The Kingdom of God is described with many different images in the Sacred Scriptures. Three images are used in Sunday’s liturgy to illustrate certain aspects of heaven — a mountain, a house and a feast.
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples,” says the prophet Isaiah in the first reading for Sunday’s Mass. Several key events in salvation history occur on mountains. Think back for a moment to Moses’ first encounter with God; it was on Mount Sinai. Moses is climbing the mountain and comes upon a bush on fire but not being consumed by the flames. As he approaches the Lord speaks to him saying: “Do not come near! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father … the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:5).
Later, following the exodus from Egypt, the Lord will establish his covenant with Israel on this mountain. Another mountain of significance is Mount Zion which becomes the location of the Temple in Jerusalem. Recall Jerusalem itself is built on a mountain. The “ascent psalms,” those psalms sung on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, often speak of “going up” to Jerusalem. In Judaism the Temple became known as the place of encounter with God, his dwelling place among mankind.
In the New Testament Jesus manifests the new law of the covenant in the Sermon on the Mount, he commissions the apostles on a mountain and he was transfigured on a mountain where the appearance of Moses and Elijah beside him signifies the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. In other words, all other encounters with God are now brought to fulfillment in Jesus; Jesus is the “place” where we encounter the Father.
Mountains are natural geological features of the landscape. They soar above the ground, many times in a majestic and grand manner. When we approach a mountain our eyes look up in awe at its grandeur. As eyes are lifted up surrounded by beauty, one is taken up in thoughts of the divine and his creation. Isaiah uses the image of a mountain to describe God’s dwelling place, heaven.
God’s providential care for his people is described by the manner in which the people will be cared. Isaiah says God will provide “a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.” In heaven the people will see the Lord directly — “the veil that veils all peoples” will be destroyed along with death. Life will be enjoyed forever in the presence of God.
All hurts, wounds, sorrows and grief will be healed for “The Lord God will wipe away the tears from every face.” God will heal the “reproach of his people” through his merciful love and we will be able to look on him face to face and say: “Behold our God, to whom we looked to save us! This is the Lord for whom we looked; let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!”
Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) is the responsorial for today’s liturgy. The response, “I shall live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,” uses the image of a house to describe heaven. The psalm is one of the most beloved and prayed of all the 150 psalms. It speaks of the loving relationship God has with his people. He leads his people, provides for them, protects them and offers them hope.
The psalmist, and we who pray this psalm, are filled with joy as we proclaim his goodness to us saying: “Only goodness and kindness follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come.” The whole experience of the Lord’s goodness to Israel is captured in the image of the house.
This image, like the mountain, is used in the Scriptures to describe a place of encounter and dwelling. The house is not just some distant dwelling place but a reality to be experienced here and now as the psalmist says: “Only goodness and kindness follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come.” The words reflect the reality that God is not distant from us; he is present to us, leading and guiding, protecting and providing. At the same time we realize that there is a further experience for which we long; a perfected dwelling, a home which we never leave, a presence we describe as seeing the Shepherd face to face.
Jesus describes heaven as a wedding feast. When family and friends gather for a wedding it is a day of great joy and love. Love shared between the husband and wife; love for them shared among family and friends. It is joy filled with a wonderful meal, fine clothes and great celebration. This is the image Jesus uses for describing the Kingdom of God.
The disturbing aspect of Jesus’ parable is that many of the invited guests did not accept the invitation or were ill prepared for the celebration. The parable is a call to vigilance and preparedness. Jesus comes to lead us to life (both now and in the Kingdom fully realized). He invites us to share in this life, to share in this feast of life. We do this by following him — his example, his teachings, his way. Our response to Jesus comes in the way we live our lives; and the way we lay down our lives in love for him and for each other.
Jesus came that we might have life. He invites us to know his heavenly Father in a very intimate way. He makes the Father known to us. He sends the Spirit to dwell in us and fill us with life. Through his death and resurrection he opens the doors to heaven, the doors to life.
Today we are reminded through this celebration of our goal in life – to live with God and our loved ones united in heaven. The Scriptures use the images of a mountain, a house and a feast to describe this reality. They help us move forward in faith toward our heavenly goal.
Each image is helpful. But each image is limited, for words cannot capture the magnitude of this experience. Perhaps St. Paul puts it best when he writes: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.