There is a tendency today to forget that Heaven is an acquired taste; not everyone wants what God offers. While everyone wants to be happy, often happiness is conceived of in an egocentric way. Heaven is thought of as a personally designed paradise where we will be happy on our own terms.
But that is not what Heaven is. Heaven is the Kingdom of God in all its fullness. Its values and qualities are manifold but include many things that are not immediately desirable to those who live with hearts and minds that are worldly and sinful. The Kingdom of God features ideas that are often unpopular: love of one’s enemies, generosity, love of the poor, and chastity. Heaven features God and His teachings at the center, not me and what I think. Yes, Heaven is a place where every aspect of God’s law is perfectly manifested. Yet many find some of these things not only undesirable but downright obnoxious; some even call them hateful and intolerant. To those in darkness, the light seems harsh.
Yes, Heaven is an acquired taste. This helps to explain that the existence of Hell is not due to a “mean” God trying to remove people whom He doesn’t like from His presence. It is a respectful acceptance by God of the free decision made by those who do not want what He is offering. They do not want to think differently or even be told what to think. They do not want to give up their favorite sins or have their hearts purified of unruly or disordered appetites. In the end, God will not force us to love what and whom He loves. He will not force us to live in His Kingdom.
In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis makes this very point. In it, many people come to “tour” Heaven, some of whom do not like what they find. Some struggle to adjust, others are resentful and say, in effect, “No thanks.” If you have not read it, I strongly encourage you to do so; it is an important book to read and ponder.
In yesterday’s Gospel, the Lord inquires after our hearts by giving us the images of buried treasure and a pearl of great price. The one who finds them goes and sells all he has in order to obtain them. Does this describe your heart? Does it describe the hearts of our family, friends, and compatriots? Often, the answer is no. Most people are not will to give up everything for the Kingdom of Heaven. Our hearts are disordered. We easily desire things that are sinful and harmful, and not so much those that are good, holy, and lasting. We prefer apparent goods to true goods. If we are faithful, the Lord can get us to that disposition of heart—but it takes time. At least grant Him your willingness to get to that place!
In yesterday’s Gospel the Lord also speaks of a dragnet. While he uses it as an image for the final judgment, that final judgement ultimately depends on the myriad judgments we make in our daily life. As you haul the net of your life ashore, what do you keep, finding it valuable, and what do you discard? Do you value what God is offering and retain it or do you more highly value other things in the net? What do you keep and what do you discard? The answers to questions like these points to your place in the net at the last judgment. God will gather into His Kingdom those who have desired it, not those who have rejected it.
Give the Lord your heart. Open when He knocks. Let Him create a desire in you for the very things He is offering. In the end, Heaven is an acquired taste, more so than we commonly imagine. Let God give you a taste for better and higher things.
This song says, “I’m trying to make heaven my home!”
Today is the Feast of All Saints. Some saints of the Church have a particular day on the calendar associated with them and are commonly recognized by name. Many more, though not as familiar to us, are still known by God and have been caught up with Him to glory. Today is their day, the day of the countless multitude who have made it home to glory by God’s grace and by their “Amen” to the gracious call of God. Let’s consider these saints under three headings, based on today’s readings.
I. Their Privileged Place: The first reading today, from Revelation, speaks to us of saints: from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cry out in a loud voice, “Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb.” … They prostrated themselves before the throne, worshiped God, and exclaimed, “Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”
Note how liturgical the description is. In fact, the most common way that Heaven is described is in liturgical imagery. The liturgy is a kind of “dress rehearsal” for Heaven. To those who find Mass “boring,” this description can be challenging.
Indeed, many people today have rather egocentric notions of Heaven. Heaven is a place where I will be happy, where I will see my family, where I will take leisure. I will have my mansion; I will no longer get sick; I can play all the golf I want, etc. Heaven is a “better place.” But this better place is generally understood in very personal terms; it’s a kind of “designer Heaven.” But Heaven is what it is, not what we conceive it to be.
As for the real Heaven, the heart of it is being with God, looking upon His glorious face and thereby having all our inexpressible longings satisfied. In Heaven, the saints behold the glorious face of God and rejoice. It is their joy to praise Him and to rejoice in His truth, goodness, and beauty.
Note, too, both the sense of communion of the saints with God and with one another. The biblical portraits present a multitude, a vast crowd. The biblical way to understand the multitudes in Heaven is not to envision physical crowding but rather deep communion. In other words, the Communion of Saints is not just a lot of people standing around talking or moving about.
St Paul teaches, So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members, one of another (Rom 12:5). And though we experience this imperfectly here on earth, we will experience it perfectly in Heaven. As members of one another, we will have deep communion, knowing and being known in a deep and rich way. Your memories, gifts, and insights will be mine, and mine will be yours. There will be profound understanding and appreciation, a rich love, and sense of how we all complete one another and are one in Christ.
Imagine the glory of billions of new thoughts, stories, and insights that will come from being perfectly members of Christ and of one another. Imagine the peace that will come from understanding and being understood. This is deep, satisfying, wonderful communion—not crowds of strangers.
St. Augustine had in mind the wonderful satisfaction of this deep communion with God and with one another in Christ when he described Heaven as Unus Christus amans seipsum (One Christ loving Himself). This is not some selfish Christ turned in on Himself. This is Christ, the Head, in deep communion with all the members of His body. This is all the members in Christ experiencing deep mystical communion with Him and one another, all swept up into the life of the Trinity. Again, as St. Paul says, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Cor 3:23).
II. TheirPrize of Perfection:The second reading, from the First Letter of John, says, Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
We cannot even imagine the glory of the saints in Heaven. The Heavenly Father once said to St. Catherine that if she were ever to see a saint in his or her transformed heavenly glory, she would fall down and worship because she would think she was looking at God.
This is our future, if we are faithful. We will reflect the glory of God and be transformed by the look of love and glory. Just one look, and oh, the glory we will reflect, God’s very own glory!
Gotta make a hundred; ninety-nine and a half won’t do. And when God is through with you and me, oh, the glory!
III. The Picture to Ponder:The Gospel today (the Matthean beatitudes) sets forth a kind of picture of what sanctity looks like. The beatitudes are the description of the transformed human person; they describe what happens to us as Jesus begins to live His life in us through the Holy Spirit.
This picture is not one that merely waits for Heaven, but one that is true of us even now as we grow into the likeness of Christ.
I have written more on the beatitudes HERE and HERE. For the purposes of today’s feast, we need to acknowledge that a beatitude is not something we do but rather something we receive. A beatitude declares an objective reality as the result of a divine act.
The present indicative mood of the beatitudes should be taken seriously and not transformed into an imperative of exhortation, as though Jesus were saying, “Start being poor or meek and then God will bless you.” Rather, He is saying that when the transformative power of the cross brings about in us a greater meekness, poverty of spirit, and so forth, we will experience that we are being blessed.
Beatitude is a work of God and results when we yield to His saving work in us. We are blessed when we accept and yield to the work that God alone can do. With this understanding, we see the beatitudes not as a prescription of what we must do per se, but as a description of what a human being is like whom Jesus Christ is transforming into a saint! And this transformation is a growing, stable, deep, and serene beatitude and holiness.
Therefore, today’s feast of all saints does not merely point to the completed saints in Heaven, but to us who would be saints, not just someday in the future but beginning now and in increasing degree.
At the end there will be saints and ain’ts. Which do you choose? As for me, ninety-nine and a half won’t do. I gotta make a hundred.
Many of you know that I write the weekly “Question and Answer” column for the Our Sunday Visitor newspaper. Every now and again I get a question that stands out as unique, one that I had not thought of before. And such is the case with the question below. I had never thought of Heaven as potentially being crowded or considered it a drawback. But the question led me to reflect on the deeper experience of what we call the Communion of Saints in Heaven.
My answer is brief due to the limits of that particular column (600 words or less). But I choose not to expand my answer here, hoping that its brevity might provoke a few more readers.
Q: The descriptions in the Bible seem to describe a vast amount of people and the paintings I have seen from the Renaissance make it look rather crowded and busy. Frankly I hate big cities and crowds. Are these descriptions accurate or am I missing something? –Doris Leben, Wichita, KA
A: The danger to avoid when meditating on Heaven is taking earthly realities and merely transferring them to Heaven. Whatever similarities heavenly realities have to things on earth, they will be experienced there in a heavenly and perfected way, with unspeakable joy.
The more biblical and theological way to understand the multitudes in Heaven is not as some physical crowding, but as a deep communion. In other words the Communion of Saints is not just a lot of people standing around talking or moving about.
St. Paul teaches, So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members, one of another (Rom 12:5). And though we experience this imperfectly here on earth, we will experience it perfectly in Heaven. As members of one another we will have deep communion, knowing and being known in a deep and rich way. Your memories, gifts, and insights will be mine, and mine will be yours. There will be profound understanding and appreciation, a rich love and sense of how we all complete one another and really are all one in Christ.
Imagine the glory of billions of new thoughts, stories, and insights that will come from being perfectly members of Christ and of one another. Imagine the peace that will come from finally understanding and being understood. This is deep, satisfying, and wonderful communion—not crowds of strangers.
Therefore, the biblical descriptions of Heaven as multitudes should not be understood as mere numbers, but as the richness and glory of communion. The paintings showing “crowds” should be understood as an allegory of deep communion, of being close in a way we can only imagine.
St. Augustine had in mind the wonderful satisfaction of this deep communion with God and with one another in Christ when he described Heaven as Unus Christus amans seipsum (One Christ loving Himself). This is not some selfish Christ turned in on Himself. This is Christ, the Head, in deep communion with all the members of His Body, and all the members in Christ experiencing deep mystical communion with Him and one another, together swept up into the life of the Trinity. Again, as St. Paul says, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Cor 3:23).
In Advent, as we continue to meditate on the Parousia (the magnificent Second Coming of the Lord), we do well to allow our imaginations to be engaged in contemplating the glory that awaits those who are faithful, to meditate on the joy and ecstasy of the culmination of all things!
Though we have soberly meditated on the need to be ready and on the great danger that many who are not serious may be lost, for those who ARE ready, what glories await! The great and terrible day of the Lord will indeed be great for those who have allowed the Lord to prepare them.
I was stirred this past month in reading a magnificent book by Cardinal Jean Danielou on Angelology (usually pronounced an-GELL-o-gee), the study of angels. The book is entitled The Angels and their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church. It is must reading and very accessible—only 114 pages—but packed full of stirring and edifying accounts of the wonderful works of the angels, according to Scripture and the Fathers of the Church.
The final chapters on the eschaton (the last things) and the Parousia (the Second Coming) are particularly magnificent. I would like to distill them here, adding some material and reworking it just a bit. However, the research is that of Jean Cardinal Danielou. I hope you will be stirred with as much joy and zeal as I was in reading and preparing this material. And thus we proceed:
Perhaps as a beginning point,we may wonder what happens to the ministry of our Guardian Angel when we die. Even if our souls are in heaven, our bodies are still awaiting the resurrection. Ancient Christian tradition maintains that during this time the angels keep watch over the tombs of the saints. In the Jewish apocalyptic book The Assumption of Moses, it is said that Joshua saw Moses’ soul rising to Heaven with the angels (40:1–7). However, the Epistle of Jude also says that the Archangel Michael fiercely disputed with the devil about the body of Moses (cf Jude 1:9). Stories such as these, combined with the ancient Christian practice of frequently depicting angels in cemetery art and funeral monuments, indicate a role for the angels in guarding the bodily remains of the elect, even those sadly scattered about or buried in the depths of the sea.
Scripture is replete with descriptions of the role of angels in the great Second Coming of the Lord. In the Gospel of Matthew there is a text that may refer to 70 AD, but surely also describes the end of time:
Then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other (Matt 24:30-31).
The first epistle to the Thessalonians also says,
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise … (1 Thess 4:16).
St Cyril goes on to describe the extraordinary magnificence that the presence of the immense multitude of angels gives to the final judgment. He considers how the great depth and breadth of the spiritual world has been invisible until now, except to the eyes of faith. But suddenly it is made manifest! He asks us to try to imagine the immense multitude of angels by considering the vast numbers of human beings who ever existed, from the time of Adam to the present day, now standing before the Lord Jesus. And then he asks us to imagine that the angels are vastly more numerous than we are. For they are the 99 sheep whereas humanity is but the one sheep! Such vast numbers can only be spoken of as myriads and myriads! Or as Daniel poetically says,
Thrones were set up and the Ancient of Days took his throne. His clothing was white as snow, the hair on his head like pure wool; His throne was flames of fire, with wheels of burning fire. A river of fire surged forth, flowing from where he sat; Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him, and myriads upon myriads stood before him (Dan 7:9-10).
Such a vision and such multitudes can hardly be imagined.
Of course the first step in assembling this Great Judgement is to wake the dead. And the angels are surely part of this:
The Second Sibylline Book, a Christian work, describes the archangels shattering the gates of death, raising up even the bodies of those who had been drowned in the sea or whom savage beasts had devoured (Sib, 2:214–235).
St. Ephrem speaks of the angels as waking the dead, and says,
Then the Lord will appear in the heavens like lightning with an unspeakable glory. The Angels and the Archangels will go on before his glory like flames of fire, like a mighty torrent. The Cherubim will turn their faces and the Seraphim will fly ahead crying out in fear: “Arise, you who sleep. Behold the bridegroom is coming!” Then the tombs will be opened and in the flash of an eye all the people will rise and behold the beauty of the Bridegroom.
St. Paul says that our bodies will rise, truly our bodies, but gloriously transformed:
He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself (Phil 3:21).
So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power (1 Cor 15:42).
Then of course Comes the Judgment by Christ and the here too the angels execute that Judgement:
Matthew 13 describes the angels as separating the wicked from the just:
The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Mat 14:41-43).
And Matthew 25 describes the angels as with Christ when He takes His judgment seat:
When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:31-32)
St Cyril of Jerusalem speaks of the angels leading the sinners away, body and soul, “in the full sight of the armies of heaven and they will be unable to escape.” But the angels are also uniting the just.
So, on the one hand, Matthew 13 describes the angels leading evildoers away:
The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who caused others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace (Mat 13:41-42).
On the other hand, St Ephrem also goes on to describe the angels leading the elect to paradise:
Then the angels will come together from all sides and take up the holy and faithful people into the glory of the clouds above, to their meeting place with Christ.
Origen also speaks of the angels escorting the blessed to paradise:
When … we have begun to enter the holy place and pass on to the promised land, those who are really holy and whose place is the Holy of Holies will make their way, supported by the angels and unto the tabernacle of God … They will be carried on [the angels’] shoulders and raised up by their hands.
St Paul seems to speak to the same glory when he writes to the Thessalonians,
The dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
The Fathers of the Church then consider and imagine the joy (and relief) of the angels whose long work is now done. Of this final culmination, Scripture says,
The last enemy to be destroyed is death. “For God has put all things in subjection under [Jesus’] feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection under him,” it is plain that he [the Father] is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one (1 Cor 15:26-28).
And thus, having gone forth to execute judgment, Jesus now returns to His Father’s right, in the Holy Of Holies. He ascends there, now with all the members of His body (body and soul) joined to Him. He ascends to the throne as Unus Christus, amans seipsum (one Christ, loving Himself). And though co-equal to His Father in glory and majesty, He is delighted to hand over the Kingdom of His Body, the Church, to His Father, who is, as Father, the Principium Deitatis.
And at this ascension, the Fathers ponder that the angels will make the same declaration, the heavens echoing with their cry:
Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle! Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory! (Psalm 24: 7-10)
And there shall then come to pass the transformation of all creation and the fulfillment of its longing for its share in the glorious freedom of the Children of God, as prophesied through St. Paul:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it [because of our sins]. But the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies … (Rom 8:19-25).
And now it comes! Heaven and earth are united and creation receives its original glory and more besides, for the heavenly realities are now joined to the earth, beautifully restored and raised. Again, as Scripture says,
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:1-5).
Cardinal Danielou beautifully concludes,
On that day, the joy of the friends of the Bridegroom, [the angels] will be complete. They have led to paradise the souls of the just who are entrusted to them. They have kept watch over their mortal remains. But [for now] they still await the day in which the Bridegroom will come to look for his Bride, when her beauty is finally perfect, in order to lead her into the House of his Father for the eternal wedding feast (p. 114).
Of this magnificent beauty, St. Methodius says to us,
Oh dearly beloved, [the angels] burn to see the day of your marriage, all the angels Christ has called from heaven. They will come, O Lord, O Word, and they will carry with them mighty gifts, in their spotless robes.
Thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thess 4:17).
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” … He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen. (Rev 22:17; 20-21).
One of the strong traditions of Scripture is of the great reversal that will one day come for many. I have often been sobered by it when I consider how blessed I have been in this life. I have also been consoled by it when I struggle to understand why some people in this world seem to suffer so much more that I do, or others do. Life seems a very uneven proposition if we only look at this side of the equation. Only God sees the whole picture but to some extent he has revealed that those who have suffered much in this life will be more than rewarded in the life to come and that there will be a great reversal.
The theme of the great reversal is most fully developed in the New Testament where the understanding of the life to come is also most developed.
Consider the following texts:
[Jesus said], “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matt 19:30 & also Matt 20:16 & also Mark 10:31)
[Mary said], “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; but the rich he has sent away empty.” (Lk 1:52-53)
Abraham replied [to the rich man], ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented. (Luke 16:25)
Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way. (Luke 6:21-26)
Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more. (Luke 12:48)
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. (Rom 8:18)
For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor 4:17-18)
There are other texts, and I am grateful if you will add to this list. But, for now, let these suffice. As I have said, I am both challenged and consoled by these texts.
I am consoled for I, like others, have suffered in this life and experienced set backs. In regards to this, the Lord promises that sufferings and set backs, if endured with faith, produce ultimate profit, not loss. Much of this profit may wait till heaven, but surely sufferings endured with faith are like treasure stored up in heaven. First the cross, but then the crown. Hallelujah.
I am also consoled on account of others. I, like you, know people who have suffered far more than seems fair. Loss after loss mounts up, grief after grief. My humanity recoils and I often cry to God on behalf of others who seem to suffer so much more than others. Lost health, lost jobs, lost home and family members. Why, O Lord?!
I think of my poor sister who was mentally ill and horribly afflicted by demons and voices who spoke to her, haunted her and robbed her increasingly of any touch with reality. Ultimately her life ended tragically when she died in a fire. She was surely among the last. But she loved God and wanted desperately to get well. The day after she died I offered Mass for her and I heard her speak to me in the depth of my heart and she said “I’m OK now, Charlie.” And somehow I knew that God was taking care of her, purifying and clearing her mind. And I also knew that she who was among the last but believed, I would one day see as among the first in the glory of heaven (pray God I get there). I suspect that she will be closest to the throne and that I, who have been among the first here in this world will have a “mansion” far less spacious than hers.
I am consoled for my sister’s sake and also for those who, unlike me, live in great poverty in other parts of the world. The bounty of American living is but a dream to them. Perhaps there is war. Perhaps there is famine or natural disaster. Perhaps they are victims of despotic and corrupt governments. They are less free, less blessed, in greater stress and often in desperate need. They are among the “last” in this world. But, if they have faith, they will be blessed to be among the first in the great reversal that is coming when the Kingdom fully breaks in. Faith IS essential. Jesus did not say all the last shall be first but that many who are last shall be first. I am sure that it is living faith that makes the difference.
But I am also challenged. I am among those who are first. What does this say for me in the great reversal that is coming upon this world? I have good health, I enjoy bountiful blessings. I am more blessed that I deserve. I live in the greatest, richest, and most powerful country in the world. My needs are largely provided for. I am here in my air-conditioned room with time enough to write and ponder things far beyond mere subsistence. I am surely among the first, the rich. Even the poorest in this country are blessed compared to many others in the world. Where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds, when the great reversal sets in?
Not everything is as it appears. We crave wealth, power and access and call it a blessing. We want to be first. But God warns it may well be a curse: Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains. (1 Tim 6:9-10). Knowing this and other texts like it, we still want to be rich, on top, first. We are very obtuse.
And so, I must say I am challenged. I am not defeated however or fatalistic. God has not utterly forsaken the “first.” He has left us a way and given us instruction on how to avoid the “curse” of our wealth and good fortune. Simply put, that we should use our status as “first” to bless others. That our many gifts would be placed at the service of the human family. A few texts come to mind:
[Jesus said], “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with deceitful wealth, so that when it fails, they [likely the poor whom we befriended] will welcome you into eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:9)
Tell the rich in the present age not to be proud and not to rely on so uncertain a thing as wealth but rather on God, who richly provides us with all things for our enjoyment. Tell them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, ready to share, thus accumulating as treasure a good foundation for the future, so as to win the life that is true life. (1 Tim 6:17-19)
And so it is that the Lord tells us who are “cursed” to be first to store up our true treasure in heaven (Matt 6:19). Of course we do not store up our treasure in heaven by putting it in a balloon or rocket. Rather we store it up by generously dispensing it to the poor. Perhaps by simple gift, or by providing jobs and economic opportunity for others. Perhaps by sharing our gifts of knowledge, or time or other talents. In so doing perhaps our curse of being among the first will be overcome and the challenge will be met.
The great reversal is coming! Where will I be when the first trumpet sounds?
This Chant of the funeral Mass refers to the great reversal but prays that the deceased will be found with Lazarus who once was poor. The text says: In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.(May the angels lead you to paradise and at your coming may the martyrs receive you and may they lead you into the Holy City Jerusalem. May a choir of Angels receive you and with Lazarus who once was poor, may you have eternal rest).
In the readings today, the Church presents for us a strong reminder and teaching on the resurrection. Jesus himself leads the charge against those who would deny the resurrection from the dead and the seven Brothers of the first reading along with their mother bring up the rear. Let’s take a look at what we are taught in three stages.
1. Ridicule of the Resurrection – The Gospel opens with the observation that Some Sadducees, who deny there is a resurrection, came forward and put [a] question to Jesus. These Sadducees propose to Jesus a ridiculous example about a woman who was married seven times to successively dying brothers and had no children by any of them. They suggest that the resurrection will cause there to be a real confusion in determining whose husband she really is! Now we’re all supposed to laugh, according to these Sadducees, and conclude that the idea of resurrection is ludicrous. Jesus will dismiss their absurdity handily as we shall see in a moment. But let’s take a moment and consider why the Sadducees disbelieved the resurrection.
Fundamentally, they rejected the resurrection due to the fact that they accepted only the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Now this is somewhat debated among scholars but for our purposes we can surely say that if something was not explicitly in the Law of Moses, they were unlikely to accept it. All the other Old Testament books such as the prophets, the historical books, the psalms, and the wisdom tradition were set aside by them as authoritative sources. They further claimed that, in these first five books, the resurrection of the dead was not taught. Most other Jews of Jesus’ time did accept the complete Old Testament, and teachings such as the resurrection of the dead which are set forth there, but the Sadducees simply did not. They were a small party within Judaism (Josephus said they were able to persuade none but the rich). Nevertheless they were influential due especially to their wealth and to the fact that they predominated among the Temple leadership. You can read more of them here: Sadducees
Hence the Sadducees arrive to poke fun at Jesus and all others who held that the dead would rise. They are no match for Jesus who easily dispatches their arguments. And Jesus uses the Book of Exodus, a book they accept to do it. In effect Jesus argument proceeds as such:
You accept Moses, do you not?
(To which they would surely reply yes)
But Moses teaches that the dead will rise.
(Jesus must have gotten puzzled looks but he presses on).
You accept that God is a God of the living and not the dead?
(To which they would surely reply yes).
Then why does God in Exodus identify himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all of whom have been dead some 400 years? How can he call himself their God if they are dead?
Obviously they are alive, for he could not call himself their God, for he is not a God of the dead but of the living.
So they are alive to God. They are not dead.
Hence Jesus dispatches their view. For us the point is to see how forcefully and clearly Jesus upholds the fact that the dead are alive in the Lord. He powerfully asserts an essential doctrine of the Church and we should rejoice at how firmly Jesus rebukes their disbelief in the resurrection of the dead. Rejoice! For your loved ones are alive before God . To this world they may seem dead, but Jesus tells us firmly and clearly today, they live. Likewise we too, who will face physical death will also live on. Let the world ridicule this, but hear what Jesus says and how he easily dispatches them. Though ridiculed, the resurrection is real.
2. Resplendence of the Resurrection– Jesus also sets aside the silly scenario that the Sadducees advance by teaching in effect that earthly realities cannot simply be projected in to heaven. Marriage scenarios, perceived in earthly ways, cannot be used to understand heavenly realities. The Saints in heaven live beyond earthly categories. Heaven is more than the absence of bad things and more than the accumulation of good things. Heaven is far beyond anything this world can offer. Scripture says, No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no human mind has conceived — the things God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9). And Again, The sufferings of this world cannot compare to the glory that will be revealed in us (Rom 8:18).
Do you see the majesty of this teaching? We have a glory waiting for us beyond imagining. Consider your greatest pleasure, your happiest experience, your most fulfilled moment. Now multiply them by ten trillion. You are not even close understanding the glory that waits.
And this glory will personally transform us. The Lord once told Catherine of Sienna that if she ever saw the glory of a Saint in heaven she would fall down and worship because she would think she was looking at God. This is our dignity, to be transformed into the very likeness of God and reflect his glory. Earlier this week I recorded an elaboration of Catherine’s vision of the soul of a saint in heaven:
It was so beautiful that she could not look on it; the brightness of that soul dazzled her. Blessed Raymond, her confessor, asked her to describe to him, as far as she was able, the beauty of the soul she had seen. St. Catherine thought of the sweet light of that morning, and of the beautiful colors of the rainbow, but that soul was far more beautiful. She remembered the dazzling beams of the noonday sun, but the light which beamed from that soul was far brighter. She thought of the pure whiteness of the lily and of the fresh snow, but that is only an earthly whiteness. The soul she had seen was bright with the whiteness of Heaven, such as there is not to be found on earth. ” My father,” she answered. “I cannot find anything in this world that can give you the smallest idea of what I have seen. Oh, if you could but see the beauty of a soul in the state of grace, you would sacrifice your life a thousand times for its salvation. I asked the angel who was with me what had made that soul so beautiful, and he answered me, “It is the image and likeness of God in that soul, and the Divine Grace which made it so beautiful.” .
Yes, heaven is glorious and we shall be changed. Scripture says we shall be like the Lord for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2). Too many people have egocentric notions of heaven where “I” will have a mansion, I will see My relatives, I will play all the golf I want. But the heart of heaven is to be with God for whom our heart longs. In God we will experience fulfillment and peace beyond any earthly thing. There is more to heaven than golf, reunions and mansions, certainly more than clouds and harps. The “more” can never be told for it is beyond words. St Paul speaks of a man (himself) who was caught up into heaven and affirms it cannot be described, it is ineffable, it is unspeakable:
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven….And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. (2 cor 12:2-3).
Do you long for heaven? Do you meditate on it? Is there a part of you that can’t wait to get there? There’s an Old Spiritual that says, “I’m gonna ride the Chariot in the mornin’ Lord. I’m getting ready for the judgment say, Mah Lord, Mah Lord! And this leads us to the final point.
3. Response to the Resurrection– What difference does the resurrection make other than to give us joy if we meditate upon it? To see that answer, look to the first reading today, where the seven brothers are willing to accept torture and death. If there is a great reward waiting for those who remain faithful and we see that reward as the greatest thing we have , then we will endure anything to get there. Notice how the vision of heaven spurs them on to reject demands of their persecutors that they deny their faith:
We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors…. You are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying….. the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s courage, because he regarded his sufferings as nothing (2 Maccabees, 7:2,9, 12)
Only their vision of the rewards waiting for them could motivate them to endure the awful sufferings described in the 7th Chapter of 2nd Maccabees
And what of us? Do we meditate on heaven and value it’s reward enough to be willing to endure suffering to get there? We need a strong vision of heaven to be able to endure and stand fast. Too many today have lost a deep appreciation for heaven. Too many pray to God merely for worldly comforts and rewards. But these will pass. We ought to ask God for a deep desire and drive for heaven and the things waiting for us there. What athlete will discipline his body so severely as they do, without the deep motivation of reward and the satisfaction of meeting goals? What college student attends thousands of hours of school, reads lengthy books and writes lengthy papers if it is not for the pot of gold and career at the end of the trail? Then, who of us will endure the trials of faith if we are not deeply imbued with the vision of glory and deeply desirous of its fulfillment no matter the cost? Without this our moral and spiritual life become tepid and our willingness to endure trials falls away. An old hymn says:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
Meditate on heaven often. Although we can never fully grasp its glory here, we ought not let that stop us from imagining what we can. Read Revelation Chapters 4,5, 8, 21 & 22. But above all, ask God for an ever deepening desire for Him and the good things waiting for you in heaven. Look to heaven, long for heaven, desire God and deeply root your life in him. Heaven will not disappoint!
This African American Spiritual says, I’m gonna ride the chariot in the morning Lord! I’m gettin ready for the judgment day, My Lord, My Lord! Are you ready my brother? (Oh yes!) Are you ready for the journey? (Oh Yes!), do you want to see Jesus (Yes, Yes!) I’m waiting for the Chariot ’cause I ready to go. I never can forget that day, (Ride in the chariot to see my Lord), My feet were snatched from the miry clay! (Ride in the chariot to see my Lord!)
In today’s first reading at Mass St Paul writes to the Philippians of the glory that our currently lowly bodies will one day enjoy:
He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified Body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself. (Phil 3:19)
I once spoke with an older woman who wasn’t all that pleased to hear that her body was going to rise and be joined again to her soul: “Oh, Father, you don’t mean this old decrepit body?! If this body has to rise I am hoping for an improved model!”
Yes! I think most of us can relate to the need that our current lowly bodies will be improved. And they will surely be. Notice how the passage above says, that these lowly, often weak, diseased, and often over-weight bodies will be changed and reflect the glory of the resurrected body of Jesus. Yes, this old general issue clunker that I’m currently experiencing is going to be upgraded to a luxury model. We’re headed for first class.
In this month of November when we recall the four last things: Death, judgment, heaven and hell, we ought to consider for a moment what scripture and tradition have to say to us about what our resurrected bodies will be like.
Now an important starting point in discussing this matter is a little humility. The fact is, a lot of what we are going to say here is speculation. But, it is not WILD speculation. It is rooted in Scripture to be sure. However, Scripture is describing things that are somewhat mysterious and difficult to reduce to words. Further, Scripture does not always elaborate on things which are said. Where we might wish for more details, none are given. Sometimes too, we infer qualities of the resurrected body based only on scriptural texts whose main purpose is not so much to describe the resurrected body. Rather, their purpose is to set forth the fact of the resurrection of Jesus. For example, Jesus appears and disappears at will in a room though the doors are locked. The point of the text is to tell us he appeared, not necessarily that the resurrected body has something we have come to call “agility” (see below). Hence the text does not elaborate on this point and we are left to infer things about Jesus resurrected body and then apply it to our own. This is not wrong, for Paul above says that our resurrected bodies will have qualities that conform to Jesus’ resurrected body . But the point is that the biblical texts do not elaborate on this or other qualities in a detailed manner and so, we are left to speculate and infer some of what we know.
St. John the Apostle expresses some of the humility we should bring to this discussion:
Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be like. But We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. (1 John 3:2)
I do not interpret John to mean we know nothing, for in so doing, he would negate other Scriptures. But I interpret him to mean that we do not fully grasp the meaning of what we are discussing, and that much of it is mysterious. Something is known and revealed but much more of it is unknown and far beyond what we have yet experienced.
With the need for humility in mind let’s consider some of what we might be able to say of the qualities of a resurrected body. Perhaps it is well that we start with the most thorough passage in the New Testament on this subject and then list the traditional seven qualities of a resurrected body.
St. Paul writes of the resurrected body in First Corinthians 15:
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body…..The splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another……The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man…..Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”(1 Cor 15:35-55 selectae).
Now using this passage and others we can distinguish seven traditional qualities of a resurrected body. Here we will allow our source to be the Summa of St. Thomas. You can click on each quality (in blue) to read more a the NewAdvent Summa online.
1. Identity – What this means essentially is that the very same body that falls in death will rise to be glorified. We cannot claim that we will get a different body, but rather, that our current body will rise and be glorified. St. Thomas says, For we cannot call it resurrection unless the soul return to the same body, since resurrection is a second rising, and the same thing rises that falls: wherefore resurrection regards the body which after death falls rather than the soul which after death lives. And consequently if it be not the same body which the soul resumes, it will not be a resurrection, but rather the assuming of a new body (Supl, Q 79.1).
This does not mean that the body will necessarily be identical in every way. As St. Paul says above, are current bodies are like the seed. And just as a seed does not have all the qualities of the mature plant, but does have all these qualities in seed form. So too our body is linked to our resurrected body causally and essentially though not all the qualities of the resurrected body are currently operative. Again, the Summa states: A comparison does not apply to every particular, but to some. For in the sowing of grain, the grain sown and the grain that is born thereof are neither identical, nor of the same condition, since it was first sown without a husk, yet is born with one: and the body will rise again identically the same, but of a different condition, since it was mortal and will rise in immortality. (Ibid).
Scripture attests that the same body that dies will also rise. Job said, And after my flesh has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another (Job 19:26-27). And to the Apostles, shocked at his resurrection Jesus said, Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have (Luke 24:39).
Hence the same body rises and so there is continuity. But there is also development and a shining forth of a new glory and capabilities that our bodies do not currently enjoy.
2. Integrity– We will retain all of the parts of our current bodies. Now this means every physical part of our body, even the less noble parts such as intestines etc. In the Gospel Jesus plainly ate even after the resurrection. He ate a fish before them (Luke 24:43). He also ate with the Disciples in Emmaus (Luke 24:30). He ate breakfast with them at the lake shore (Jn 21:12). Hence it follows that even less noble parts of our body will rise for eating and digestion are still functions of a resurrected body. Now Thomas argues (I think rightly) that food will not be necessary to the resurrected body (supl 81.4). But it is clearly possible to eat, for Christ demonstrates it.
St. Thomas reasons that every aspect of our bodies will rise since the soul is the form of the body. That is, the body has the faculties it has due to some aspect of the soul. The soul has something to say and hence the body has the capacity to talk and write and engage in other forms of communication. The soul has the capacity to do detailed work and hence the body has complex faculties such as delicate and nimble fingers, arms and so forth, to carry out this work. Now body is thus apt for the capacities of the soul, though now imperfectly, but then even more perfectly. (cf Summa supl. Q. 80.1).
At some level it seems we have to suspend our speculation and keep it within limits. The Summa goes into matters which I think are highly speculative and you can click on the blue word integrity above to read these speculations. But personally I think we should refrain from trying ask questions about whether hair and nails will grow and what bodily fluids will still be necessary and why. Will latrines be needed in heaven or will food be perfectly absorbed and nothing wasted? etc. We just have to stop at a certain point and say we just have no business knowing this stuff and it is purely speculative to discuss it. The bottom line is that, yes the Body shall rise, whole and complete. Its functions will be perfected and perfectly apt for the soul in a way beyond what they are now. But as to the intimate details, we ought to realize that humilty is the best posture.
3. Quality – Our bodies will be youthful and will retain our original gender. Now youthful here does not necessarily mean 18-22. Note that in the Philippians text that began this post, Paul says that our glorified bodies will be conformed to Christ’s glorified body. Now his body rose at approximately 30 – 33 of physical age. Elsewhere St. Paul exhorts Christians to persevere, Until we all meet into the unity of faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the age of the fulness of Christ (Eph 4:13). Hence it would seem that Christ’s resurrected body is the perfect age.
St Augustine also speculates, that Christ rose again of youthful age,….about the age of thirty years. Therefore others also will rise again of a youthful age (cf De Civ. Dei xxii).
St. Thomas further notes: Man will rise again without any defect of human nature, because as God founded human nature without a defect, even so will He restore it without defect. Now human nature has a twofold defect. First, because it has not yet attained to its ultimate perfection. Secondly, because it has already gone back from its ultimate perfection. The first defect is found in children, the second in the aged: and consequently in each of these human nature will be brought by the resurrection to the state of its ultimate perfection which is in the youthful age, at which the movement of growth terminates, and from which the movement of decrease begins. (Supl Q. 81.1)
Further, since gender is part of human perfection, it will pertain to all to rise according to the gender we are now. Other qualities such as height, hair color and other such diverse things will also be retained, it would seem, since this diversity is part of man’s perfection.
Here too we have to realize that merely picturing Jesus as a 33 year old guy is not sufficient. All the resurrection appearances make it clear that his appearance was somehow changed, though also recognizable, and this is a mystery. Further the heavenly description of Jesus is far from simple to decode in manners of age and appearance:
and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. (Rev 1:12-18)
Hence we must avoid over-simplifications when it comes to speaking of how our resurrected bodies will appear. We cannot simply project current human realities into heaven and think we understand what a resurrected body will look like in terms of age, stature, and other physical qualities. They are there but they are transposed to a higher level.
4. Impassability – We will be immune from death and pain. Scripture states this clearly: The dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. (1 Cor 15:52-53). And again, He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:4). Thomas goes on at some length and you can click on the blue word impassibility to read more. But for here let the scriptural reference suffice
5. Subtlety – Our bodies will be free from the things that restrain them now. Subtlety refers to the capacity of the resurrected body to be completely conformed to the capacities of the soul. St Thomas says of this quality, the term “subtlety” has been transferred to those bodies which are most perfectly subject to their form, and are most fully perfected thereby….For just as a subtle thing is said to be penetrative, for the reason that it reaches to the inmost part of a thing, so is an intellect said to be subtle because it reaches to the insight of the intrinsic principles and the hidden natural properties of a thing. In like manner a person is said to have subtle sight, because he is able to perceive by sight things of the smallest size: and the same applies to the other senses. Accordingly people have differed by ascribing subtlety to the glorified bodies in different ways. (Supl. Q. 83.1)
In other words, the Body is perfected because the soul is. And the body is now fully conformed to the soul. Currently in my lowly body, I may wish to go to Vienna, Austria in a few moments to hear an opera, but my body cannot pull that off. It does not currently pertain to my body to be able to instantly be somewhere else on the planet. I have to take time to get there and exert effort. However it will be noticed that Jesus could appear and disappear in a room despite the closed doors. Although, before his resurrection he had to take long physical journeys, now he can simply be where he wants (cf John 19:20, 26). This quality is very closely related to agility which we consider next.
6. Agility – We will have complete freedom of movement, our souls will direct our bodies without hindrance. St Thomas says, The glorified body will be altogether subject to the glorified soul, so that not only will there be nothing in it to resist the will of the spirit…..from the glorified soul there will flow into the body a certain perfection, whereby it will become adapted to that subjection: …Now the soul is united to body not only as its form, but also as its mover; and in both ways the glorified body must be most perfectly subject to the glorified soul. We have already referred to the capacity of Jesus’ in his glorified body to anywhere at once and not be hindered by locked doors etc. Consider too these description of the agility of the resurrected body:
As they [on the road to Emmaus] talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; (Luke 24:15)
Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus, and he disappeared from their sight. (Luke 24:31)
While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, Peace be with you (Luke 24:36)
7. Clarity – The glory of our souls will be visible in our bodies. We will be beautiful and radiant. It is written in the Scriptures “The just shall shine as the sun in the kingdom of their Father,” (Matthew 13:43) . And again: “The just shall shine, and shall run to and fro like sparks among the reeds.” (Wisdom 3:7). And again, The body in sown in dishonor, it shall rise in glory. (1 Cor 15:43).
So, rejoice! The Lord is going to take these lowly bodies of our and change them to conform with his own body. We’re going to upgrade to an improved model to be sure. And in your glorified body you won’t have to take all this time to read this post, you’ll just know it. A long post to be sure. I am posting it in PDF form as well in case you want to print it our and read it. You can get it here: What Will Our Resurrected Bodies Be Like
Is heaven on your spiritual radar? The question may seem strange, but the truth is that heaven is not a big part of people’s spiritual life today. It has been remarked that there are very few sermons on hell any more but it is also true that there are very few sermons on heaven! Until the last hundred years or so life was brutal and it was short. Heaven was a longed-for release from this valley of tears. People longed for heaven and feared to lose it. But most sermons and spiritual books today focus on life in this world and how to make it a better place. This is not wrong but heaven has moved to the periphery. Even our so-called spiritual life is mostly about worldly matters. When people pray aloud they usually pray for things like better health, better finances, a job opportunity, improvement in a relationship, etc. It almost seems like our main focus is to ask God to make this world a better place, so much so that if we have enough health, creature comforts, and friendship we’d just assume stay here forever. It is not wrong to pray for these things but again, we must remember that are true destination is heaven and to be with God and we should long for it and pray for it every day. When was the last time you really meditated on heaven, when was the last time you really longed for it and to be with God?
But how is heaven to be understood? At one level, we are beyond our league here. The Scripture says that eye has not seen in years not heard nor is it ever dawned on the heart of man what God has in store for those who love and trust him (1 Cor 2:9). The first letter of John says “What we shall later be has not yet come to light. But we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Hence, we long for something beyond our wildest imagining, something so glorious and fulfilling that we cannot now grasp it. And perhaps this is why it is difficult to meditate on heaven. The Book of Revelation however does gives us some touchstones for our meditation.
In an occasional series on heaven I’d like to look at some of the Biblical descriptions of heaven. Today we can consider the heavenly vision of John at the culmination of the Book of Revelation (21 & 22).
As you can see the passage is not brief and neither is the commentary by me. You may not feel inclined to read all this text at your computer just now. Perhaps then you might like to print this article and read it later in a more comfortable and prayerful place. Here is a PDF of this article: When Was the Last Time You Meditated on Heaven?
Here then is the Passage and commentary to follow which I prepared a couple of years ago:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment. He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.” Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues, and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And in the Spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. And he who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its breadth; and he measured the city with his rod, twelve thousand stadia;£ its length and breadth and height are equal. He also measured its wall, a hundred and forty-four cubits by a man’s measure, that is, an angel’s. The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass. And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates shall never be shut by day—and there shall be no night there; they shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. 22: 1Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever. (Rev 21:1-22:5)
1. Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away – notice here that in order to inherit heaven we have to die from this world. Don’t miss the obvious. In order to go to heaven, we have to leave here. What does heaven cost? Answer — everything! It is interesting how strongly we cling to this world, how difficult it is for us to let go. But the truth is, heaven comes only once earth passes away.
2. And the sea was no more — in the ancient world the sea was a symbol of chaos. We often think of the sea as a place to go on vacation. We go down to the beach. But for the ancient world the sea was a frightening place. Terrible storms came from there, monsters lived out in the deeps. The sea was also unpredictable. One moment calm, the next moment stormy. One of the most unpleasant aspects of life here in this world it is unpredictable quality. At one moment we are enjoying the pleasures of life and family but suddenly the phone rings with tragic news. Heaven will not contain this desperately unquieting chaos. Heaven will be a place of serenity and stability.
3. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband – heaven is described as the beauty of a bride on her wedding day. The book of Revelation is filled with marital imagery. And, in fact, all throughout the Bible God uses marriage imagery to describe his relationship with his people and what heaven will be like. Imagine the desire and excitement of the groom on his wedding day as his bride approaches beautifully clothed. We have to get beyond the rather cynical attitudes of today’s world. In the ancient Jewish world promiscuity prior to marriage was largely unknown. For a young Jewish man and woman their wedding signaled the first time they could be together an intimate was near at hand. Hence the wedding day was truly a time of deep desire and excitement regarding the communion they would enjoy. God permits us to think of heaven in this way. We will enjoy a deep and fulfilling communion with God, not in a sexual way of course, but in even deeper, more joyful, and desirable communion. God allows for the intimacy of the marriage act to symbolize this far more satisfying communion we will one day enjoy with him.
4. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them – We must avoid the tendency to be “self-centered” in our imaginings of heaven. Often when I ask people to described heaven I am surprised what they leave out. They mention mansions, streets paved with gold, the fact that they will be happy, that they will see relatives and friends who’ve died, Angels, clouds etc. and I keep waiting and wondering if God will be mentioned! Many people leave God out of their description of heaven! But, as we shall see, the heart of heaven is to be with God! But the heart of heaven is to be with God! Think not so much of mansions and pearly gates and streets of gold, rather, think of being with God in a deep rapturous communion. We will be swept up into a praise filled place of exquisite beauty where we will enjoy deep communion with God and with one another in God. Heaven is to be with God! God and God alone would be the joy of our eternal home. He will be are one desire, our hearts will never tire of God and God alone.
5. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall their be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away – not only will we enjoy the unspeakable joy of being with God but we will also know that the sorrows of earth are long past, never to afflict us again. Regret and sorrows like tears will be wiped from our eyes, there will be no more fear and anxiety, no more pain. And, unlike the brief and passing joys we experienced on earth only to see them replaced with a new round of challenges and pain, this joy will last forever. The former things that cause pain and grief and sorrow have passed away!
6. And he who set upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” – we all have had the experience of the excitement over a new car, or some new gadget. Even more the excitement over a newborn baby. But all too soon our excitement over the newness can pass away and become boredom. But in heaven this excitement over the newness of all things, this delight over something new, will never pass away. The terrible affliction of boredom will never afflict again. Notice too, the God says he will make all things new. At the end of time when Jesus comes again in glory the earth and the universe will not be destroyed but rather, gloriously transformed it renewed. They will be restored to their original perfection and perhaps, receive even greater glory. Everything will be new, everything will be renewed. God and God alone created all these things we call our own; from the mighty to the small the glory in them all is God’s and God’s alone.
7. Also he said, “write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. – God is our beginning in our end. We were made for God! We were made to know God love him and serve him and be with him forever. God is our all and all. To say that God is our end, our Omega means that he is our destination, our fulfillment, our perfection.
8. To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment – Again, notice the image: thirst and the satiation out of that thirst. Try to remember a time when you were really thirsty, dehydrated. How wonderful that water felt as it rushed to fill the spaces that the thirst created! Here is a symbol of all our desires and cravings. Think of the joy and satisfaction that will be created as God himself satisfies all our desires, all our thirsts, all our cravings.
9. He who conquered shall have this heritage, and I will be is God and he will be my son. – Notice that in order to receive the incredible blessings we have been meditating upon we must conquer. By God’s grace we must persevere. We must overcome temptation and remain faithful. For now there is a battle to wage. But just like the soldier who willingly fights because he knows what is at stake we fight on. Just like the athlete who has his mind fixed on the prize we too discipline ourselves and train for glory. Remember, we are meditating on the joys of heaven not just to have a pleasant experience but to stir ourselves up for the battle that is at hand. We keep our eyes on the prize knowing that the victory comes only after the battle, a crown comes only after the cross. What a prize, what a victory heaven will be. O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold, Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, And win with them the victor’s crown of gold. Alleluia! And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear a distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again and arms are strong, Alleluia. The golden evening brightens in the West, soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest, sweet is the calm paradise most blest, Alleluia.
10. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, they’re a lot shall be in the lake that Burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. – Whoops, where did this verse come from! We are having such a nice time meditating upon heaven and suddenly God mentions hell. But remember, God loves us too much to avoid telling us the truth. It is appropriate, when meditating on the joy and beauty of heaven, to remember what a terrible loss it would be were we not to inherit it. The Lord warns of certain behaviors here that can exclude us from the kingdom of heaven. We should not consider it an exhaustive list but rather as a representative list. Cowards do not inherit the kingdom. At one level this means those who, in order to receive blessings from the world, turned away from the gospel and rejected Christ. But at another level, a coward is any one who refuses to take up the cross and follow Jesus. People who reject the cross by refusing to resist temptation for example, or those who never confront evil, who preferred to remain popular and well liked rather than to risk any self harm that might come from speaking the truth. The faithless are those who did not keep faith, the polluted are those who refuse to seek cleansing forgiveness for their sins, those who made light of their sins or declared them not to be sins at all; these are the polluted. Fornicators are those who indulge in sexual promiscuity. Please note many people make light of this sin today but it is very serious to God. If you have relatives or friends who are promiscuous warn them! Heaven is too great a blessing to lose! The sorcerers are those who invoke elemental spirits or demonic spirits for self-serving and magical purposes. Idolaters are those who placed something else on the throne that belongs to God alone. Liars are those who do not speak the truth about God and what he has revealed. Rather, they spread lies and heresy. None of these sinners shall inherit the kingdom of heaven. As we said the first night, we need to sober up. Sin is serious and it renders us incapable of being in communion with God both now and in eternity. As beautiful and joyful as heaven is, hell is just as desperate and awful at the other extreme. There is emptiness in a fire of limitless desire with no hope of satisfaction. Rather than being fully alive souls in Hell are half dead. They burn with indignation have longings that will never be satisfied and are ultimately frustrated because they cannot attain the end for which they were really made: to be with God. They don’t want God but they need him
11. Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues, and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” – Again, notice the marriage imagery here. The Church is Jesus’ bride as we see elsewhere in Scripture (e.g. Ephesians 5). Jesus is the groom, his Church is the bride. Heaven is like a marriage, a good marriage of deep communion and intimacy with God and his bride.
12. And in the Spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. And he who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its breadth; and he measured the city with his rod, twelve thousand stadia; its length and breadth and height are equal. He also measured its wall, a hundred and forty-four cubits by a man’s measure, that is, an angel’s. The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass. – the bride is described with exquisite beauty. Heaven, which is the communion of God and his bride is a beautiful place! There are too many details to look at each of them individually but note some of the elements below:
a. It may seem a bit confusing reading this passage. What or who exactly is being described? The bride is beautiful but the description seems to be more about heaven as a physical city rather than the bride. A place is described more than a person and yet this place is called a bride. Here we have to confront one of our distorted notions about heaven. Heaven is not so much a place as it is a communion with God, a marriage union. Heaven is a place to be sure but the heart of heaven is to be with God. Heaven is a place where God is at one with his church. Hence, the bride and groom together is heaven. Heaven is the communion. The physicality of the place is quite secondary. Hence the bride that is described here is at once the Church and also heaven: the Church, (the bride), with her God.
b. Notice that the word “like” appears quite frequently in this passage. The bride has the glory of God which is “like” a Jewel, “like” precious stones like gold. The point in using this word “like” is that the glory cannot really be compared to any earthly glory. It far surpasses any earthly glory or beauty. The Beauty is “like” a gold or precious stones but it far surpasses them!
c. Heaven is a high wall – city walls in the ancient world signified safety. The walls were not to keep people in them but to keep enemies out. Heaven is a protected place. The foundation of the wall is that of the apostles themselves.
d. Heaven has 12 gates and these gates face in all four directions of the compass. Heaven is open to all who will accept the invitation to God’s kingdom and choose to live in the righteousness of that kingdom. No one is excluded. God is open to every part of the world. Jesus had sent them to every nation to some of the nations to say. The 12 tribes of Israel now include every nation: From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost: Alleluia, Alleluia!
e. The city is quite large and spacious. It is 1800 miles wide in each direction and 1800 miles tall! The fact that it is foursquare is a symbol of perfection. Don’t become too literal and try to imagine a giant cube. The point is that the city which is heaven is beautiful, spacious, magnificent!
13. And I saw no Temple in the city, for his Temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb – since heaven is communion with God, God is everywhere. There is no need for a Temple because all of heaven is a Temple, a place where God dwells in all his splendor with his bride.
14. In the city has no need of Sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and the lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk…and there shall be no night there. This city is not lit from above by the son or the moon but from within by the very presence of God. There are no shadows, for God is present everywhere. People who have been saved out of every nation shall walk in communion with God and enjoy the light of his presence. Never shall this light be extinguished, there shall be no darkness that comes with night for God is always present to his bride and she to him.
15. But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who were written in the Lamb’s book of life. – Here again is a sobering declaration that we must be capable of entering heaven. Christ is our only hope of ever being able to enter. Only by his precious blood can we be perfected and washed clean. Think about it for a minute, if it were possible for an imperfect human being to enter heaven, heaven would not be heaven! Rather, prior to entering heaven we must be made perfect by the blood of Jesus. We must have every tear wiped from our eyes. We cannot bring with us any sorrow any regrets, any sinful habits, any lack of perfection. These things must be purged from us prior to our entering heaven. Ideally this purging takes place fully here on earth. But realistically, most of us will probably need some purification after death. It is a text like this that causes the Church to teach of the reality of purgatory. Purgatory is that place or process wherein those who die in friendship of God are purified of the last vestiges of sin, and have tears wiped from their eyes, and the sorrows are regrets removed. Whether this process takes time and exactly how it happens is not clear but that it must happen is set forth in a text like this. Sign me up for the Christian Jubilee, write my name on the roll! I have been changed since the Lord has lifted me, I want to be ready when Jesus comes! Notice how this old song equates having our name in the Lamb’s book of life with having been changed, that is to say, having been cleansed and perfected.
16. Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. – The grace and favor of God flow freely through the streets of heaven giving constant life and fruit to all who live there. There is a kind of reminder of the garden in the book of Genesis here. Once again, the human family is at one with its God and they can walk with God in the garden and enjoy his company. Paradise is restored and even greater than it ever was!
17. There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light,. There is a great liturgy going on in heaven that is described in greater detail in Revelation Chapters 4 and 5. The text here says merely that they servants of God worship him but oh what a mighty liturgy it is! The Saints must surely be having church up there! They look upon the face of God which is a biblical way of saying they enjoy very special intimacy with God. All their longings are fulfilled as they gaze upon the beauty of God. The book of Psalms says, “My heart within me says, is your face the Lord I seek, hide not your face from me! ” (Psalms 27:8) Now is fulfilled the longing of the heart to see the face of the Lord. That his name is on their foreheads is a Jewish way of saying that God is always on their mind. They are in living conscious contact with God at every moment.
18. and they shall reign for ever and ever – to be in heaven is to conquer, to reign with God. To share his glory! And this shall be forever. This joy, this serenity, will never pass.
This song says, The sky shall unfold; Preparing His entrance. The stars shall applaud Him; With thunders of praise. The sweet light in His eyes, shall enhance those awaiting And we shall behold Him, then face to face.
O we shall behold Him, we shall behold Him; Face to face in all of His glory; O we shall behold Him, yes we shall behold Him Face to face, our Savior and Lord
The angel will sound, the shout of His coming; And the sleeping shall rise, from there slumbering place; And those remaining, shall be changed in a moment; And we shall behold him, then face to face; We shall behold Him, o yes we shall behold Him; Face to face in all of His glory