Opening the Word: Descending heaven
The geography of heaven is typically up in the sky. Heaven is up there, beyond the vicissitudes of time. It’s in a distant place, removed from the present.
The mystery of Easter forces us to reconsider this misbegotten celestial geography. Eternal life, the life given to us by Jesus raised from the dead, can be experienced here and now.
In order to recognize the heavenly transformation of the present, we must look to the Book of Revelation. John has a vision, seeing the advent of a new heaven and a new earth. The old earth and the old heaven have passed away.
What does this mean?
The old earth is governed by the logic of power and prestige. It is ruled by Babylon, a symbol of the empire.
The discourse of empire is that of control. Everything is reduced to a politics of power. Human relationships are defined by whoever is in charge, whoever gets to tell the rest of us what to do and how to act.
|Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 19, 2019|
PS 145:8-9, 10-11, 12-13
JN 13:31-33A, 34-35
The empire longs to replace itself with God, to ensure that every person worships wealth, hierarchy, comfort and self-importance. There is but one “god,” and this “god” is Caesar. Replace Caesar with the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, this economic system — you have empire.
This earth, governed by the logic of empire, is gone. It has been transfigured through the blood of the Lamb.
But what does it mean that heaven itself has passed away? Does this mean that the kingdom of God, the love permeating heavenly existence, was insufficient?
No! The passing away of heaven is not the death of heaven. Instead, it is the end of the radical separation between heaven and earth. The kingdom of divine worship, of praise, of love to the end that is present throughout the Book of Revelation has now come to wed itself to earthly existence: “I … saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adored for her husband” (Rv 21:2).
The death of heaven is not the end of the kingdom of God. Instead, it is the definitive moment in history, the final moment, in which God’s love will be all in all. Earth does not need to escape its status as creature to ascend to God. Rather, God will descend to the created order. Heaven and earth are married, dwelling together forever.
We know, of course, that this wedding hasn’t entirely taken place yet. But, if we have the eyes to see, the first fruits of heaven can be viewed in the Church herself. Remember, heaven (in the book of Revelation) is a city. It’s a dwelling of men and women with God not as rugged individuals, each seeking their own salvation. It’s a city of love.
In the Gospel of John, this is precisely how the Church is described. The sole new commandment is that we love one another as Christ loved us.
To love one another not according to the divisive politics of the present. But to love one another as Christ loved us, sacrificially, unto the end. Even unto death itself.
Thus, the first glimpses of heaven can be viewed. We don’t need to escape our creaturely existence to see it.
We just need to head to our parish to see the first fruits of love’s communion in the Church — where the hungry are fed, those who grieve are comforted, and at the center of it is found the Eucharist, the wedding banquet of the Lamb once slain.
Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.