Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Comfort for Christmas

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Half of the family I was born into has died, and it’s Christmas.

Pardon my reality check, but a lot of folks are hurting this time of year, and it's not because they aren’t getting the latest Star Wars action figure. Death and separation are unwelcome guests during the holidays. Having them show up on the doorstep and linger in an empty chair profoundly hurts.

All of us were born into a family. Love them or hate them, this time of year makes us want to be with family, but often that is not possible. In my own family, Dad died of a massive heart attack, my sister died of brain cancer, and one of my brothers committed suicide. It’s been years since the last death, but that doesn’t matter. The passing of time doesn’t always help. For those of you who have experienced some of the same, you already know this. For those of you who don’t, mend those fences and gird your loins, because it will happen.

I thank the Lord we don’t use the thoroughly British holiday greeting of “Happy Christmas!” because, if you’re separated from someone,  the “happy” part might not be there. Joy, however, is an entirely different matter. That is why today I’m focusing on a detail of the Nativity that sometimes gets glossed over – the company of heaven.
“Assumption of the Virgin”
Francesco Botticini. 1475-76.
(National Gallery, London)

For the most part, the rank and file of heaven does not resemble anything we know this side of paradise. Types of angels are named in Scripture, but outside of the seraphim, little description is given. We can only guess as to the function and appearance of ranks known as cherubim, seraphim, thrones, virtues, choirs, angels and archangels. Because of this, conjecture is always a main ingredient in artistic depictions. To complicate things, artists often foolishly borrow from the imagery of classical antiquity, ending up with winged infants and women that are straight out of Greek and Roman mythology. And, sorry folks, but little Suzy won’t be getting a pair of wings this Christmas when a little bell rings – that’s just a crock of horse manure. She probably wasn’t an angel in this life, so what makes you think she will be one in the next?
“Empyrean” illustration for the “Divine Comedy.”
Gustave Doré. 1861-68.

Anyway, tradition places the ranks of heaven in concentric circles around the throne of God, so artistic depictions have followed suit. Francesco Botticini’s tempera painting, “Assumption of the Virgin,” used this formula, placing heaven on ascending planes parallel with the earth. While Botticini’s vision of heavenly beings seems rather limited, he used an old, but simple device of the circle to represent eternity.

Gustave Doré put a more modern twist on a much older interpretation. Orthodox imagery always shows heaven as a sphere, and Doré did his best to reflect this in his engraving of the Empyrean in Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” The angelic figures swirl in an endless orbit around the shining presence of God. There is a kind of atomic feeling in his work, where angelic neutrons orbit a divine nucleus.
“Angel Appearing to the Shepherds”
Thomas Cole. 1833-34.
(Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Va.)

Thomas Cole, side-stepping the genre of his Hudson River School, gave a different perspective in his “Angel Appearing to the Shepherds.” The artist ripped into a dark composition, as if heaven was being torn open for us to see. A single angel is visible, back-lit by the glory of heaven. A few additional angelic figures hint at an innumerable host beyond our view. Meanwhile, the right of the painting is cut by the vertical light of a star pointing to the stable.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”” – Luke 2:13-14

Luke’s record of the event gives us a glimpse of the heavenly host – the winged armies of heaven. But Scripture doesn't stop there. Hebrews 12 declares:

"But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven..." – Hebrews 12:22-23a

That "assembly of the firstborn" is a group beyond the angels. They are familiar to us, but are veiled from our view. And if the angels were jubilant at the birth of our Lord, consider the din and the company recorded in Revelation:

"Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps,  and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth." – Revelation14:1-3

Herein lies Joy. While we praise our Lord here in time, we know they praise Him there in eternity. In our minds; in blessed memory, we hear it. I hear the voice of my father, Agapito, and perhaps you hear your father's voice, too. Can you pick them out of the roar? Robert, Diane, Bud, Vi, Martin, Heinrich, Katie and Stephen. Names and numbers beyond the telling, yet each individually precious to our loving God who descended from His royal throne.

Heaven ripped at its seams to announce our Savior's birth to man, and we join in parallel praise of God with us. In fact, we join with the whole Christian Church on earth. Therein lies even more Joy.

Chancel of Töllsjö Church,
showing semi-circular communion rail,
or “altarring.”
1858, with 2014 renovations.
(Töllsjö, Sweden)
The mashup of earthly and heavenly praise sung for our earth-born King is sometimes taken a step further. A feature among some old Scandinavian sanctuaries are semi-circular communion rails. Perhaps that doesn’t seem so odd, given rail variations running the gamut from straight lines to U-shapes. What is odd – and significant – is that those semi-circular communion rails are symbolically part of a full circle. The other half of the imaginary circle continues outside the church building and into the churchyard – the cemetery. The liturgical phrase, “...together with all the company of heaven...” suddenly takes on a much deeper meaning when realizing we are shoulder-to-shoulder with the saints – all of them. There is no separation, neither of time nor space. There are no borders. There are no walls. There is no distance that can be measured.

We may not be able to see or touch those whom we dearly miss, but the reality of the spiritual realm has little to do with what is visible or tactile. It is probably for our own good that the visible glory of heaven is withheld from us, or we would complain, as did those who saw heaven’s reflection in the face of Moses – a man yet this side of paradise.

Of course, there is much more to Christmas Joy than wrapping your head around an empty chair. There is no point in singing at all unless you understand the significance of God wrapped in swaddling cloths, and of His love wrapped around us. The truth of God among us; the truth of the Lord stooping down from His heavenly throne to save us from our sin; the truth of The Christ coming in time to be the ultimate sacrifice for sinful man is what gives Christians real joy. It is the peace that surpasses all understanding.

Those who hold steadfastly to the Hope of the Resurrection know that painful separations are only temporary. The flighty happiness of this world is supplanted by a profound Joy in anticipation of the next, made possible through the manifestation of our God-made-flesh; our Savior, on that first Christmas morning. Somewhere deep within the walls of our broken and lonely hearts, the prophetic words of Isaiah echo, ““Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God.”

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