Next Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord. At Christmas we talked about Jesus appearing; in the East, this feast of Christ appearing to the Magi is the main celebration of Christmas.
As it happens, I am writing from the mountains of North Carolina, where I am on vacation with my extended family – and where, at the Tractor Supply and elsewhere, I’ve heard a lot more country music than one finds in urban north New Jersey.
I heard a song that helps (by contrast) to illustrate the meaning of our feast. The chorus says, “Lord, when I die, I wanna live on the outskirts of heaven.” He explicitly contrasts the “streets of gold” in the Biblical vision of heaven with his own vision: “there’s dirt roads for miles, hay in the fields, and fish in the river.” It’s country-music fun, but it’s also an attractive image.
Now, before I say why it’s wrong, let me acknowledge: we should long for a world in harmony with nature, unstained by human destructiveness, and a cozier home, where everyone knows and loves one another, and no one is treated like a statistic. There’s something right about this vision of heaven.
But it’s not the Biblical vision, which is the heart of our feast’s first reading. “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! . . . Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance. Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you.”
When the kings come to see the king of kings in Bethlehem, the Liturgy turns to the image of Jerusalem as capital city of the world. God began his heavenly city in Jerusalem, and gradually calls all nations into that city. The Church is a city. Heaven is a city, the new Jerusalem: yes, with gates and streets (pearly gates and streets of gold) – and throngs of people. Heaven ain’t in the country.
When Jerusalem is filled with throngs, “then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overthrow” – not because of the gold and pearls, but because of the beauty of humanity, gathered together into the great kingdom.
That country song concludes, “the good Lord knows me, he knows I need blue skies and green grass forever.” But that’s not the way the good Lord works. He doesn’t change heaven to fit our earthly desires. He changes our hearts to love the true heaven. That’s what grace means.
The reading from Ephesians focuses on the gentiles coming in. At Epiphany we see that Jesus is king not just of the Jews but of all the nations, which the kings personify. “It has now been revealed . . . that the Gentiles are coheirs.”
The reading has two heavenly-city themes. The first is immigration. The Gentiles are “coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise.” In the Greek the parallels are stronger: co-heirs, co-body, co-participants.
The first image here is of family: heirs. It insults our sensibilities to think of new people joining “our” family. And it’s even more insulting when we think about inheritance: if we share, there won’t be enough! But that’s just the point: God’s family is unlimited, because God’s riches are unlimited. I lose nothing by sharing. Country roads are ruined by too many neighbors, but the city of God is not.
The second image is “body” – both the physical body and the “body politic”. The city is a body, where we find ourselves as “parts.” We rebel against the earthly city, because it always abuses its parts – but the heavenly city is one where we want to be parts.
And the third image is general, metaphysical: “participant.” We all fully enjoy our place, participating in the heavenly city.
The second city theme in our reading from Ephesians is of leadership. Paul has been given “the stewardship of God’s grace, that was given to me for your benefit.” “The mystery was made known to me for revelation” – we hear it through him. Grace and revelation are given “to his holy prophets and apostles.”
We don’t come to God just as individuals, each on our own path. Authority in the Church is precisely an indicator that we come as members of one body. Knowing God and coming to Jerusalem are one and the same. Deeper than sacramental authority, deeper than infallibility, Church authority is a sign of the unity of the body of Christ.
The Gospel plays it all out dramatically.
The earthly Bethlehem and Jerusalem, quite near one another, were the two cities of David, the king who was born in Bethlehem and would Jerusalem. For both the earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly, Bethlehem is a little town and the seed of the big city.
When the kings came, “They saw the child with Mary his mother.” Here is the beginning of the city: Mary and Jesus cheek to cheek. Yes, it is a cozy, homey image. But in that image of human closeness begins the streams of all nations, gathered together by closeness to God incarnate.
How does your vision of heaven correspond – or not – to the Biblical one? And how does that affect your life?