On Earth As It Is In Heaven – And Deeper Still

We live and move in a sea of others. Our first breath (having emerged from a womb of maternal otherness) is drawn from air that has been breathed through timeless years by trees, animals, whales; whistled by birds, and passed through last words of dying lips; life-giving breathed by God in the First Man. The same breath has cried out in pain and wonder, whispered in the ears of lovers, cursed its own breathing, and begged for mercy. It is our breath, borrowed for but a short time, passed on to others and to others.

I could write the same of everything within us and all that we are. We are dust and water, salt and sea, recycled, sentient participants in the life of the whole world and all that is in it.  It is little wonder, then, that the Scriptures present us with salvation written in the key of communion.

From the beginning of the Church’s life, we have survived by eating and drinking Christ, who Himself joined our earthly communion-existence, taking flesh of the Virgin Mary, His mother. We often substitute a near-gnostic notion of thought, feeling, and sentiment as the stuff of the spiritual life. Indeed, the word “spiritual” has often been used to mean “non-material” in modern English.

Those for whom the sacraments remain important frequently have them reduced to a formalistic minimum. “How many sacraments are there?” we are asked. Almost immediately, we respond with “seven” by which the near infinite variety of grace-filled encounters with the world are rendered secular and impotent. Though many introductions and theology manuals make use of the seven-sacrament language, the truth is that “heaven and earth are full of God’s glory” – the whole world is a sacrament.

In giving us His Body and Blood, Christ did not seek to insert a little spirituality into our weekly routine. Instead, He reveals to us the truth of our existence and calls us to return to the fullness of sacramental being. All things are given to us as a communion with Him.

Is it so strange that St. Paul tells us that our bodies are a “temple of the Holy Spirit?” (1Cor. 6:19) Indeed, our existence, inner and outer, follows an interesting pattern.

There are three images that mirror one another. The primary image is found in heaven itself, as made known in the writings of the prophets and apostles. We see this especially in the Revelation to St. John. The wonderful images of the altar, the throne, the incense, the angels, the innumerable hosts of heaven are extensions, if you will, of what was first shown to Moses on Mount Sinai. He was expressly commanded to build Israel’s earthly tabernacle “according to the pattern that was shown on the mountain.” (Ex. 25:40)

This leads us to consideration of the second image of the three: the earthly temple. The “pattern” of the Old Testament Temple is described in exacting detail in the Scriptures. First, there was the portable tabernacle made at Moses’ direction. This was replaced by the temple constructed by Solomon on Mt. Zion, again replaced by the Second Temple following the return from the Babylonian exile. The “pattern” of the Temple becomes the basis for the pattern of the Church as the Christian community grew and matured and remains the pattern for Orthodox Churches to this day.

This imagery, made visible for all the world to see in Temple and Church, is revealed to be the pattern within the human heart and soul. Heaven abides within us and we find, through Christ, that the heavenly-pattern-made-earthly is also the soul-pattern of the heart. It is in entering this in-heart temple that we stand rightly in the earthly temple and rise to the heavenly which comes down (or do we go up?) within us.

We live on a heaven-shaped earth with heaven-shaped hearts. The mystery of our faith, as we live it day by day, especially through the maze of details that constitute the Orthodox way of life, is an unfolding of heaven within us. Theosis is the manifestation of the heavenly within our human life.

St. Seraphim famously said, “Acquire the Spirit of peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” That Spirit resides in the Holy of Holies of the heart. It permeates the incense of prayer that is offered within that temple. It descends on the gift of the “living sacrifice” that we offer, transforming it and making it the very Body and Blood of God.

There is, I believe, an additional temple: creation itself. St. Paul says that God has “made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.” (Eph. 1:9-10)

The “in-gathering” of creation is its manifestation as temple. Human beings, in the writings of St. Maximus, are a “microcosm” of the universe. If we ourselves are revealed to be the temple of God, we also reveal the universe as temple. The “temple” is the pattern of all things: we exist most fully in worship itself.

It is too often overlooked that the meaning of the word, “Orthodox,” is best translated as “right worship.” This is the very heart of our life. It is the true home and heart place of the Church’s teaching. The sublime institution of the Eucharist was a revelation of all that Christ had said and done, as well as its ultimate fulfillment on the Cross – all of it made manifest in what would become the central act of worship in the life of the Church. It is a dynamic presence of theosis (bread-become-God) set in our midst.

The life of God that is given to us moves within the Temple. It generates a song of praise and thanksgiving, the very offering of worship, whose voice is the heart-cry of all creation. The spiritual life and its various disciplines and practices is a slow movement and transformation in which we come to be aligned with that voice. We are the logos-voice, the one sound in creation which joins itself in an act of freedom, a “sacrifice” of praise, a precious gift that can only come from love. Freely we have received, freely we give.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

Featured: The Holy Eucharist by Andreas Karantinos; painted in 1709.