“Ooh, Heaven is a place on earth!”
“Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Ooh heaven is a place on earth
they say in heaven love comes first
we’ll make heaven are a place on earth
Ooh heaven is a place on earth”
In 1987, Belinda Carlisle sung these famous words about a notion we could spend our whole spiritual lives contemplating on – heaven. What exactly is heaven? We know that it is a place where there’ll be no more death, no more sorrow, no crying nor pain (Revelation 21:4); we know also from the book of Revelation that heaven is full of angels, the Archangels, the twenty-four priests, our Queen and Mother St Mary and the ‘great cloud’ (Hebrews 12:1) of all the saints, whose stories and intercessions we cherish so much.
We know that our beloved Lord Jesus Christ desires for all of us to be in heaven with Him, and He even spoke to each and every one of us in John 14:1-3 when He said He is going to prepare a “place” for us there if we would strive on the “narrow path” and be found worthy of eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 7:13-14).
For religious sceptics, ‘heaven’ is reputed as a mere fairy-tale and perhaps for many they feel there will be nothing but oblivion when their last breath has expired and they leave this world. However for us, we know the amazingly comforting truth that is contained for us in the Gospel: “…the hope of which is laid up for you in heaven, of which you heard before in the word of truth of the gospel.” (Colossians 1:5). The iconic verse John 3:16 also tells us that God loved us all so much that He gave up His life for us: His Son, Christ our King, defeated death by His death, and has raised us up by His resurrection. Therefore if we believe in Him, we truly shall have eternal life in heaven as He promised. This is a great comfort when we experience the loss of loved ones, to the extent St Paul wrote:
“But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.”
+ 1 Thessalonians 5:13-14 +
A Place Not Far Off
What about Miss Carlisle’s song? Do we have to wait until our life here has ended to experience the beautiful promises of heaven discussed above? Or can heaven truly be a place on earth?
Our Lord Jesus Christ gives a powerful answer to this question when He said in Luke 17:21, “the kingdom of God is within you.” It is something to be experienced and tasted, right now. From our Baptism, to our repentance and confession before a priest, to our partaking of the Holy Body and Blood of our Lord in the Eucharist – living a life within the sacraments of the Church unlocks heaven on earth for us. When we attend the Holy Liturgy at Church, the heavens are truly open. Attending with us are many that we cannot see; the angels, the archangels, and all the saints that are constantly before the throne of God saying, “Holy, Holy Holy is the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:3).
The Kingdom of God is more than feeling the blessings of the mass or of attending various Church services and Bible studies though, as our Lord said it is within us. A ‘kingdom’ is simply where the king resides, and therefore if we enjoy the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ in our hearts – truly His kingdom will be within us. Again from Christ’s own lips, we are promised this kind of internal dwelling if we love Him by obeying His commandments:
“If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home within him.”
+John 14:23 +
And again in the book of Revelation, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” (Chapter 3, verse 20).
God does not force Himself upon us, but honouring our free will, offers us in His meekness the incredible chance to have Him dwelling in us and to enjoy His love. If we will rise from our laziness and from our sins and open the door of our hearts to Him, we will enjoy the kind of intimacy that we read of in the Song of Solomon in the Bible. There we see the Bride (the Church, as well as each of our souls on an individual one-to-one level) imploring the Bridegroom (Christ) saying, “let Him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth, for Your love is better than wine” (Chapter 1, verse 2) and exclaiming “I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine.” These beautiful images of the bridal intimacy are fitting descriptions of our souls when our hearts have become the dwelling place of our King, Creator and Beloved.
The more we immerse ourselves in true and genuine practice of the sacraments, study and obedient contemplation on God’s Word, and persistent striving in prayer in our rooms – the more the Holy Spirit will stir up this bridal love for God, and we will truly taste heaven on earth. St Theophan the Recluse reflected on this in his work, ‘The Art of Prayer’:
“From the moment when your heart starts to be kindled with the divine warmth, your inner transformation will properly begin. This slight flame will in time consume and melt everything within you, it will begin and continue to spiritualize your being to the full.”
It may feel at times that God is far from us, but really He is right next to us, longing for us to open the door of our hearts to Him –; “…so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;” (Acts 17:27).
Heaven & Palm Sunday
With Palm Sunday being a few days away, it’s worthwhile spending some time in contemplation – understanding the poignant meaning behind Jesus being welcomed as the King of Israel, fulfilling the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 that the King would come “sitting on a donkey’s colt.” We will experience the kingdom of heaven in our lives as much as we are prepared to welcome Christ as the King of our hearts; to the degree that we are able to place Him as number one – denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Him as we were called to do (Luke 9:23).
Our hearts must be a throne for our Lord where He can reign, and that means there can be no contest – no desires, sins, bad habits, passions of the flesh that compete for a space that rightfully belongs to Him. He said this when He charged us, “No man can serve two masters…either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be loyal to the one and despise the other…” (Matthew 6:24).
To this end St Augustine contemplated and said:
“Therefore whoever wishes to love God and to beware of offending Him, let such a one cleanse the upright intention of his heart from all duplicity. In this way, he will ‘think of the Lord in goodness and seek Him in simplicity of heart’” (Wisdom 1:1).
There is no room for duplicity of heart if we’re truly seeking to taste heaven on earth, to taste the intimacy with Christ our Bridegroom. As Father Anthony Messih from the Church in Washington DC says, ‘we can’t enjoy the kisses of His mouth, AND the kisses of the world.’ We must choose, lest we are guilty of being adulterers and adulteresses by ‘cheating’ on Christ’s unconditional and life-giving love by choosing to give ourselves to the deceitful ‘love’ the world and its ruler the devil offers (James 4:4). If we’re truly to enjoy the heavenly ascent here and now, the extremely heavy burdens of our lusts and laziness must be cast away, so that we can “…lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and run with endurance the race that is set before us,” (Hebrews 12:1).
This may be the reason that we all feel so much of an extra spiritual boost during Passion Week: For most of us it’s the only time of the whole year where we drop everything and endeavour to have Christ as our only focus, following His every step to the Cross and to the empty tomb of His resurrection. The extensive fasting and prayer and long Pascha services lift our eyes up to heaven in a way that is so powerful and so unique to this most sacred time for the Church.
Heaven’s Dress Code: The Wedding Garment
We know that when it came to describing the Kingdom of Heaven, our Lord almost always spoke through a parable. A very famous one is found in Matthew 22:1-14, where the King of Heaven is likened to “a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son” (verse 2) and a great wedding banquet is set up. Unfortunately, “those who were invited were not worthy” (verse 8), so the king then invites everyone and anyone, even from the streets and “highways” to attend instead of the original guests (verse 9). Eventually, the story takes a very harsh turn as Jesus talks about a man who was found inside the big wedding party who didn’t get the dress code memo…
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. So he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
“For many are called, but few are chosen.”
+ Matthew 22:11-14 +
The imagery is clear: the life of the world to come in the Kingdom of Heaven will be a beautiful and joyful feast with our Bridegroom. Sadly however, many will choose to ignore the invitation, and some will even “make light of it” (verse 5) by mocking the Gospel. But why was the punishment so severe for this man without the garment? How can we make sure we don’t share his fate of losing out on Heaven? What does that garment symbolise? St Gregory the Great offers a beautiful answer:
But since you have already come into the house of the marriage feast, our holy church, as a result of God’s generosity, be careful, my friends, lest when the King enters he find fault with some aspect of your heart’s clothing. We must consider what comes next with great fear in our hearts. But the king came in to look at the guests and saw there a person not clothed in a wedding garment.
What do we think is meant by the wedding garment, dearly beloved? For if we say it is baptism or faith, is there anyone who has entered this marriage feast without them? A person is outside because he has not yet come to believe. What then must we understand by the wedding garment but love? That person enters the marriage feast, but without wearing a wedding garment, who is present in the holy church. He may have faith, but he does not have love. We are correct when we say that love is the wedding garment because this is what our Creator himself possessed when he came to the marriage feast to join the church to himself. Only God’s love brought it about that his only begotten Son united the hearts of his chosen to himself. John says that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son for us.’ (John 3:16)”
According to this ancient church father, we must be clothed in love if we are to have the right dress to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And we have heard this before! The famous ‘love chapter’ 1st Corinthians 13 tells us that we are absolutely nothing if we do not love. No matter how much we serve, how much we know about God, how high our position in the church is, how successful we are, if we even perform miracles, give prophecies or die as martyrs for Christ- if I “have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2)
We are called to love God, and to love all people – this was the summation of the law as we read in the interaction between the scribe and Christ (Mark 12:28-34).
Therefore, experiencing heaven on earth is not a private matter of just our individual loving relationship with Christ, but it must also be practiced “in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18) by loving all others around us; from our closest and dearest to our enemies. The ones that are easy to love, and the ones that are a labour to love. There can be no partiality in how we live out this calling as St James wrote (James 2:8-9). If we fail to love those around us, we are lying if we claim that we love God (1 John 4:20-21). Our patriarch Pope Tawadros II said in a sermon once, “Brotherly love is our crossing to heaven; you can’t reach heaven without loving everyone around you…the core of Christianity is to love your brother.”
This is the law of Christ, and the true diagnostic as to whether or not we are His disciples, that we bear genuine self sacrificing love for all members of the body of Christ (John 13:35).
St Anthony the Great reflected on this when he said, “Our life and death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God. But if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.” Likewise St Silouan the Athonite said, “The less one loves, the more one alienates himself from divine life.” It is a very true fact that sinning against one another will rob us of the joy of heaven on earth, it is very much dependent on loving all around us. For this reason we find a very scary verse in Isaiah, where God actually said He would reject our prayers because of the ‘blood’ of our neighbours on our hands, and in cleansing us demands we change our approach to others as part of our restoration:
“‘When you spread out your hands,
I will hide My eyes from you;
Even though you make many prayers,
I will not hear.
Your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes.
Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good;
Rebuke the oppressor;
Defend the fatherless,
Plead for the widow.
‘Come now, and let us reason together,’
Says the Lord,
‘Though your sins are like scarlet,
They shall be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They shall be as wool.’”
+ Isaiah 1:15-18 +
St John Chrysostom gives us a very encouraging description of what it looks like when someone manages to live out this heavenly command of love:
“Do not, I pray, suppose that this sort of love means loving one person only, but instead it is a love for all alike…such a person will live on earth as if it were heaven, everywhere enjoying a kind of serenity, and weaving for himself innumerable crowns! Such a person will keep his own soul pure from envy, wrath, jealously, pride, vanity, evil lusts, every profane love, and every bad temper… the loving person himself will stand with Gabriel himself even while he walks on the earth. This is the profile of one who has love.”
It sounds like Belinda Carlisle’s 80’s hit was actually a powerful theological statement! Truly heaven can be a place on earth for us. If we are receiving from the Church the nourishment of the sacraments, if we are focusing our eyes upward on Christ and His Passion and Resurrection rather than the troubles and temptations of this world, and most importantly if we are walking in love towards our Bridegroom and all of those around us – we will find our King will have already made His home within our hearts; bringing the joy of His kingdom with Him. In Heaven love truly does come first, and being called to be the light of the world, it should be our task to make heaven a place on earth.