30 November 2014

A New Heaven and a New Earth: God With Us

In Friday's reading from Revelation we heard John's vision for the future, a vision that might be really different than that which many of us have entertained over the years of our faith, and yet it is a profoundly Christian vision and one which is meant to carry us into and through Advent.

Now, there is no doubt that Revelation is a difficult book, and not one most Catholics (nor many mainline Protestants for that matter) have sat down to read. It is filled with imagery that needs to be decoded for us; the theology has been connected to cultic movements, some of them quite destructive, books about rapture and the antiChrist (despite the fact that neither word appears in Revelation), and generally associated with something very far from that of the other canonical books of the Bible. Critics have referred to its author as a drug addict, characterized its theology as that of a slaughtering Christ, spoken of its inclusion in the canon as an evil, and in less critical moments pointed out that at the very least it requires a revelation to decode it.

But if we think of the Bible as a library of books we might be surprised to find that Genesis and Revelation begin and end a great deal of history with very similar visions. Genesis begins with a view of God and human beings dwelling together in a garden. They walk together and it is only human sin that alienates human beings from this state. Today we read this text in two ways: 1) synchronically as a narrative about the original nature of the human/divine relationship and vision of the nature of earthly existence, and 2) diachronically as a vision of what human beings are therefore made for and what a renewed heaven and earth will one day look like. In Revelation, difficult and confusing details aside, John (et al) gives us a vision of an ultimate new creation, a "new heaven and a new earth" where "God is all in all" and death and sin are destroyed. God and human beings exist in communion with one another and God is revealed as God with us in the fullest sense.

The theme of "God with us" and the idea that this is truly the will of God occurs again and again throughout the Old and New Testament Scriptures. In Exodus God writes his law on the hearts of his people and gives them the Law -- a sign of the covenant between them, the covenant where God's faithfulness always means God is with his People in ways limited only by human sinfulness. God gives them explicit and detailed instructions on constructing the Tabernacle ("mishkan") a symbol of his dwelling (tabernacle or mishkan means dwelling) with his people in a way which allows his Shekinah or glory be revealed.

Similar instructions are given for the construction of the Temple in which heaven and earth meet and heaven (wherever God's sovereign presence is shared with and by others) interpenetrates our world. In his definitive revelation in Christ, Jesus, the new Temple of God, the One who penetrates the realms of sin and death and breaks down  the boundaries between sacred and profane, is explicitly named Emmanuel or God With Us. In the sending of the Spirit we are given a consoler so that God may be with us in a new and pervasive way while in the Church, her Eucharist and other Sacraments God reveals himself again and again as the One who would be God-With-Us. The Incarnation is not God's bandaid solution to the problem of human sin (though it does effectively deal with sin) but the definitive act in which God is revealed (made known and made real) in space and time as Emmanuel.

John's vision of a new heaven and a new earth in which God and human beings dwell in union with one another, where God is all in all, is not a vision we are used to imagining. We are more used to thinking in terms of dying, going to heaven and eventually being re-embodied in a resurrection there in heaven. But throughout our Scriptures the theme of creation and recreation, the remaking of heaven and earth into a single reality and a God whose will is to dwell with us, "walking side by side" with us (as is celebrated in Genesis' poetic imagery) recurs again and again.

Our own move into Advent invites us to open ourselves and our imaginations to God doing something new (kaine or qualitatively new!!) --- something beyond the historical Jesus we look back to, or even the risen Christ we know now. It is an invitation to share John's vision in Revelation and imagine the complete destruction of sin and death that was begun in Nazareth so long ago as well as our world's ultimate fulfillment in God's final act of new creation in Christ. Imagine a Kingdom in which human beings have a dwelling place in God's own heart while God as Love-in-Act is entirely at home in our own transfigured and glorified world. This, after all is John's great vision in Revelation and the image the Church gives us the day before we begin our Advent period of waiting and preparation. It is the vision Israel placed at the beginning of the OT as they characterized God as present and walking hand in hand with Adam and Even in the Garden. With this in mind, I would encourage folks to open themselves throughout Advent more and more to a new way of seeing reality, a new vision that is not only genuinely sacramental and sees reality as it is now, but, because God reveals his very nature and will as Emmanuel, also imagines reality's promised future which culminates in a new heaven and a new earth, a future in which God will be God-with-us in an exhaustive way.

Recommendations for Advent reading:

Elizabeth Johnson CSJ's Ask the Beasts, Darwin and the God of Love (The second part of the book is especially recommended but the whole is wonderful)

Ilia Delio, OSF, From Teilhard to Omega, Co-creating an Unfinished Universe