“Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord… We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.”
II Corinthians 5:6,8
“Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.”
I Corinthians 15: 51, 52
What becomes of us after this life? What has become of those Christians, our friends and loved ones, who have died. What is their state of being? Are they conscious or are they unconscious, sleeping till the end? Are they aware of their own existence, their own state of being? May they be, in some sense, in a place? They have vanished from our presence. We may have old photographs, some cards and letters and certainly memories that may take us back to this person or that person who once loved us. Are they conscious of this world they have left behind – of the life we once shared? Do they remember? Are they happy?
These questions tie us existentially to the first and second generation Church, existentially because these were the major concerns of the average Christian by the end of St. Paul’s life, and guesswork on such weighty matters is not acceptable. Why at the end of Paul’s life and not before? Because St. Paul clearly expected Christ to return before his death, and he believed that most of his converts would live to see it. In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, probably written around 52 AD and making it the very first written text of the New Testament, the Apostle writes concerning the Second Coming of Christ:
“For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”
I Thessalonians 4:16,17
See how easily Paul wrote, “Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together.” That is because he fully expected most of his converts would live to experience Christ’s second advent. But by the time Paul had planted the Corinthian Church and began to deal with their internal problems years had passed, most of the Apostles and the first generation Church in Jerusalem was dying, and Paul had several times narrowly escaped death himself. This problem then became the pressing pastoral issue at the end of his life: What happens to Christians who die before Christ returns?
This is what I will be focusing on over the next few weeks, but I want to begin empirically, that is, with experience and specifically with the experience of worship in order for us to have a place to stand as we think about this. In the book of Revelation, St. John the Divine presents us with a vision, an image of worship that will be a sort of touch stone for us as we embark on this study of personal eschatology. Yes, in a sense we are beginning at the end by doing this, but I have always been the kind of person that just might read the last page of a story first, and so there you have it. Here we go. Remember this is empirical; this is experiential, the existential life of the Church at prayer. In his Revelation, St. John likens the prayers of the saints to the incense offered up by the angels in the presence of God in Heaven. Or rather I should say that Christ reveals to St. John what our prayers are like and instructs him to record this image in Heaven:
“And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.”
Earlier in Revelation 5 when John is first summoned up to Heaven and when he first observes the angels with golden censors full of incense, the incense is identified as the prayers of the saints. So the prayers of the saints should be thought of in terms of the offering up of incense before God. You know what that is like because you have experienced the offering up of incense in the Mass. “The prayers of the saints” that are offered up to God in the Mass, your prayers, are like the incense that the angels offer up in the heavenly Mass in the Revelation of St. John. Here we have the censer, a globe filled with hot burning coals. And we have a little boat, a boat that contains hundreds, maybe thousands of grains of incense. Think of your prayer as one grain of incense. In the Mass your personal intentions, your needs, your cares and concerns, sometimes for a loved one that is with our Lord, are offered up. That is like a grain of incense dropped upon the hot, burning coals in the censor. In a sense it is a whole burnt offering because there is no recovering it once it is offered up. But you are not alone in the Church, never alone, and so as each of you participate in the Holy Communion you each contribute your grain of incense. When we put spoons full of incense on the hot, burning coals, each single grain of incense mingles to form one sweet smelling savor, one visible cloud, one offering.
The odor of the frankincense reminds us of the holiness of God, and our growth into the image of God means that we should not only look like God, but we should smell like God. Our habits and dispositions in life may be compared to an odor; sometimes they stink, sometimes they are sweet. Where ever you go you leave an odor behind – an odor of beauty and holiness.
But the most potent and the most perfect presentation of our individual and collective character, as the offspring of God, is in the Mass, in worship, where we smell the incense and where we visibly see the clouds of smoke, our prayers and lives all mingled and offered up as one living sacrifice to God.
“And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.”
But there is more to see in the Revelation’s image of the heavenly abode of the Trinity than we have hit upon so far. We have seen this powerful image of the angels, countless angels really standing or hovering around the Altar of Heaven and offering up incense together with the prayers of the saints before God. But there remains a piece to be added to that vision:
“And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, how long dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?”
Here is what I want you to see and hold on to: the prayers of the saints that the angels offer up before God in Heaven include the prayers of the saints that are under the Altar of Heaven. So not only are your individual prayers mingled with the prayers of one another here on earth, but the prayers of the saints here on earth are mingled with the prayers of the saints in Heaven as well – one prayer, one body, one Church:
Let saints on earth in concert sing
With those whose work is done;
For all the servants of our King
In heaven and earth are one.
One family we dwell in him,
One Church, above, beneath,
Though now divided by the stream,
The narrow stream of death.
This is the image that I wish for you to hold in mind as we seek to understand the last things that are coming sooner or later.
Now I want to move to a second point and look a little closer at the way the blessed departed are described in the Revelation. We have the image of those who “sleep in Christ,” but one should not take the language of sleeping literally since that is the special way Paul and other Apostles speak of the death of Christians – one they took from Jesus himself. Jesus and his Apostles deny death. But further, in the Revelation we have the cry of the blessed departed from under the Altar of Heaven, “How long, oh Lord? How long?” and one thing that means is our loved ones who are with the Lord experience a sense of time. This is an experience of the state of being of those who are under the Altar of Heaven. This is what we call the “intermediate state.” But there is more to come.
What we can gather from this image is that those who are absent from the body and present with Christ share with us a sense of tension in our Lord’s delayed return. Anxiety is too strong a word, but tension is certainly there in that prayer. Furthermore their prayer, short as it is, requires memory, and it is full of passion and desire. In addition to tension, memory, desire and longing, they have volition and intentionality all wrapped up with their state of waiting of anticipating the end when Christ will renew all things.
Now we must return to the resurrection of Jesus. Easter is the defining moment in history; the common turning point for both the living and the dead. Death has been robbed of its horror, its sting. It is the last enemy; yes, it remains an enemy to God and his creation, but death no long has the great, final significance it one had – for all of us. And yet it is clear that the blessed departed are with our Lord and safe, they are not in a state of completeness. The intermediate state is penultimate. In 2 Corinitians 5 St. Paul refers to what he calls the “nakedness” of the disembodied “inner man,” the person or the soul or the spirit. Our beloved dead are not dead; they are with our Lord even in this incomplete state of being. They are not abandoned. They are, as Paul declares, “present with the Lord.” But they are not complete. Human beings were not created for a life in Heaven, that is for a life that is outside the space time continuum. We are created for space and time. We will not be complete, we will not reach our full potential till the final resurrection when the “inner man” and the “outward man” (our own body) will be, transformed, renewed and reunited to make the whole man. What is my point? My point is, if you don’t go to Heaven it isn’t the end of the world. Paul, early in his mission, did not expect to go to Heaven, he expected Christ to come back to this world we live in and transform everything. We are not made to be cloud dwellers, but terresterial, material, fleshly beings. The material world is not opposite to the spiritual. What is opposite to the spiritual is nothingness.
We can be fully confident that even in this intermediate state of being there is no separation from Christ. But a bodiless state of being is not natural for human beings. At least part of the plaintive cry of the souls under the Altar, “How long, Lord,” is an expression of their desire to be clothed once again with their bodies of flesh. So you see though they live with the same temporal stress that we do, they do not lead some shadowy existence, wandering lonely and aimlessly. They are alert, conscious, loving, and intentional and they are praying for all of us. The “inner man” may be divested of his body, but he has already been taken hold of by the resurrection. Although they are in a state of waiting they are not waiting alone. We wait and those with the Lord wait. We wait together as we celebrate the Holy Communion. But we wait together, loving one another, praying for one another, knowing that as we draw closer to Christ, we draw closer to one another. And one day Christ will return and our waiting will be over and we will all back together again. Never to be divided.