Earthly & Heavenly Bliss

Sunday 16th May 2010
Year C, The Seventh Sunday of Easter (Sunday after Ascension Day)
St John The Baptist, Clayton
Revelation 22:12-21

As you know, the Bible is not a single book designed like a great old-fashioned story, with a beginning, a middle and an end, it is more like a small library of books that has been arranged in a certain order, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not; so the Old Testament is arranged with the stories first, then the 'Wisdom Literature", followed by the major and then the minor prophets. The New Testament is arranged with the four Gospels first, in no logical order, followed by Acts and then the Epistles roughly in descending order of length, and finishing with the Book of Revelation

And if it's true that we cannot read any of the Scripture without some basic tools, that is particularly true for Revelation which poses a huge number of interpretive challenges for the 21st Century reader.

The passage in today's Reading constitutes the final verses in the Bible and it is, not by chance, a summing up. When the early church was assembling the New Testament there could be no other place for this book but at the end. It deals with final things, which is why it is appropriate that we should read it as we come towards the end of that period of the Church's year that stretches from Advent to Pentecost.

On Thursday we celebrated the ascent of Jesus into heaven and these final verses of 'revelation try to put into words what heaven is like and, of course, almost entirely fail; in the Divine Comedy, even Dante fails; and it seems to me that, on the whole, music is better at heaven than either words or pictures; why is that?

Heaven is much more a sublime state of mind than a place, more like the silence between notes than the notes themselves which make the silence possible, give it shape. When we form intimate attachments the words we say to each other make silence possible; and the deeper the words we say, the more possible it is to lengthen the intimate silence. Silence, then, is not empty but is the fullness made possible by our striving for perfection.

We cannot know the precise nature of our eternal bliss but we do know that to strive for the establishment of God's Kingdom on earth is a necessary precondition; we cannot enjoy the bliss of heaven without having striven for bliss on earth.

This is a lesson which the Church has not taken to very well: it (or, rather, a celibate clergy), has always been suspicious of earthly bliss, particularly if it is primarily fleshly; a bit of Mozart might be all right in its way, as long as it's the more serious material, but we really don't like any of this eating, drinking and being merry; and if the pleasures of the board are suspect, the pleasures of the bed are off limits.

And the serious people have a point; there is a difference between being happy and being self indulgent which, in many ways, is an attempt to mask unhappiness from ourselves and others; but the Americans got it right in their Constitution which talks about "life liberty and the pursuit of happiness".

Happiness is the ability to come to terms with who we are and to accept who we are in humility. It may seem odd to equate happiness and humility but they are the same thing; they recognise that we are creatures created to love god; they recognise that we are stewards of God's gifts, material and intellectual; and that, therefore, pride in our achievements and our possessions is futile.

Most of us are not excessively proud but we do tend to forget that we are stewards and to attribute to ourselves what comes from God; but I suspect that our more besetting fault is discontent. Our society might be described as the "consumer society" but that is just giving it a name rather than risking any analysis; I would prefer to say that we are a society beyond contentment: it does not matter what "they" do, "they" never do enough. Right through the General Election campaign I kept hearing people saying that they wanted better services for lower taxes, what somebody aptly designated Scandinavian service levels with American tax levels. For a start, the idea that others should be responsible for us when we can act for ourselves is deeply suspect and equally so is the idea that we can have something for nothing. True, there are some phenomena - notably love - which are not zero sum games, where a win on one side does not mean a loss on the other but, by and large, if we are enjoying ever cheaper food at the supermarket, a farmer somewhere down the line is being paid less money for his produce; and if we lobby for a special concession in public spending it means that some other service will be cut. So when we ask for anything we always need to consider who will lose as we gain.

To some extent, complaining, lobbying and accumulating are matters of social and personal habit but it is no more excusable for that. The way we live our moral and spiritual lives should not be a matter of habit. We should be scrupulous in deciding what to say and do.

It is that kind of carefulness which we need if we are to be truly happy. To be virtuous, to lead the good and holy life, to be humble and happy, requires practice. Like any other personal accomplishment, being happy takes practice; it is not a matter of comparing our lot with that of others, superficially better or worse, but a matter of progressively probing our self-understanding of what it means to be a creature of the creator, a child of God.

Perhaps the easiest way to think about this is to understand what it means to be a child. We have rather lost our way here, turning children into little adults who must compete, turning them into replicas of our own competitiveness and discontent.

If we contemplate the closing verses of the Book of Revelation we can imagine children roaming through the strange city and beside the strange river; but we are grown weary and cynical; it will not do for us. We think of the New Jerusalem as a fantasy and the River of Life as a quaint idyll; but our material world is the only thing we think of as reality.

As we contemplate the closing lines of the Book of Revelation, may we resolve to do all such things as create the earthly happiness which will prepare us for the heavenly music of silence.