"Sneak Previews" of the Heavenly Kingdom
by Fr. Stephen Salaris
One of my favorite things about going to a movie or renting a movie is the “sneak previews.” By giving us a foretaste or foreshadowing of the upcoming movie, the preview allows us to decide whether or not we are going to be interested in the fullness of that motion picture event. Wouldn’t it be great if the Orthodox Church offered sneak previews? Wouldn’t it be great if we could get just a peek at some of the things in our future, such as the second coming of Christ, the kingdom of Heaven, or, even more scary, the horrors of Hell? The fact is that, during the Divine Liturgies of the Church, we do get a foretaste of all of these things — yes, including Hell. To develop my thesis, I need to present some important data, much like the pieces of a puzzle. At the end, we will put all of the pieces together and we, hopefully, will understand my thesis completely. Let’s begin.
First of all, there is a curious statement that is made in the Divine Liturgy that many of us may not be aware of, yet it is absolutely fundamental to our understanding of what is happening in each and every Divine Liturgy — be it St. John Chrysostom’s or St. Basil’s. In the Anaphora (or consecration prayers) of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, right after we hear, “Take eat, this is My Body …,” and “Drink ye all of this: this is My Blood …,” the priest prays, “Having in remembrance, therefore, this saving commandment and those things that have come to pass for us: the Cross, the grave, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious coming.” The text of St. Basil’s Divine Liturgy has a similar statement. Immediately following this, the gifts are elevated and then the epiclesis, or consecration prayer, is recited, during which the Holy Spirit changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Now, let’s return to that statement about what we are remembering. Yes, we remember the Cross, the Resurrection, the Ascension and all of those events that happened in the past as recorded in the texts of the New Testament, but how can we remember the second coming of Christ? How can we possibly remember a future event that has not happened yet? To answer these questions, let us turn to our Bibles for the next puzzle piece.
In chapters 4 and 5 of the book of Revelation, we read St. John’s vision of the glory of God and of the Lamb. In this vision, St. John sees the twenty-four elders who fall down in worship before the throne of God. He sees fantastic angelic creatures singing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” He sees myriads of angels who say with loud voices, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,” and he hears every creature in heaven and on earth offer honor and glory to the Lamb. Many interpreters of these passages say that this vision was inspired by the Eucharistic Liturgy of the Church at the time of St. John. The bread and wine, then, as today, become the Body and Blood of Christ right there on the Holy Table. Behold the slain Lamb of God that sits upon the heavenly throne — the altar itself. (Take note of the fact that the piece of bread that becomes the Body of Christ is referred to as “the Lamb.”) In addition, in the prayer that the priest recites during the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts just before the Lord’s prayer, one reads, “ … look upon us, Your unworthy servants who stand at this holy altar as at Your cherubic throne, upon which lies Your only-begotten Son and our God, in the dread mysteries spread forth thereon ….” If we read chapter 5 of Revelation we can see the parallels between this prayer and the verses which read, “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain (…) [a]nd I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, ‘To Him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever.’” Every time we Orthodox Christians celebrate a Divine Liturgy, even a Presanctified Divine Liturgy (where the gifts were previously consecrated during the Liturgy of either Chrysostom or Basil), we are privileged to witness the exact same vision as St. John described. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the slain Lamb of God, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, manifests Himself in the presence of His people, and God’s kingdom is made manifest upon the earth. Thus, we are remembering the second coming because our Divine Liturgies provide a “sneak preview” of what the second coming of Christ will be like when He comes to judge the living and the dead.
Our third puzzle piece also comes from the Holy Scriptures. What are the two greatest commandments? The Old Testament tells us that we are to “ … love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4) and to “ … love your neighbor as yourself ….” (Lev. 19:18). In the New Testament, the Lord Jesus Christ re-affirms this in Matthew 22:36-24, Mark 12:28-31 and Luke 10:25-28, even stating, in the passage from Mark’s gospel, that “[t]here is no greater commandment than these.” Do we, as Orthodox Christians, follow and live these two greatest commandments? Do we truly love God and do we truly love our neighbor as Christ commands us to? We shall see shortly that how we answer these two simple questions determines what we are experiencing in the Divine Liturgy.
Our last puzzle piece is the Orthodox understanding of hell itself. First of all, let me say that hell is not some “closet” into which God throws bad people on Judgment Day, then abandoning them for all eternity. Secondly, hell is not Hades, despite the bad translations in many of our liturgical texts. Hades, the realm of the dead, where all souls went because of the curse of death brought upon us by the transgression of Adam and Even, has been completely and utterly destroyed by Jesus Christ. That’s what Holy Week and Pascha are all about. Through the cross, Jesus descended into Hades and took that place of death, dark ness, and separation from God, and destroyed it by filling it with His eternal presence, His Divine Light, and His infinite and eternal Love. Now, with death and Hades spoiled by Christ, we look forward to the resurrection from the dead, when our souls will be reunited with our new and glorious bodies and we will stand before the Light and Love of our Almighty God. Most of us think that if we are in the presence of the Light and Love of God then we must be in Heaven; the same place, however, is also Hell. Love burns. St. Isaac of Ninevah describes Hell, stating:
… I say that even those who are scourged in hell are tormented with the scourgings of love (…) that is, the scourges of those who have become aware that they have sinned against love …. The pain which gnaws the heart as the result of sinning against love is sharper than all other torments that there are. It is wrong to imagine that the sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God. (…) The power of love works two ways: it torments those who have sinned … but to those who have observed its duties, love gives delight.
Commenting on this text from St. Isaac, Fr. Thomas Hopko writes:
For those who love the Lord, His Presence will be infinite joy, paradise and eternal life. For those who hate the Lord, the same Presence will be infinite torture, hell and eternal death. (…) According to the saints, the “fire” that will consume sinners at the coming of the Kingdom of God is the same “fire” that will shine with splendor in the saints. (…) Thus it is the Church’s spiritual teaching that God does not punish man by some material fire or physical torment. God simply reveals Himself in the risen Lord Jesus in such a glorious way that no man can fail to behold His glory. It is the presence of God’s splendid glory and love that is the scourge of those who reject its radiant power and light. Man’s eternal destiny — heaven or hell, salvation or damnation — depends solely on his response to this love.
Simply put, Hell is standing in the presence of God’s light and love and forgiveness and not wanting it or being completely unable to comprehend it or partake of it. Nothing burns greater than love that you don’t want!
Putting all of our puzzle pieces together, we arrive at this undeniable conclusion — during every single Eucharistic Liturgy, the Lord Jesus Christ manifests Himself before us as the slain Lamb sitting upon the Holy Table that is both the altar and the throne. In doing so, God provides a “sneak preview” of the second coming and a foretaste of the Kingdom when we will be resurrected from the dead — body and soul — and all will stand in His Divine Presence. Then, Jesus will judge the living and the dead, separate the sheep from the goats, and bestow upon us the kingdom of Heaven or the fires of Hell. To determine where we stand in His judgment, each and every one of us must answer honestly, “Do I really love God?” If we don’t believe in the God of the Scriptures, if we don’t believe in the teachings of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, if we loathe coming to Church services, if we ignore the sacramental life, if we just come to Church because that is what nice people do, or because we think Church is a fashion show or that Church is a linguistic and ethnic preservation society, and if we do not actualize the evangelical and apostolic work of the Gospel that Jesus Himself committed us to do, then the answer is, “No, I do not love God.” Then ask, “Do I really love my neighbor as myself?” If we loathe anyone for any reason, if we are unforgiving towards someone for whatever reason, if we can’t stand the other person sitting two pews behind us, or if we neglect the poor, the hungry, the naked, the thirsty, the sick, those in prison, and all of those whom Jesus tells us to love — if we love Him — then the answer is “No, I do not love my neighbor.” If we answer “no” to either or both of these questions, then welcome to Hell! With all its splendor! Feel the fire of the presence of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the angels, the saints, icons, incense, liturgy, that bishop, that priest, the woman who changed your grandmother’s baklava recipe last year at the annual festival, the visitor who sat in your pew, our parents, our relatives, and all of our “friends.” All are gathered together under one roof, there is nowhere to go for all eternity, and the door is locked from the inside with the key of our attitude and our conscience. Oh, the weeping and gnashing of teeth!
On the other hand, if we truly love God then we must love Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Church and Her teachings, the Liturgies and other worship services, and the Sacramental life of the Church. If we love our neighbor then we must seek humility, charity, and forgiveness amongst ourselves and with all humanity and creation, and seek to preach, teach, and spread that love of neighbor via the evangelical and apostolic work of the Church, truly seeking to bring all mankind to the love of God and the knowledge of Christ. If we do this with all our heart, all our soul, and with all our might, then truly wherever and whenever we gather together as a Church it is a foretaste of heaven. Here, the door is always opened so that God’s love can be poured out on all creation and so that all of creation may enter herein. Look around. Do we see an “icon” of heaven or of hell? It’s up to each and every one of us to make the decision for ourselves. Is this where we want to be for eternity? I hope so. If not, then let us seek during this Lenten season, and at all times, to repent of those things which keep us from the love of God and the love of neighbor, so that we can know in our hearts that our Churches are truly Heaven on Earth and a foretaste of the eternal joy of all the saints. To Jesus Christ, our Lord and God and Savior, who established His Holy Church on this earth to save us and to provide us with the knowledge of the Kingdom to come, to Him we send up glory, honor, and worship, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Courtesy of the
May 2006 issue of The Word magazine.