Looking in Heaven’s Door

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“I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven…” says Bishop John of Ephesus, as he was celebrating the Sunday Liturgy in exile on the island of Patmos (Rev. 4:1). What follows is his witness of the one, eternal Liturgy around the throne of God in heaven, connected as it is to all our subsidiary celebrations. It is considerably more exuberant and exciting than most of the latter. Because the earth is the Lord’s as well as heaven being the Lord’s, events in the two entities intertwine throughout the Liturgy that John describes. This is not some worship service away from daily life, designed to give people a Sabbath escape from the burdens of “secular” endeavors. It is in the middle of explosive, cataclysmic happenings both on earth and in heaven. It centers around the Throne, the nerve impulse of the Universe. Those who look forward to heaven as a place of rest should adjust expectations. The Throne pulsates with the energy of the Creator and the multi-species worship which is continuous and raucous. The place, in a word, totally rocks, far beyond what the most creative, energetic worship leader, or for that matter, rock band, could possible even imagine.

Because earth and heaven, in fact, intertwine, the boundary between the living and the dead is vague. When we celebrate the Eucharist, heaven’s door opens, and we join with “angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven,” as the liturgical text of the Book of Common Prayer puts it, and St. John Chrysostom’s adds, “the Cherubim and Seraphim, that are six-winged, full of eyes and soar aloft,” even that being only a small portion of the crowd around the Throne. John describes that “company of heaven” in chapter 7 as, in summary, “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands” (Rev. 7:9). What are they doing? Together with all the angels, a lot of “elders” (“presbyters” in John’s Greek, our term for priests) and a bunch of other species, they are singing the Liturgy, with great enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, back on earth in the 21st century, a lot of American Protestant Christians are debating how to handle the celebration of Halloween. For them, it oozes evil and satanic overtones. To be sure, it is also the anniversary of Martin Luther kicking off the Reformation, but that is for the nearest Sunday, a suitably “religious” commemoration. But for Halloween, do they let their kids participate? Do they give out treats or do they lecture the little visitors on the evils of the day?

If you note the disconnect, you are quite correct. What should be the most enthusiastic, jubilant celebration of the year besides Easter has fallen victim to the profound American disinterest in knowing history and learning from Christian Tradition. Halloween is none other than the “hallowed eve,” shoved together into one word, as the English language does (think Christ Mass=Christmas, for example). It is the eve of All Saints Day (“All Hallows” in old English). It is the day to remember the saints, not just the ones on some official list, but all of them. It is actually very compatible with Protestant ideals, that we Christians are all saints, as St. Paul himself tells us (see Eph. 1:15, for instance). Saints all are sinners, too, but sinners with the mercy of God. Another difficulty is that All Saints Day is always November 1, so it is only on a Sunday once every seven years. Only Sundays seem to be considered sacred days in our culture. Some churches which have twigged to All Saints Day often try to solve this by moving the day to the nearest Sunday. But that loses the connection with Halloween.

But it is too important a day to simply lose to the domain of spooks. The Church needs to make it a point of celebrating the day on the actual day, or the eve thereof. If people can be martyred for their Faith elsewhere in our world, surely here at home, we can bear the sacrifice of having a major celebration on a weekday. God created weekdays too.

Part of the problem may be our disconnect with death itself. It seems pretty obvious to even a casual student of history that everyone dies. Even Lazarus eventually died again. But for the most part, Americans have particular trouble with this. “God forbid,” people say. But God doesn’t forbid. Death is the ultimate enemy of God, but it is present in the world because humans have so distorted life as originally intended. Many fail to understand, as Elizabeth Theokritoff points out, that “the creation of the world and its ultimate transformation are both part of the same movement, the same divine plan.” In the eternal order, God has permitted choice, in his love, which has caused death. But he has also put in place the solution, which he offers freely to us, again, in his love. There is, therefore, no sting in death unless you fail to grasp this. This means both the reality that prayers for physical healing will eventually fail to be answered as requested, and the reality that the maturation into resurrected life is eventually a better answer. Many fail to understand this, and simply want life in its present form to continue forever. Some even lose their faith when God will not send perpetual physical healing. While change of this magnitude may seem threatening to the point where you prefer “the devil you know,” the current state of affairs is too tragic for a loving God to wish as a permanent condition for his beloved people.

Dying, like birth, is a radical transformation to another existence, often causing considerable pain in the process. It is understandable that people do not look forward to it. Once achieved, however, and becoming part of the great host arrayed in white, tribulations are forever past and we become absorbed into the celebrations of the “company of heaven,” in joyous Eucharist eternally sealed (Rev. 7:16-17). Many find both Halloween and the Book of Revelation very scary stuff, because they see death as the end, or as something permanently and finally destructive. Rather, it is a transformation, a theosis into Christ himself. In birth, follow the baby, not the placenta. In death, follow the transformation, not the deterioration caused by the reworking of the material.

And life with God begins in baptism, not death. We are already in God’s realm, which covers everything and every time. Right at this moment, the eternal Liturgy of heaven, as described by John (as best he could find words for the indescribable), is being celebrated, and the door is left ajar so we can join in, through our own Eucharist. As we commemorate the immense throng of saints, on both sides of the door, including those we know personally, we, like John, can be “in the Spirit,” fully participating with the heavenly throng of many earthly species and heavenly ranks. It can happen on any day, but All Saints Day really brings it home.

As for blending into the Halloween celebration your neighbors and their kids are having, there are some great costume ideas in John’s vision in Revelation. How about a lion with six wings covered with eyes all around (see Rev. 4:7-8)? The lion is singing the Sanctus, but I suppose that is optional going door to door.

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