John 14 contains one of Jesus’ great promises to us:
In my Father’s house there are many mansions. If not, I would have told you: because I go to prepare a place for you (verse 2).
Usually this verse is taken — correctly — as a reference to our destiny in heaven. But there is a more mystical reading that sees the mansions as symbolizing the souls of the saints. The key to seeing this is the word house, which was a Hebrew term for the temple.
Understanding the house as a temple gives us license to look at what else the New Testament says about the temple. A number of verses come to mind in which we are described as being the temple:
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? (1 Corinthians 6:19).
For the temple of God is holy, which you are (1 Corinthians 3:17).
Be you also as living stones built up, a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:5; here we revert back to the term house for temple).
This interpretation has the benefit of explaining a conundrum in the verse, which St. Augustine himself points out: If the Father’s house already has many mansions, why does Jesus need to go to prepare a place for us? One possible solution is that Jesus goes to ‘prepare’ in the same sense that someone might prepare a room for a guest — he or she puts new sheets on the bed, cleans the bathroom, and otherwise neatens and tidies up the place. Then again, this is heaven we’re talking about. Is it really in such a state of imperfection?
Instead, the imperfection lies with those who remain on earth. It is they who need the preparation. As St. Augustine puts it, “But He is in a certain sense preparing the dwellings by preparing for them the dwellers.”
But this explanation then raises another question, according to Augustine. If we are the ones in need of preparation then why is Jesus departing to heaven to carry out the work of preparation?
The answer, Augustine says, is that Jesus’ departure is a necessary precondition for our faith:
Let the Lord then go and prepare us a place; let Him go, that He may not be seen; and let Him remain concealed, that faith may be exercised. For then is the place preparing, if it is by faith we are living. Let the believing in that place be desired, that the place desired may itself be possessed; the longing of love is the preparation of the mansion. Prepare thus, Lord, what You are preparing; for You are preparing us for Yourself, and Yourself for us, inasmuch as You are preparing a place both for Yourself in us, and for us in You (Tractates on John).
As the temple, we are being prepared for God to dwell in us. This reading is confirmed later in John 14 when Jesus makes another promise:
“Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (John 14:23).
The word for dwelling is also translated as abode. It is the same word that is rendered as mansions earlier in the chapter. (Incidentally, this resolves another puzzle of the verse: how there can be ‘mansions’ in a ‘house.’)
The kind of dwelling we are talking about here then is mutual. God comes to make His home in our hearts. And we also are called find our home in God. As Acts declares, “In Him, we live, move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Paul conveys the same fundamental point using different language: “Your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).
The implications of this interpretation are exciting: the preparation of our heavenly dwelling is happening right now in front of our eyes. And, what’s more: through prayer and the sacraments, we begin to experience that heavenly dwelling in this life.
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