Signs of Heaven

Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C.

One of the things I had to get used to when I first arrived in Lake Country, is that some of the stop signs are optional. There are a couple three-way intersections around here where, if you are coming from a certain direction, and are making a right turn, you don’t have to stop at the stop sign. At first, I thought this was a joke. After all, I had a sister growing up who used to tell people that the stop signs with the white borders are optional. People would usually believe her until they realized that all stop signs have white borders. So, I initially thought that this was a joke. Some punk added the words “Right turn no stop” just to mess with people. But even when I realized it wasn’t a joke, for a while it still felt wrong obeying the small words beneath and ignoring the big, capitalized word on top.

One of the great things about stop signs is that they’re pretty much universal. Unless we’re told otherwise, we’re supposed to come to a complete stop when we arrive at one. A red, octagonal sign, with white borders, and the word “stop,” in all caps, written on it, means “come to a complete stop and check for traffic and pedestrians before proceeding.” And it means that whether you are in Lake Country or Milwaukee, Wisconsin or Illinois, the United States or Mexico. Of course, in Mexico or other countries, the word “stop” might be in a different language, but everything else about the sign is basically the same. Wherever we encounter it, we know what it means, and we know what to do.

There are some signs, however, that are not universal. They may be particular to a certain part of the world, or a certain period in world history. To understand these signs, we have to understand the time and place in which they occur. This is so often the case when we encounter signs in the Bible. Those who lived in the same historical context in which a particular book of the Bible was written had the advantage of a kind of symbolic fluency. They could understand the meaning of the signs the biblical author was using as easily as we understand the meaning of a stop sign.

For the last five weeks, our second reading on Sunday has always been from the Book of Revelation. Those who lived in the original seven churches to which this Book was addressed, would have had a different experience reading this book than we do today. So often this particular book of the Bible bewilders us. We experience it as a kind of intricate tapestry, woven from the strangest signs we could imagine. But it’s worth studying this tapestry and trying to unpack these signs.

Our second reading begins with the narrator, St. John, being taken by an angel “to a great, high mountain.” This is a sign that St. John is about to encounter God, because that is what happens on great, high mountains throughout the Bible. St. John then sees the city of Jerusalem coming down from heaven. And the first thing he notices is how beautiful it is: “[I]t gleamed with the splendor of God. Its radiance was like that of a precious stone.” St. John then goes into detail about the size and construction of the city. He describes it as having a “massive, high wall.” The number twelve then dominates the rest of the description: twelve gates, twelve angels, twelve foundations of stone. In verses which our second readings skips, we learn that this city is a perfect square, with each side being twelve-thousand stadia long, or about fifteen hundred miles. That’s about 2.3 million square miles, only slightly smaller than the contiguous United States. We also learn that the each of the twelve foundations of stone is covered in a different kind of gemstone. Lastly, we hear how the city doesn’t have a temple—or, rather, that the entire city has become a temple because Jesus is in it, and Jesus is the temple.

If we try to unpack all these signs, it becomes clear that this heavenly city which St. John sees represents the Church. And each of the four marks of the Church—one, holy, catholic, and apostolic—can be found in it. The oneness of the Church is represented by the fact that there is only one city, not multiple cities. It’s also represented by the unity of the city: the city is composed of many stones—of different shapes, sizes, and value—but they all come together to form a single reality. The holiness of the Church is represented by the fact that it is illuminated by the light of God, making it splendid and radiant. It’s also represented by its perfect construction and the preciousness of its materials. The catholicity of the Church is represented by the fact that there are four sets of three gates, making twelve in total, which face the four cardinal directions. The Church is universal: its mission is to the four corners of the earth; there is no nation, tribe, or tongue that is not called to enter into the Church. Finally, the apostolicity of the Church is clearly represented by number twelve, which is absolutely everywhere. This points to the fact that the other three marks of the Church—it’s oneness, holiness, and catholicity—depend on its apostolicity: on faithfully teaching and handing down what we have received from the twelve apostles.

We won’t see the Church this clearly, in all her beauty, until we get to heaven. But the Church we encounter here are on earth, is meant to bear these same four marks that we see in the heavenly Jerusalem. When people encounter the Church here on earth, they should catch a glimpse of the Church in heaven. If we, as members of the Church, live lives of radical holiness, then people will catch this glimpse. If you’ve every encountered a living saint, or seen pictures of someone like Mother Teresa or St. John Paul II, you know that the description St. John gives of the heavenly Jerusalem applies also to them. They too gleam “with the splendor of God”; their radiance too is “like that of a precious stone.” This is also the reason why we build beautiful churches. The physical church is meant to be an image of the actual Church in all her glory. When we enter a physical Church, just like when we encounter a living saint, we should catch a glimpse of the heavenly Jerusalem.

Once it’s complete, there will be no mistaking that there is a Catholic church in Hartland. And when people enter it, there will be no mistaking that it is a sign of heaven. May people have a similar reaction when they encounter us as well. May they know, as unmistakably as when they encounter a stop sign, what we mean and what we are about. If we act no differently than those around us, we will just be signs pointing to earth. But if we live lives of radical holiness, we will point others to heaven. Amen.