The Gate of Heaven on a Groaning Earth

The water is delectable in ways I find hard to describe. A week ago, I finally took my first plunge of the summer season into the Big Lake along the shoreline of Oval Beach; the water feels like home.

It’s a mistake to suppose that all the water on this planet is exactly the same. The difference between fresh water and salt water is only just the beginning of the differences. The water in every lake and river is distinctive; every body of water has its own peculiar mineral content, and sediment saturation, and oxygen concentration.

I don’t know any of those details about the water in Lake Michigan, but it does feel like I’m swimming in my own DNA—probably because I was born not far from these waters and so were both of my parents. Something about this great lake has shaped my own bodily life, and I can feel it whenever I swim in it.  

The lectionary gave us a wonderful story from Genesis yesterday about this sense of place—about the significance of particular places (Gen. 28:10-19). Jacob falls asleep in a desert and dreams of a ladder with angels on it. Upon waking, he declares that place “the gate of Heaven.” He then assembles a stone pillar in that place and names it Bethel—the “house of God.”  

Biblical writers pay careful attention to places, often finding or creating spiritual insights from how places are named. A classic example comes from Matthew, who portrays a pregnant Mary migrating with Joseph to Bethlehem—which means the “house of bread”—where Jesus would be born in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. Matthew later shows Jesus at table offering bread to his friends. “This is my body,” he declares (Mt. 26:26). Born in a feeding trough on the outskirts of the House of Bread, Jesus presents himself as bread—just as he does here every Sunday at the Eucharistic Table.  

God always shows up not just everywhere all at once but in particular places: while Abraham sits by the “oaks of Mamre” (Gen. 18:1); as the Israelites pause on the edge of the Red Sea (Ex. 14:1-2); as Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River (Mt. 3:13-17); and where John sits on the Island of Patmos (Rev. 1:9) to receive his apocalyptic revelations.  

Temples, altars, sanctuaries, sacred forests, holy ground—places of divine encounter are all around us, and not only inside our churches. Even so, I still kiss the Eucharistic table when I approach it during worship and I genuflect before the tabernacle when I open it—not because I think Christ is present only in these places but because it reminds me that Christ is present at every table set with hospitable grace and the love of justice.  

Honoring and respecting these religious spaces can help us notice how physical, material places carry and convey the very presence of God.  

This emphasis on physical places sounds very strange to most modern, Western Christians; we don’t usually think this way about our faith. The last three centuries of Western society have instead shaped generations of people with a disembodied faith, disconnected from the physical world we inhabit, separated from the land, even from our own bodies.  

What the lectionary has been giving many Christians these last few weeks from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans has certainly contributed to that tendency, and for some the firm conviction that the material world of God’s creation stands opposed to life in the Spirit—the material and the spiritual realms not merely in tension with each other but in open conflict.  

That has become such a commonplace reading of Paul’s letter that it is rather shocking to realize that Paul meant precisely the opposite: the material world of God’s creation thrives because it’s imbued with the very Spirit of God.  

Body and soul, flesh and spirit—these belong together, inseparably united. Moreover, deadly consequences happen when they are divided, and that is precisely what the modern Western world has done with the vital ecosystems of Earth, treating them as a lifeless warehouse of resources for us to use or, quite literally, to burn.  

If Paul were writing this letter today he would likely have much more to say about how deeply God’s entire creation is groaning (Rom. 8:22-23).  

“The Whole Creation Groans,” Claudio Rossetti

That’s such a moving image, especially since Paul is referring to the kind of “groaning” that accompanies childbirth. The whole creation groans with “labor pains,” he says, struggling to give birth, eagerly anticipating the “redemption of our bodies.”

It sounds like he’s mixing metaphors, doesn’t it? Childbirth and redemption don’t seem to belong together, but I think Paul is inviting us to consider how they really should.   

Christians have always wrestled with just how far God’s saving reach extends beyond our own bodies—to the bodies of our companion animals, perhaps, or to the wild ones in our fields and forests and seas, or how about to all the surging bodies of water that cover most of this planet?  

St. Augustine, back in the fourth century, just couldn’t bring himself to imagine such an extensive divine reach. “Creation” in Paul’s letter, he says, refers only to the material parts of human bodies.  

A few centuries later, Medieval mystic and theologian Hildegard of Bingen begs to differ. We might refer to her as “The Abbess of Earth” as her poetic visions and musical compositions invite us to imagine Earth in every respect and in every atom vibrating with divine energy: the wind is God’s breath; the water is God’s blood; we touch the very presence of God’s own body in the hills and valleys and mountains—just as we do in the bread and wine at the Eucharistic Table.  

I find such a vision both enticing and terrifying. It’s actually easier and feels safer to keep Heaven ensconced at the top of the ladder, or to suppose that the ladder itself is our escape hatch from a world on fire. To suppose instead that the heavenly sanctuary sits on our own doorstep demands quite a bit more from us, right here and right now.  

Or as David Wallace-Wells recently noted in the New York Times: “it is always comforting to believe disasters are far away, unfolding elsewhere,” never quite touching our own place.    

Smoke from Canadian wildfires in New York, June 2023

But when Canada burns, we choke on the smoke—if ever there was a moment to recognize in more compelling ways the deep interconnections of all things, this is it.

Perhaps what is struggling to be born in the world today is a deeper consciousness of God’s own presence, not far away or in some distant future but in each and every ecosystem of Earth right now—and this would be the redemption of our bodies, of all bodies.  

This is the hope to which Paul is drawing our attention in this richly packed chapter of his letter to the Romans. It’s a hopeful and yet unseen energy that animates all things. And I think God is calling the Church to make that hope visible, tangible, present, and believable.  

The world of God’s creation groans in anticipation of that hope made true and real. And I can think of no more urgent or thrilling mission to join, nor any work more vital and important than that.  

Every Christian community gathered in their particular places, in their churches on Sunday mornings, can and now must say with Jacob: this is the House of God, and we stand at the Gate of Heaven—Heaven on Earth, as it was always meant to be.

“Peaceable Kingdom 2,” John August Swanson