ADVENT IV – Memento nostri
Introit: (Ps 106) Remember us, O Lord, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit us with thy salvation; that we, beholding the felicity of thy chosen, may rejoice in the gladness of thy people, and may glory with thine inheritance. Ps. We have sinned with our fathers: we have done amiss, and dealt wickedly. Glory be … Remember us …
Collect: Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy power, and come among us, and succour us with thy great might: that by thy grace whatsoever is hindered by our sins may speedily be accomplished through thy mercy and satisfaction; who with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, livest and reignest God, throughout all ages world without end. Amen.
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility: that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.
OT Lesson: Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence, as when the melting fire burneth, the fire causeth the waters to boil, to make thy name known to thine adversaries, that the nations may tremble at thy presence! When thou didst terrible things which we looked not for, thou camest down, the mountains flowed down at thy presence. For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him. Thou meetest him that rejoiceth and worketh righteousness, those that remember thee in thy ways: behold, thou art wroth; for we have sinned: in those is continuance, and we shall be saved. But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. And thereis none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities. But now, O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand. (Isaiah 64.1-8)
Gradual: (Ps 145) The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon him: yea, all such as call upon him faithfully. V. My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord: and let all flesh give thanks unto his holy Name.
Epistle: Brethren: Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus our Lord. (Philippians 4.4-7)
Alleluia. Come, O Lord, and tarry not, forgive the misdeeds of thy people. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: The Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to John, to ask him, Who art thou? And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that Prophet? And he answered, No. Then said they unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias. And they which were sent were of the Pharisees. And they asked him, and said unto him, Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not the Christ, nor Elias, neither that Prophet? John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; he it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose. These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing. [The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.] (St John 1.19-29)
“O visit us with thy salvation; that we, beholding the felicity of thy chosen, may rejoice in the gladness of thy people, and may glory with thine inheritance.”
This is the week of the darkest time of the natural year, but we look for the return of the light in a spirit quite different from the world of paganism into which that light comes. Our waiting is in joyful expectancy, not in fear and anxiety. For us, the darkness of the Advent season has far more to do with our spiritual lives than with the natural phenomenon of the winter solstice. Our darkness dwells in those forms of spiritual wickedness and folly in each of our lives, individually and collectively: the night of our turning away from the light of God’s love—the darkness within. To be awakened to that perception is the purpose of the Church’s season of Advent.
“Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Our repentance brings us to an even greater joy at Christmas, because it reminds us of the purpose of Our Lord’s coming and the divine humility of the Word made flesh. The darkness gives way to the great Light of Christ. The majesty of God is manifested in the humanity of the Son of God, the Word made flesh and the Light of the world. Today’s Epistle reading sounds a note of praise, a return of the light, in the midst of our darkness—not the darkness of nature, but the darkness St Paul names as our anxieties, literally, being “full of cares,” overwhelmed by our own preoccupations and busyness, especially in this pre-Christmas season—exhorting us to “Rejoice in the Lord always!” We rejoice because “the Lord, Emmanuel, is at hand.” John the Baptist’s mission was to prepare the Lord’s way by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John was the last of the great line of Prophets and the greatest of them all, because he not only foretold the coming of the Messiah, he had the privilege of pointing out to his audience the Son of God in human form, the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. Yet John was sent not only for his contemporaries, but for people of all time. Like the Pharisees of those days, people today are often controlled by pride, self-centredness and self-righteousness. The modern age makes them feel that God is not necessary – no longer relevant – in the “advanced” and “enlightened” scientific and technological world of today. Now, more than ever, people need that prophetic voice.
On this Fourth Sundays in Advent, we address the final of the Four Last Things – Heaven. Just as we don’t talk much about Hell anymore, we don’t speak a great deal about Heaven, either. But a philosophy without heaven and hell leaves us in desperate search for platitudes in the face of the pain of losing a friend or relative. So what (or where) is Heaven? Well, Heaven is not merely the continuation of a person’s eternal soul. Countless people over the centuries have taken comfort in the belief that, while their loved one’s body lies a-moulderin’ in the grave, his or her soul goes marching on. This is not a belief rooted in Christian theology. The dualist idea that we are essentially spiritual beings bound to physical bodies, which finally become detached at death whereupon we continue simply as spiritual entities, is not a belief which the Scriptures or the Creeds entertain. The human being was created “a living soul” (Gen 2.7), and is one—body and soul—in life and in death. Physical death is real. Our hope lies not in pretending otherwise, but in knowing that our death is not the end of God.
Likewise, Heaven is not our reabsorption into the infinite. This idea that when we die, we blend back into the tapestry of being is a mixture of the secular religion of ‘Science’ in the biological conceit that we dissolve into the soil, and New Age ‘spirituality’ in the quaint existential notion that we become just part of the ether. The great exemplar of this reabsorption theory is Mary Frye’s poem, often recited at funerals, containing the lines: “I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on snow, I am the sun on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain.” These may be comforting words, but they come from a paganism from which God is wholly absent, and Jesus achieved absolutely nothing in His cross and resurrection. The trouble is that, by denying the reality of death and the promise of resurrection, the pictures they offer of the afterlife are so bleak as to offer no real hope at all. And neither is Heaven simply the reconstitution of our fleshly bodies. Those eulogies that say, “I’m sure Joe’s up there right now fishing on the lake, or enjoying a Scotch,” or “Jane’s up there baking her famous cookies, or tending her roses,” assume that heaven is basically an idealised continuation of our present physical life in all its mundanity, like the Elysian Fields, Valhalla, or Sto’Vo’Kor. To be sure, heaven is a real, and in some sense a physical, existence, but the bodies of the saints are not simply embalmed versions of the ones we have here. And they will not even have bodies until the resurrection at the Last Day.
The Bible actually speaks little about heaven as the eternal dwelling place of Christians. In Scripture, “Heaven” describes a different sphere, the realm in which God exists in His perfect Being. But even to say “a place” is misleading, because although God created time and space, He also transcends time and space. He is eternal and omnipresent. We also know that God dwells in Trinity: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. And so when we consider Heaven, we must consider it in this Trinitarian light: and what we discover is that Heaven is a world of love. John writes in his first epistle that God is love, and this is seen because God is three Persons—perfect harmony in perfect love. St Augustine famously described the Trinity as the Lover (the Father), the Beloved (the Son), and the Love itself (the Holy Ghost) which unites them. This is not some sort of mushy sentimental love, but a wholly self-sacrificial, self-giving love. It is hard for us even to imagine the love of God, and as we noted last week, this all-consuming love can be as terrible and repulsive to some as it is wonderful and attractive to others. When the One who embraces you is the Source of all existence, the Glory upon whom no man can look and live (Ex. 33.20), then that embrace must be either supremely joyful or supremely hateful. This is so, because it demands a total self-giving on the part of the beloved—to be fully loved is to be fully known. And many people want to hold on to themselves. They do not want to be known. But even more incredible is that, in love, God first gave Himself, so that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. John’s message, and what the Gospels consistently record, is that because Jesus is the Lamb of God, because He is God, He exalts all those who are joined to Him by faith into Heaven. We might say, then, that the presence of Jesus Christ is Heaven.
Traditionally, Catholic theology describes Heaven as the Beatific Vision — beholding God’s face. This inevitably sparks the question: “So, you mean that in Heaven we’re just going to stare at God? … for ever and ever?” Well essentially, yes! But that is not as boring as it may sound. Have you ever watched a sunset and wished it would last forever? Or stood gazing at a mountain vista or waterfall and been lost in awe at the sheer grandeur, and time seemed to stand still? And these are only earthly creations. As Psalm 19, Romans 1, and numerous other passages tell us, all creation unceasingly testifies to the Creator — if only we have eyes to see. All truth is God’s truth, all beauty is God’s beauty, and all goodness is His goodness (cf. Jas 1.17). Every truly enjoyable moment, every experience of peace, contentment, joy, pleasure, awe, and beauty — these are all faint hints and shadows of the fulness of God. This is the promise of heaven, the Beatific Vision: every imaginable good thing drawn back to its source, which is God Himself.
This Vision is thoroughly rooted in biblical passages about seeing the face of God. In Exodus 33, we read both that “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (33.11), but also His telling Moses, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (33.20). Similarly, after his divine wrestling match, Jacob declares that “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been spared” (Gen 32.30). Think of Aaron’s priestly blessing, “The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace” (Num 6.25), or the David’s prayer, “God be merciful unto us, and bless us; and show us the light of his countenance” (Ps. 67). Then we have Job’s marvellous moment of prophetic clarity that pierces through the veil of his suffering: “For I know that my Redeemer liveth, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin hath been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19.25-26).
The New Testament both clarifies and maintains an ambiguity about seeing the face of God. When Philip asks, “Lord, show us the Father,” Jesus replies, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14.9), because, as St Paul later explains, in Christ Jesus “dwelleth the whole fulness of the godhead bodily” (Col 2.9). The advent of Christ allows us to see God’s face. Although those who are of the world cannot see it, St Paul tells us that, by the power of the Spirit, Christians perceive “the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God … For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Cor 4.4-6), and “even now” we behold the glory of the Lord “with unveiled face,” and “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (II Cor 3.18 NRSV). But he also says that “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (I Cor 13.12). St John likewise tells us: “Beloved, now are we the children of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure” (I Jn 3.2-3). Each of these passages teaches one profound truth for our Christian formation: transformation occurs through beholding God’s face. Throughout the Gospels, we find people sitting at the feet of Jesus. These are but a foreshadowing of the Beatific Vision, and teach us that, if we wish to experience Heaven, here and now or hereafter, we must learn to sit at the feet of Jesus. As creatures beholding the face of our infinite Creator, this transformation will continue forever, “from one degree of glory to another.” As we abide in Jesus and feed on Him in Holy Communion, as we pray and read Scripture, as we learn to love aright, we shall begin to experience a foretaste of Heaven. Our desires become transformed, as we “taste and see how gracious the Lord is” (Psalm 38.4).
And this points to the crucial difference between a Christian notion of life after death and the ones described earlier. For Christians, there is only one thing greater than the overwhelming horror of death: and that is the overwhelming glory of God. The popular verses and platitudes lose their credibility when they deny the overwhelming horror of death, and they lose any sense of wonder when they ignore the overwhelming glory of God. The Christian hope is that after death we come face to face with the awesome power and passion and love of God, an experience we could liken to a tidal wave, a raging fire, or a dazzling light: and yet, because of Jesus, that overwhelming glory does not destroy us, but transforms us into the creatures God ever intended us to be. After death we face neither the oblivion of physical disintegration nor of spiritual evaporation but the transformative power of glorious resurrection.
So, first and foremost, Heaven is about is worship. It is no coincidence that a major scriptural image of Heaven is of a choir. A choir is a wonderful picture of what it means to have a body of your own but find your true voice in a much greater body, where your voice rings most truly when it sings in harmony with the voices of others, where you find your voice most fully in words of praise and thanksgiving, where you are lost in concentration and where every detail matters, where you rejoice at the gifts of others which only enhance the gifts that are your own, where fundamentally you are all turned to face that great Conductor, Who is also your Audience, as well as the Focus of your praise. The reason we put so much care and attention into the way we worship in our Anglo-catholic tradition is because we believe that the way we worship is the most significant way we experience and anticipate the life of Heaven. That is why worship matters so much – because in eternity that is all there shall be. And worship is not just some abstract ideal. Everything depends upon Whom we worship. And the book of Revelation makes it absolutely clear – we worship the Lord God omnipotent who sitteth upon the throne, and the Lamb who gave His life because God loved us too much to leave us to oblivion and obliteration, the One whose resurrection gave us the life of Heaven for which we long and upon which our hope depends. What we strive for in worship is that every ounce of our energy and concentration be focussed on the God we find in Jesus Christ, so that we are truly “lost in wonder, love, and praise” – because that is what Heaven is like.
Perhaps the most common picture of all (in both Old and New Testament) is of Heaven as a great feast—a banquet celebrating the marriage of heaven and earth, the perfect union or communion of God and all His children. God is three Persons in one perfect communion. And yet at the table there is a fourth place—a place left for us. Heaven is the experience of being invited to join the communion of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Finally we discover not just what God can do when left to do it on His own, but what is possible when in perfect communion humanity and all creation join the everlasting motions of the Holy Trinity. The reason why the Mass is at the centre of our Christian life is because the Eucharist is where food, fellowship, and worship all come together. We are made friends with God and one another as we anticipate the great banquet we shall share with Him. The Eucharist shows us both our destination and the price of admission. And when we gather together, whether as two or three, or twenty, or two thousand, we enter an icon of Heaven.
This is what Heaven is. Don’t settle for anything less. Enter the life that God has prepared for you, the life that Jesus laid down his own life to open up for you. We are not merely souls trapped in bodies. Our bodies are not superfluous fleshly containers for what really matters. They are the creation of God Himself, incorporated as the very members of Christ’s mystical Body here and now, ultimately to be resurrected and glorified in the life of the world to come. The popular notions of the afterlife are all about us, whereas our Christian belief is that Heaven is all about God. There is a great sense of mystery about Heaven, but the Scriptures tell us enough to give us great hope and comfort. What ultimately matters is our being overwhelmed by the power and love and glory of God, now and for ever. Heaven is not some half-hearted reward for those who have lived a “good” life, nor is it an automatic entry into a revolving door of unending dullness. Heaven is about passing through the horror of death and then finding not oblivion or obliteration but an overwhelming by the glory of God. It is a transformation into the real life God intends for us. We pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In praying this prayer, we not only look forward to the eschatological marriage of heaven and earth, we also dedicate ourselves to doing God’s will and paticipating in the kingdom of heaven here and now. For unlike those whose minds are set on earthly things, “our citizenship is in heaven, from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our mortal body that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself” (Phil 2.20-21).
Advent calls us to be witnesses to Christ, to be beams of light in the darkness of this world. Thus John’s mission is also ours: to go before Christ, clearing the way so that He may come into the lives of other people. We are not the Light, but we are called, by our Baptism, to bear witness to the Light by all that we say and do. In this holy season, we are waiting for the Lord who is coming to us, who has already come, and is certain to come again. Those who ignore or reject God are stumbling in darkness and wandering in the wilderness, on the road to sorrow, pain, and despair. Advent reminds us that the answer to our problems lies in God. Any unhappiness we experience is really an experience of the lack of God. The lessons we read today remind us that, if we are not finding our joy and fulfilment in God, we are under a delusion which, sooner or later, will give way to reality. Only in God can we find true joy and happiness. Although far from perfectly, we do actually partake of the heavenly realm now. This takes place within the Church, and specifically in the celebration of the Mass. As our lives become filled with heavenly love, the fruits of the Spirit will grow. St Paul encourages us to take joy in the Lord, to be known by moderation, which in this context means gentleness and orderliness, and instead of thinking only of ourselves, to give our prayers and requests to God, turning our anxieties into thanksgivings. Then the love and peace God enjoys will be our enjoyment as well as we are transformed into His glorious likeness, a preparation for our eternal life with Him in Heaven.
“O visit us with thy salvation; that we, beholding the felicity of thy chosen, may rejoice in the gladness of thy people, and may glory with thine inheritance.”
Collect: Mercifully hear, O Lord, the prayers of thy people: that, as they rejoice in the advent of thine only-begotten Son according to the flesh, so when he cometh a second time in glory, they may receive the rewards of eternal life; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
May Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, shine upon you and scatter the darkness from before your path, that you may be ready to meet him when he cometh again in glory: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.