaven, what really struck me and gave me great joy was thatStephen actually seems to have bypassed purgatory!
My brothers and sisters in Christ, as Catholic Christians, it is not that we did not believe that the story of Stephen could happen. We all believe in the Resurrection of Christ and our resurrection after we die. However, the difference is that now we have someone whom we know personally come back to us after he died, to affirm our faith for us.
Should our hearts not be ablaze with joy of the reality that if we were tolive the Truth of Christ, and love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength and also our neighbour as ourselves, we will literally going tofind ourselves at the gates of heaven when we take our last breath? This is the Good News of Salvation . . . let us live it to the full. I like us toponder on these truths for a few moments and let them sink deeper in to our hearts.
Fr Philip Heng,S.J.