On Earth As It Is in Heaven

SCOTT HAHN

We know we’re not in heaven now. Yet we know that heaven is all that matters. So what should we be doing on earth, for heaven’s sake?


We should be manifesting God's kingdom and fulfilling His will as perfectly on earth as the angels do in heaven.

Celestial Voices Impersonated

This idea was not "news" with the Gospel. The people of ancient Israel considered their earthly liturgy to be a divinely inspired imitation of heavenly worship. Both Moses and Solomon constructed God's earthly dwellings - the tabernacle and the Temple - according to a heavenly archetype revealed by God Himself (cf. Ex. 25:9; 1 Chron. 28:19; Wis. 9:8). The prophets expressed this belief in a mystical way, as they depicted the angels worshiping amid songs and trappings that were clearly recognizable from the Jerusalem Temple (cf. Is. 6:1-7; Ezek. 1:4-28). The hymns sung by the angels were the same songs the Levites sang before the earthly sanctuary.

We find the idea in full flower at the time of Jesus Christ and expressed in the apocryphal books of Enoch and Jubilees and in the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls.(1) What the priests did in the Temple sanctuary was an earthly imitation of what the angels did in heaven.

And none of this was mere pageantry. Both the heavenly and earthly liturgies had more than a ceremonial purpose. The angelic liturgy preserved a certain order not only in the courts of the Almighty, but also in the entire universe. God had given over the governance of creation to His angels, and so the world itself was caught up in a cosmic liturgy: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory" (Is. 6:3; cf. Rev. 4:8). As Israel's priests performed their Temple liturgy, they - like their counterparts in heaven - preserved and sanctified the order of the cosmos.

Thus, Israel's worship overflowed to form Israel's culture. This is what made David a man after God's own heart. He wanted to configure earthly space and time so that all of the kingdom's temporal works flowed from worship and returned to God as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. He moved the ark of the covenant to rest as the center of his capital city, and he planned a magnificent Temple as its home. He endowed the priests and their attendants richly, and he himself composed beautiful liturgies for their use. King Solomon, his successor and son, followed suit.

The Big Breakthrough

Given this cultural and historical background, the Jews of Jesus' time would have recognized the beauty of His petition, "Thy will be done, [o]n earth as it is in heaven" (Mt. 6:10), in a way that many of us today do not.

To the ancient People of God, heaven and earth were distinct, but earth traced the motions of heaven most clearly in the rites of the Temple. They recognized that to worship God in this way was an awesome gift. Yet it was still only a shadow of the angels' worship - and only a shadow of the earthly worship that would be inaugurated by Jesus Christ.

By assuming human flesh, Jesus brought heaven to earth. Further, with His very flesh, He has fulfilled and perfected the worship of ancient Israel. No longer must the People of God worship in imitation of angels. In the liturgy of the New Covenant, the renewed Israel - the Church - worships together with the angels. In the New Testament, the Book of Revelation shows us the shared liturgy of heaven and earth. Around the throne of God, men and angels bow down and worship together (cf. Rev. 5:14); an angel lifts the seer up to stand beside him (cf. Rev. 19:10). Moreover, the renewed Israel is a nation of priests (cf. Rev. 5:10; 20:6), so that all are admitted to the holiest inner sanctum of the Temple. It's no wonder that in the East the Book of Revelation has been considered an "icon of the liturgy."

Christ has broken down all the barriers - between man and angel, Jew and Gentile, priest and people. In the worship of the New Covenant, Christ Himself presides, and we not only imitate the angels - we participate with them.

Today, we know this worship as the Mass. There, Christ Himself presides as High Priest. The liturgy is the manifestation in time of His perfect offering in eternity.

St. John Chrysostom spoke of this mystery in the most dazzling terms, all of them drawn from the Book of Revelation:

What are the heavenly things he speaks of here [in Hebrews 10]? The spiritual things. For although they are done on earth, yet nevertheless they are worthy of the [h]eavens. For when our Lord Jesus Christ lies slain (as a sacrifice), when the Spirit is with us, when He who sitteth on the right hand of the Father is here, when sons are made sons by the [w]ashing, when they are fellow-citizens of those in [h]eaven, when we have a country, and a city, and citizenship there, when we are strangers to things here, how can all these be other than "heavenly things"? But what! Are not our [h]ymns heavenly? Do not we also who are below utter in concert with them the same things which the divine choirs of bodiless powers sing above? Is not the altar also heavenly?(2)

Making History

Once again, though, we have to be very clear. This is not mere ceremonial of the royal court. This is the cosmic liturgy, perfected for the children of God who reign in Christ. Since the coming of Christ, the heavenly-earthly liturgy is the instrument par excellence of God's will; it is the fullest manifestation of His kingdom. Nowhere else is our prayer so richly fulfilled: "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." We see, in Revelation, that when the angels and the saints present their prayers to Almighty God, the earth quakes and thunder peals, and the angelic powers unleash war, economic depression, famine, and death upon the earth.

W.H. Auden was famous for saying that "poetry makes nothing happen."(3) If that's so, then liturgy is certainly not what he'd call poetry. For John the seer, the author of Revelation, shows us that the prayers of the Church - of the living, the dead, and the angels - direct not only the course of history, but the phenomena of nature as well.

All of that is what takes place when we go to Mass. There, the power of God works through His angels and His saints, who are His adopted children - and that means you and me.

Endnotes:

  1. Cf. Carol Newsom, ed., Song of the Sabbath Sacrifice: A Critical Edition (Atlanta: Scholar Press, 1985).

  2. St. John Chrysostom, Homily XIV on the Epistles to the Hebrews, ed. Philip Schaff, First Series, vol. 14 of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 434.

  3. "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," in The Collected Poetry of W.H. Auden (New York: Random House, 1945), 50.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Scott Hahn. "On Earth As It Is in Heaven." Lay Witness (Nov/Dec. 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

THE AUTHOR

Scott Hahn is Professor of Theology and Scripture at Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he has taught since 1990, and is the founder and director of the Saint Paul Center for Biblical Theology. In 2005, he was appointed as the inaugural Chair of Biblical Theology and Liturgical Proclamation at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Letter and Spirit (Doubleday: New York, 2005) and Understanding the Scriptures (Midwest Theological Forum: Chicago, 2005) are the titles of his newest books. He is also the author of Swear to God, Scripture Matters, Lord Have Mercy, Understanding Our Father, First Comes Love: Finding Your Family in the Church and the Trinity, Hail Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God, The Lamb's Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth, A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God's Covenant Love in Scripture, Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism, and co-editor of Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God. Dr. Hahn has also written numerous articles in lay and academic publications.

Scott Hahn received his Bachelor of Arts degree with a triple-major in Theology, Philosophy and Economics from Grove City College, Pennsylvania, in 1979, his Masters of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1982, and his Ph.D. in Biblical Theology from Marquette University in 1995. Scott has ten years of youth and pastoral ministry experience in Protestant congregations (in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Massachusetts, Kansas and Virginia) and is a former Professor of Theology at Chesapeake Theological Seminary. He was ordained in 1982 at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Virginia. He entered the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil, 1986.

Copyright © 2003 LayWitness
 


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