Who Art in Heaven

Sermon on the mountPart 3 in our series on the Our Father.  

The Our Father immediately directs our attention to heaven as the place where God is. Jean Leclercq’s classic The Spirituality of the Middle Ages is a phenomenal book for reminding us of our true heritage as Catholics. One key point that comes up again and again is that Catholics used to spend a lot of time thinking about heaven: “devotion to heaven.” There are a lot of reasons that is important to remember – but few reasons can be greater than that it appears right at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer.

***

What does “heaven” mean? First, it means the place where God is. We might say the words “Our Father” take us into God’s interior – we said last week the single word Father summarizes the whole interior life of the Trinity. But “heaven” (actually, in Greek it’s plural, heavens) names all that is in his presence: the angels, the saints.

But then the first point to thinking about heaven is to realize that this ain’t it. The Bible frequently contrasts heaven and earth; the Our Father itself will soon do this, when it says “on earth as it is heaven.” Although, on the one hand, that petition begs for earth to be like heaven, it presupposes that that is not already the case. There is a place where God’s kingdom has come, where his will is done, where we are finally delivered from evil and temptation. To think of heaven is, first, to realize that in those respects and others, it will be different from here.

The bodily ascension of Jesus and assumption of Mary remind us that heaven is not an impossibility for us bodily creatures. It is possible. But for us, it isn’t yet arrived. We should think about that, and long for it.

***

The word heaven, of course, means sky: that point is clearer in the original languages than in English. Our Father is “in the sky.” Now, we moderns are enlightened enough to know that God isn’t somewhere “up there” in the sky; in the space age, we even know that there’s no final “up there” at all. (In fact, the Western tradition isn’t so dumb on these issues. When Dante gets to the presence of God, just to pick one example, there is a remarkable turning inside out of the heavenly spheres, as he realizes that God is more like the center than like the highest circle.)

On the other hand, the Bible is actually pretty insistent on the “up” of heaven. I recently did a study of New Testament teaching on the end of time. I was surprised to see that “sitting on the clouds,” for example, is in fact a consistent element of early Christian thinking. Heaven is, in some sense, “up there.” What can we do with that?

First, we can see that it is out of reach. Again, Dante is brilliant on this. We are bound by earthly weight. To say that Our Father is “in heaven” is to say that he is where we can’t get: not only far away, but somewhere we need wings to reach. Only God can bring us to heaven.

***

Second, up high is a place of all-seeing. Nothing is hidden from the Most High; he never has an obstructed view. Interesting, too, that this is not restricted to God: everyone in his presence can see everything. This matches nicely with Biblical themes of light: to be a saint is not to be in ignorance, but to see clearly, both the big picture and all the details. We don’t see that way yet, but we ask for that perspective.

Finally, the ancients saw the heavens as the place of stability, where everything follows its course exactly. You never know what will happen with the shifting sands down here, but the sun is perfectly predictable, the stars follow their course exactly.

We know now, of course, that the sun and the stars have their bumps and sunspots, that even they have a beginning and end. But, on the one hand, they are still radically more stable, more predictable, than anything down here. And, on the other hand, if we really wanted to go all the way “up,” it would be beyond the confines of the universe, to the laws of physics: just a new model of perfect stability.

In the Bible, God is like that: the one who is always there, who never changes. And so too the angels and the saints: their glory is to be where they will never fall away. Again, the heavens prove to be more like the center, which always holds, and which we can always rely on.

***

What does devotion to heaven mean to you?

Click here for the entire Our Father series.

eric.m.johnston

One Comment

  1. Recently I’ve been pondering the “upness” of heaven triggered by a re-reading of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy. Lewis describes “heaven” or the space between the planets as the realm of Light. He contrasts this realm of Light with the modern notions of Space as a black void. His thoughts make me wonder if there is something more to the biblical description of Heaven as “up” than simply an antiquated cosmology. Your thoughts on the matter give me more to think about.

Leave a Reply to Christopher Hagen Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *