In Advent we reflect on the revelation of Jesus the Christ in His Nativity. We look forward to His coming again in power and glory to judge us and to renew His cursed creation. The Four Last Things are: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
I was hoping Fr. Glenn would have set me up a little bit better today by saying something rousing about Hell on Rose Sunday. However, he told me that the older he gets, the less he feels he knows about it. I was frankly taken aback by this, since I had figured that spending 19 years with me as an assistant curate might have given him at least a taste of Hell! In any case, today I will try to say something intelligent about Heaven.
Heaven is a Kingdom. The Kingdom of God. You cannot have Heaven without being in the Kingdom, without, in fact, being in and participating in, the Life of God. God is the good and fitting End of all things. He is the Telos (τέλος), around which all Reality is oriented. Everything that IS, owes its being to God. There is nothing created that lacks a parallel in God. God has depths that are not reflected in Creation, but there is nothing in creation that does not rest upon Him. [Inadequacies of God as Sun metaphor.]
As I have said aforetime, part of the Divine Project is turning nothing into dirt, dirt into humans, and humans into Sons of God who partake of the Divine Nature. This is pure profligacy on the part of the Father. He doesn’t need us to be complete in Himself. But His extravagant Love spills over to make the Universe and everything in it. Heaven is the culmination and the vindication of Time. It is present now in Eternity, but for us to reach it, we’ve got to experience our lives. Eventually, though, we will all come to the time of Resurrection. Then our Redeemer, Jesus the Appointed One, Emmanuel (God-with-us!) will re-create the human lineage in the pattern by which His Father raised Him. Our bodies will have perfect senses, and will suffer no debilities. We will be able to walk upon water, disregard doors when entering rooms, and be tremendously nourished from but a little sustenance. Our minds will also function perfectly, and we’ll be able to perform prodigious feats of logic and association with total recall of events.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’d like to step back into sacred history and show the evolution of conceptions of Heaven.
What have we been given to understand of Heaven from scripture? In the Old Testament, the only glimpses of Heaven are given in some of the prophets (like Isaiah). These prophetic visions, though, were conditioned by the pattern of worship that the children of Israel had in their Temple and Tabernacle. And, of course, this pattern of worship was given by the Lord Himself to a people wandering in a wilderness. Israel had been redeemed from slavery in a far country, but they had not yet reached the land of milk and honey that they had been promised. It was while they were sojourning in the desert that the Lord spoke to Moses, commanding, “…let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them, according to all that I will shew thee” (Exodus 25: 8-9).
The furnishings of the Tabernacle (later Temple) and their arrangement formed the basis for the visions of the prophets that followed:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the Temple. Above it stood the seraphims; each one had six wings…and one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory. (Isaiah 6:1-3)
The Tabernacle was the place where the Name of God—His presence—dwelt with His people. God had promised that He would hear His people (and not just them but also Gentiles) when they would pray “toward” the Temple. It was a physical place. You can go there. It’s on a map. There were more than half a dozen prophecies speaking of how the Gentiles would come to worship God in Jerusalem as well. When King Solomon dedicated the First Temple the Shekinah glory of God appeared and descended upon it, taking a shape that would have been familiar to the Israelites who had heard about the pillars of fire and darkness in the desert. The Temple showed that God lived among His people.
And then it was destroyed! The half-step toward Heaven that the people of Israel had taken was revoked when the Babylonians rolled over (in Divine Judgement according to Jeremiah) Jerusalem.
Fast forward some 500 years to the world where Zechariah and Elisabeth lived, childless. The Jews were restless. The Babylonian exile had ended as the prophets had promised, but things seemed…off. What the scriptures promised and what daily confronted the Jewish masses seemed at odds. There had been no acknowledged prophecy (or prophets) in hundreds of years. And God was NOT with His people. Their Temple (the second one, built by Zerubabbel but being fantastically improved by Herod the Great) had not had a visible manifestation of their God.
But God had promised, by many prophets, that He would come if it were built. But…so far, no glory. The understanding of the Jews that they had gained from reading between the lines of the prophecies and from things in what we call the Deuterocanonical works was that they—the Jews—would be on top of the New World Order that would be come about when God revealed Himself. There was also stuff about the Messiah who would resemble Moses and be announced by somebody who resembled Elijah.
Anyway, this contrast between Jewish expectation and reality is what accounted for the many and varied troubles the Romans had in governing Palestine. Because they were the ones who were in charge.
Then, one day, in the reign of Augustus Caesar, God did fulfill the words of the prophets, showing up to grace Herod’s magnificent Temple with His presence. But only two people, Simeon and Anna, recognized him. Instead of a huge glowing cloud, he showed up as an eight-day old infant, arriving to be circumcised in the arms of his mama. The babe Jesus shed his first blood in the Temple. A foreshadowing (and a down-payment) on what was to come.
God reveals Himself to us progressively. He provides as much as we can take at the time, then waits for it to be assimilated before giving more. Each new revelation builds upon the previous.
In the OT the Lord provided a glimpse of Heaven in the arrangement of the Tabernacle that was the basis for subsequent prophetic visions. In the NT, the Lord comes personally to teach us of Himself, the living experience of which is the Kingdom of Heaven. He shows and tells us that where he is (for example) there is no disease, no deformity, no hunger, no want. In last week’s Gospel Jesus tells John’s disciples:
Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.
The privations of the flesh and the mind that shape so much of our life now because of the curse on creation will be no part of our renewed Life lived with Him (and in Him) hereafter. This is the life that Jesus has in Himself and enlivens us by His Spirit to emulate. That life holds love, peace, joy, praise, and thanksgiving—which are fruits of the Spirit.
Jesus knew that we would have this waiting period in which the Church expands, and the Holy Ghost moves as He will. But as the Lord gave to the Israelites the pattern of worship in the Temple, so Jesus has brought us further into the mysteries of God, preparing us for the life to come and helping us now. The Israelites consumed mana in the wilderness to save them from starvation. We consume the Body and Blood of the Son of God which readies us for Heaven.
I’m going to end with some rank speculation about what Heaven might be like. I believe it is congruent with what has been revealed in Scripture and Holy Tradition. Note well that this is not about the intermediate state, the bodiless time which may resemble sleep occurring after death but before the General Resurrection. There are glimpses in John’s Apocalypse that may apply to that period, but today is about Heaven, not that.
So here goes:
- We’ll have spiritual bodies in Heaven and so it will be a lot like our life here now. These will be really magnificent bodies. We will not miss our old lives, but we will be grateful for them and will sometimes marvel at the difference between our astounding “now” and our blinkered “then”.
- Mercy, forgiveness, faith, hope, and love will be the only social currency in the Age to come. And there won’t be a need for any other sort of currency.
- We will still need (and have) government. Under the direction of our King, we will still do work, accomplishing things so marvelous that each new act will make the sum total of all prior human achievement look paltry in comparison. We will still have politicians to administer the work. But, wait, you may be saying, I don’t like that term politician. Well, wherever one has a polis—in this case the City of God, descended from on high—one will have politicians. And if Jesus decides to put Daniel as vice-regent over Virginia—where I will still be living—I’m not going to complain.
- We will no longer suffer temptation. Not because we are mind-controlled robots, but because we retain our memories of missing the mark in this world. Here we were born innocent—ignorant of sin—which is a privation. There, we will be living II Corinthians 5:21:
For he hath made him…(our King, Jesus)…to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.
Our cognizance of this will rebuff the sorts of violations we committed in this Vale of Tears.
- Our life with and in God will be one of constant improvement. But our increasing greatness will not diminish the magnitude of the differential between the Almighty and Us. To the contrary, our magnified perceptions will daily reveal more of the Father’s glory.
- Our limitations (not our sins—which are done away—but our ignorance and relative frailty) are and will continue to be our glory. We will still feel as well as think. We will continue to experience emotions as we confront new situations that call forth a response from us. We will continue to be surprisable (and surprised).
To summarize: God is infinite, we finite. Growing in the Kingdom of God gives us an unlimited capacity for improvement. And according to the nature of things mathematical, our capacity for improvement will always be increasing so that each succeeding day will bring new realizations, unite previously unperceived or disparate strands of divine thought so that our lives are lived in a state of ever-mounting rapture at the majesty, subtlety, and beneficence of the Most Holy Trinity.
And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. (Revelation 21:3-4)
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.†