Our Lord teaches us to pray that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in Heaven”. But I sometimes fancy that we (and I know for certain that I) have seldom given any thought to what that means.
I think that, in part, it’s because we don’t quite know what to make of Heaven, much less how God’s will is done there, nor how to use that as a template for doing it here. The popular notion of Heaven these days is of a sort of pictorial mélange of puffy clouds, pink cherubim, and gauzy TV images of a sort of paradise park or perpetual comfy chair by the hearth on Christmas Eve. Occasionally, in our postmodern culture, our more trendy sorts will depict a God-and-angel-free “Heaven” of Higher Consciousness in which we achieve something called “Enlightenment” and move beyond such petty concerns as love and the troubles of mortal flesh. This usually involves the screen fading to a blank to signify that the hero has ascended to some realm beyond good and evil, etc. blah blah. Bottom line though: Whether you believe in God or merely in Enlightenment, Heaven is the place where, as the saying goes “all our troubles are over”.
The problem is, the New Testament doesn’t seem to share this simple picture of Heaven. Indeed, the puzzle of Scripture is pinning down just what the word “Heaven” means.
Of course, part of the puzzle is that “Heaven” is something that, in the Bible as in English, refers to both spiritual and physical reality. Partly “Heaven” or “the heavens” refers to the sky. Partly it refers to the spiritual realm. In the ancient mind, the two images were blended and simple people, such as modern atheists, often imagine that modern believers still function at that Bronze Age level of cognition. So, for instance, there is the famous story of Khrushchev scoffing that cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had not seen God in outer space. And, of course, there are those innocents today who bill themselves as New Atheists, pointing out to us childish believers that God is not an old man sitting on a cloud.
The reply to this sort of confusion is that New Atheists really need to learn how to read books for grown ups—and to understand both the ancient and the modern religious mind a bit better.
What we see, particularly in the Old Testament, has been aptly described in the title of a book called Before Philosophy. The point of the book is that, in many cases, the distinctions that Western Man will make subsequent to antiquity and sometimes well after the start of the Christian era do not exist for many ancients. There are no hard and fast categories for science, art, magic, religion, philosophy and math in remote antiquity because the universe is typically received as a connected whole rather than chopped up into academic fields of specialization. So, for instance, Pythagoras (whom we moderns are taught to regard strictly as a secular mathematician) does not see mathematics cut off from the spiritual realm but as emblematic of it. After all, what are the two places where you encounter things that are absolutely real and yet which are not composed of either matter or energy, nor do they exist in time or space? Answer: Spirits and numerical values both have this strange quality. You can grasp the reality of “two-ness” without having two things in front of you. Mathematics runs through everything, holding things together in a colossal and elegant dance of equations, as though it were the language—or better still the syntax—of God’s creative speech. So Pythagoras saw no particular reason therefore to quarantine his cogitations about math into the box called “science” while keeping his musings about the transmigration of souls in a box called “religion”. It was all one to him.
Similarly, the Babylonian Magi in the New Testament who studied the heavens saw no particular division between what we would later distinguish as astrology, astronomy, science and religion. It was all one, all connected. And much the same idea was present in the minds of biblical writers. For instance, in Revelation 4 and 5 we meet the “four living creatures”—angelic beings John describes as looking like a lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle. These images, in turn, refer us back to the vision of Ezekiel 1, in which the prophet (in exile in Babylon some six centuries before John) sees an identical vision. But there’s also strong evidence to link these four images to the constellations of the zodiac, according to biblical scholars like Austin Marsden Farrer, Michel Barnouin and David Chilton. For the biblical writers indicate a high degree of familiarity with the constellations, with the exception that Scorpio was probably known to them as the Eagle. The four cherubim mentioned in Revelation 4:6–7 are very likely the middle signs in the four quarters of the zodiac: The lion is Leo, the ox is Taurus, the man is Aquarius, and the eagle corresponds to Scorpio. John lists them in counter-clockwise order, backward around the zodiac.
This is not, however, an example of star worship on John’s part any more than Matthew’s gospel is a tribute to the Babylonian astrology of the Magi. Rather, it’s just another example of the common biblical understanding that the heavens, like all the rest of creation, are a sign made by God and pointing to God. In the words of Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” To the people of biblical times, the stars’ groupings are not random, for the simple reason that nothing in creation is random. Rather, they thought the macrocosm of creation showed the glory of God writ large across the heavens just as the microcosm of the tabernacle (and, later, the temple) showed it on a smaller, more intimate scale. What we are seeing, in fact, is a sort of embryonic sacramentalism whereby the invisible is made visible through the physical.
So it should be no surprise to us that John’s star imagery borrows not from paganism but from Jewish Scripture. For in the Old Testament (cf. Num. 2), the arrangement of the twelve tribes of Israel around the tabernacle probably corresponded to the zodiac and its twelve signs. In fact, at least six ancient synagogues (at Hammat Tiberias, Beit Alpha, Huseifa, Susiya, Naaran, and Sepphoris) are decorated with the zodiac. The hope of the twelve tribes of the Chosen People is that Israel is the beginning of the new order of things, whose destiny and divine authorship is symbolized by the twelve constellations. Indeed, the link between the “heavenly host” ruled by Yahweh Sabaoth (the “Lord of Hosts”) and the nation of Israel is very strong, for the heavenly host, or army of angelic powers symbolized by the stars, is ruled over by the very same God who commands the armies of Israel or the “earthly host.” The earthly tabernacle was understood by Israelites to be a miniature of God’s heavenly dwelling. Both were attended by the armies of the Lord, composed of the angels and the people of Israel.
So, for instance, in Genesis 37:9, Jacob and his family are likened to the sun, moon, and twelve stars. The book of Judges also reflects the notion that the “heavenly host” of God and the earthly host of Israel are all members of the army of God. That’s why Judges 5:20 celebrates the defeat of Jabin and his general Sisera by singing, “From heaven fought the stars, from their courses they fought against Sisera.” Once again, the tendency of the ancient mind to see things as connected rather than as separated is in evidence. Heaven (in what we call the “spiritual sense”) and the heavens (meaning the skies above, whether full of puffy clouds or stars) were seen as connected. But it seldom occurs to the ancient mind to probe the nature of the connection or distinguish the spiritual reality from the thing symbolizing it. That minds sees the connectedness of things—and it sees something else: warfare—even in the heavenlies.
Let me give you some biblical passages to give you an idea of what I mean:
For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-39)
For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Eph 6:12)
He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. (Col 1:15-16)
He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him. (Col 2:15)
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. (Eph 3:8-10)
What’s striking about all this, of course, is that even after we have distinguished between Heaven-as-Sky and Heaven-as-Spiritual-Reality, Paul does not seem to share our modern day image of Heaven (or perhaps more precisely “the heavenlies”) as a particularly tranquil place. Nor does John, in his turbulent Revelation, which seems to summarize the early Christian picture of things by declaring flatly “war arose in Heaven” (Revelation 12:7). In short, the biblical vision of a Heaven ruled by the Lord of Hosts suggests that our modern picture of puffy clouds and nothing but peace is rather inadequate and that this may contribute mightily to our wrong notions of the life of prayer and phrases like “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
For prayer, of course, is a great struggle, not a retreat into Nirvana. What the Tradition has always maintained is that the reason for that struggle is threefold: the world, the flesh—and the devil. Different strains of modernity have different objections to this proposition. Many find it incredible to believe that reality might have more than two floors: the visible universe and the utterly unconditioned reality of God in eternity. So they are startled by Scripture’s “primitive” vision of a heavenly realm in which there is warfare and battle between the Lord of Hosts and the “powers” that Paul speaks of. Such folk are often also inclined to reject the notion of the only really trustworthy conspiracy theory in the world: Paul’s description of the principalities and powers, the world rulers of this present darkness, and the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.“ For similar reasons, they don’t know what to make of notions like the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2) or of Paul’s strange remarks about being caught up to the “third heaven” (2 Cor 12:2). It has not occurred to us (usually) that there can be anything besides our physical universe (which is what “earth” refers to theologically) and “Heaven” (meaning “total union with God in Christ”).
But, in fact, Scripture gives us every reason to think that “Heaven” has another, unsuspected-by-moderns, meaning in the minds of the biblical authors: namely, that instead of a simple two-storey structure of earth below and Heaven above, there is instead a sort of skyscraper of created orders and beings which, while “supernatural” to us are still creatures and infinitely inferior to God. And not all these created spiritual beings are friendly to us or to God, judging from Paul’s remarks. That, at the very minimum, appears to be a pretty constant message from the story of the Fall (where Something was here before us to tempt us) to the Exodus (where God is making war on the gods of Egypt and those gods try to fight back) to the contests of the Old Testament (where the prophets likewise make war on spiritual beings who aren’t precisely non-existent so much as “not God”) to the gospels (where Jesus is in open warfare with spiritual beings who can possess and inflict sundry harms) to Paul (who takes it for granted that the gods of the pagans are demons).
The medieval period, taking this cue from Scripture’s cryptic remarks, had great fun elaborating an angelology (and demonology) that I am not persuaded is especially sound. But at the same time, this habit of mind preserved something which modernity could really stand to recover: namely the recognition that prayer is a battle and that we really are involved with a creation that is much much bigger than we realize: one that really does include powers, principalities, and sundry spiritual beings, both good and evil, beyond this visible creation. Moreover, it reinforces for us a realistic sense of our position in the world as creatures who are, by nature, lower than angels and yet, by grace, lifted far above them. That’s the point of Paul’s startling remark that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places” and Peter’s comment that even angels long to look into the mysteries which God is revealing through the Church. This is not to say we are any great shakes, of course. Rather it is to say that, as with Hobbits, Eru has chosen to work out his purposes through the lowest and most undeserving of his creatures so that no creature can boast—even the mighty thrones, dominations, principalities and powers whom he has fashioned to serve him.
The Catechism tells us (CCC 2827):
It would not be inconsistent with the truth to understand the words, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven,” to mean: “in the Church as in our Lord Jesus Christ himself”; or “in the Bride who has been betrothed, just as in the Bridegroom who has accomplished the will of the Father.”
In short, Jesus, not some place in the clouds, is Heaven. If you want to see how God’s will is fulfilled “in Heaven” so that you can imitate it here on earth, then don’t wait around for a vision of angels in realms of glory and try to imitate that. Instead, look at Jesus. He is Heaven on earth and we must imitate him in the battle of prayer and obedience. In the Incarnation of Jesus Christ Heaven joins earth to himself and brings the battle to the foe. He literally does the will of God on earth as it is in Heaven because he is Heaven.
In so doing, he prepares the way for That Day when not just earth, but even Heaven will be freed from its wars and strife and be joined with the Blessed Trinity, not merely in a New Earth, but a New Heaven as well (Rev 21:1).