Thursday, April 11, 2013

Book of Revelation: The Heavenly Liturgy

This Sunday we hear about John’s vision of the Heavenly Liturgy recorded in the Book of Revelation:

                                  "I, John, looked and heard the voices of many angels
                                   who surrounded the throne
                                   and the living creatures and the elders.
                                   They were countless in number, and they cried out in a loud voice:
                                  ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain
                                   to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength,
                                   honor and glory and blessing.’

                                   Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth
                                   and under the earth and in the sea,
                                   everything in the universe, cry out:
                                  ‘To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
                                   be blessing and honor, glory and might,
                                   forever and ever.’
                                   The four living creatures answered, ‘Amen,’
                                   and the elders fell down and worshiped." (Rev 5:11-14)

Mural from St Benet's Chaplaincy, Queen Mary's, University of London

I love and am inspired by the thought of this Heavenly Liturgy. It is the worship which is an ecstasy of love offered eternally in heaven to God the Father through God the Son in the Holy Spirit by the angels and saints, Mary the Mother of God and all the blessed of heaven.
I say it is an ecstasy of love because we don’t usually appreciate the act of worship as it could be if we were free of all earthly limitations and distractions, not to mention the deadliness of sin. If you were to tell most Catholics that their future in heaven is eternal worship, they might not be very enthused. For them this is better than eternal damnation, but barely!
But worship is love, the delight of all love, unending love. With God, it is our highest expression of love and by "ecstasy" I mean that it takes us beyond our self, of which bodily ecstasy is but a hint of what heaven will be like.
We pursue many pleasures, physical and spiritual, because they give us delight. But in this world they always must come to an end, because we cannot sustain delight at all times (for example we must sleep and have our responsibilities, etc.) But not so in heaven. The great St. Thomas Aquinas writes about this:
"Whatever is delightful is there [in heaven] in superabundance. If delights are sought, there [in heaven] is supreme and most perfect delight. It is said of God, the supreme good: ‘Boundless delights are in your right hand.’"
Again, eternal life consists of the joyous community of all the blessed, a community of supreme delight, since everyone will share all that is good with all the blessed. Everyone will love everyone else as himself, and therefore will rejoice in another’s good as in his own. So it follows that the happiness and joy of each grows in proportion to the joy of all." [For full passage HERE
When I began reading classical Catholic works in College on the road to becoming Catholic, I read another Thomas, Thomas Kempis in The Imitation of Christ. There he also writes about transcendent love:
"Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing stronger, nothing higher, nothing wider,
nothing more pleasant, nothing fuller or better in heaven or earth;
for love is born of God, and can rest only in God above all created things.
"Love flies, runs, leaps for joy; it is free and unrestrained.
Love gives all for all,
resting in One who is highest above all things,
from whom every good flows and proceeds.
Love does not regard the gifts, but turns to the Giver of all good gifts.
"Love knows no limits, but ardently transcends all bounds.
Love feels no burden, takes no account of toil,
attempts things beyond its strength;
love sees nothing as impossible,
for it feels able to achieve all things.
Love therefore does great things;
it is strange and effective;
while he who lacks love faints and fails."
Now here is something interesting about our bodies becoming risen bodies like Christ’s in "the life of the world to come." Greek philosophy before the time of Christ taught that the immaterial soul was "trapped" in "the prison" of the material body which weighs the soul down. In some ways this is true because we usually feel more of life’s limitations in our bodies than in our souls: we grow tired, we age, bodily addictions can harm us. The Greek ideal, then, was to transcend the material and bodily realities.
However, the Hebrew mind set of the Old Testament and of Jesus as a Jew is that the human person is a unity of body and soul. And the teaching about the resurrection of our bodies is that our bodies will have a place in our heavenly life. I like to think about how Aquinas says "If delights are sought, there [in heaven] is supreme and most perfect delight," and I believe that we need a risen body to be able to enjoy the fullness of all bodily delight. In other words, it will be our soul and body that will enjoy the delights of heaven. Our earthly bodies, as I mentioned are limited, but not our risen bodies.
So, returning to John’s vision in the Book of Revelation, the heavenly liturgy (worship) and delight of love in heaven by the blessed community of heaven centers upon Christ, the Lamb that was slain yet is risen and lives. John sees God sitting on a throne in heaven and with him the Lamb of God, who is Christ. In our earthly liturgy we say a number of times "Lamb of God you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us." The lamb imagery refers to the Jewish Temple sacrifices. Christ’s being slain, that is, dying on the Cross is the prefect sacrifice of love offered for us and our salvation. Without his sacrifice and his love we would be damned, for it is love that saves us. So this what John means when he sees this Lamb who was slain.
Detail Lamb of God by van Eyck
And we hear this Sunday in the Second Reading from the Book of Revelation one of the many references to the thanksgiving, love and worship given to Christ in heaven. But I shall share more about this next week.
Listen to Handel’s "Worthy is the Lamb" from The Messiah HERE