Monday, May 22, 2006

Holy, Holy, Holy

“Lo, in heaven an open door!” (Rev. 4:1). Would that we could all see through this door, if only for a while. After St John received the messages for the churches, he was granted a vision of the glory of God and the heavenly worship. To me, this section (chs. 4-5) and the closing two chapters are really the essence of the book, for they are, as the first words of this chapter indicate, and open door to Heaven. Chapters 2-3 let us know the spiritual and moral requirements for walking through that door, and chapters 6-20 indicate what we’ll have to endure before the end, but here let us gaze for a moment through that open door.

If you’re hoping for a precise description of Heaven, you’ll not find it here, for everything is written in symbolic language. Does God the Father really look like jasper and carnelian (hey, these are only green and red chalcedony—not even precious stones!), and is there an emerald rainbow around his throne? The point is, everything is shining and sparkling and colorful and beautiful—when the door of Heaven opens for you, you can describe it in your own way!

There are 24 elders around the throne of God, symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel plus the 12 apostles. Then there are those four “living ones” who seem to be seraphs, since they have six wings. But they are “full of eyes” and have faces like animals or birds. This is similar to what Ezekiel saw in his vision. The many eyes symbolize knowledge and vigilance. But the most important thing is not what they look like, but what they do: “Day and night, they never cease to sing: ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” When they do this, all the “living ones” and angels and saints and elders fall down and worship God.

The awesome holiness of God is a major theme in this Book, but the awareness and respect for it is often missing in our daily lives, our prayer, and even our worship. Sure, people say “holy, holy, holy” during the Mass, but they way it is celebrated in the post-Vatican II liturgical wasteland often falls far short of the glory that must be given to God, and it does not create the atmosphere of deep reverence and awe in which one would naturally be inclined to fall prostrate in adoration. The Byzantine Divine Liturgy, while it still can be celebrated poorly, at least is designed to foster reverence and a sense of the transcendent, holy God. This awareness needs to be recovered in all Christian worship.

“Holiness” is difficult to describe well, and I won’t attempt it here, except for one aspect that is repeated in these chapters of Revelation: worthiness. God’s holiness means He is worthy of adoration and everlasting praise. “Worthy are You, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power…” (4:11). Then the Lamb enters the vision, and He alone is found worthy to open the scroll of the mystery of God and of salvation history. (Don’t take this vision literally, either: He has seven horns and seven eyes—these symbolize fullness [the perfect number 7] of power and knowledge.) “Worthy are You, to take the scroll and open its seals…” And finally, “myriads and myriads and thousands and thousands” of angels sang out: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (5:9-12). We express our awareness of God’s holiness by exalting his worthiness to receive our worship.

Finally, in the climax of this vision through the open door of Heaven, the whole cosmos enters into ecstatic worship of God. “And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the 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 forever and ever!’ And the four living ones said, ‘Amen!’ and the elders fell down and worshiped” (5:13-14). Not your average Sunday at church, but it should be! The point is, everything is inexorably moving toward this cosmic climax; this is the goal of all visible and invisible creation. How devastating it would be if we were to realize—all too late—that through our sins we had cut ourselves off from this endless, joyous, triumphal celebration! We’ll see later in the book that indeed all those who did not give glory to God on earth, who did not exalt the worthiness of the Lamb, will be plunged the everlasting sulfurous torment of the dragon and his foul minions—wholly and forever excluded from the boundless rejoicing on the other side of Heaven’s door.

So give glory to God, fall down before the throne with incense and prayer, and join the myriads of heavenly powers in their unceasing cry: Holy, holy, holy! Do not settle for less, and to not be seduced into the idolatry of whatever does not give glory to God and to the Lamb. This passing life is moving toward its climax. Make sure you are found worthy to walk through the door to Heaven!