There’s a famous story among Eastern Christians that says that Prince Vladimir/Volodimir of Kievan Rus sent emissaries to Constantinople who visited the Hagia Sophia. When they returned they told the Prince that during the Liturgy they knew not whether they were in Heaven or on earth. The story says that this helped to bring Christianity to Kievan Rus; it also in part explains why the Eastern Churches at times call our Liturgy “Heaven on Earth.”
I had a heaven on earth moment about a week ago. I had the opportunity to attend the consecration of the new temple of St. Elias the Prophet Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Brampton, Ontario. Twenty-one years ago, I attended the consecration of the first temple at the age of seven, and I don’t remember much of it. Sadly, that building burned down two and a half years ago. So when the opportunity arose to attend the consecration of the new temple, I leaped at it.
It wasn’t really convenient for me. I was tired, and I wouldn’t get much time to rest/sleep in during the weekend. I was stressed, and I wouldn’t get much introvert time during the trip. It was a several hour drive each way. I’d been out of town the weekend before, and I didn’t particularly fancy packing up my suitcase for another weekend trip. There were many reasons to not want to go. But I knew that in spite of all that I would regret it if I didn’t go. I knew that I needed to be there. As someone recently told me, we need to be where God is, and I knew that God was going to be there.
The weekend didn’t disappoint. The church is beautiful, and the Church is beautiful. I’ve heard it said before that the Church is not the buildings but the people. This weekend was a hope-filled reminder of that truth. The building is beautiful, and it will be made more beautiful as more icons are added to the space. (Icons are awesome; I love icons.) But the people of God are more beautiful because in us dwells the Holy Spirit. In his homily, Patriarch Sviatoslav said, “When the church was not yet consecrated, only YOU were living temples of the Holy Spirit. It was like I was facing God, one in the Holy Trinity, who lives in your hearts, in your souls. And because of you, because you are a living temple of the Holy Spirit, of our invisible and powerful God, this visible temple was today reconsecrated.”
It was so true. God was there. He was present in His people. His Holy Spirit was present. He was present through the Eucharist. He was there, and he acted. The church was packed to the gills. I couldn’t see much of what was happening. But it didn’t matter because I was able to hear and to experience it. I heard the beautiful singing. I heard the Rite of Consecration. I heard the Lord being praised by his people. (And I participated as best as I could.) And I did not know if I was in heaven or on earth.
Throughout the weekend, I heard reminders of God’s love for his people. I was reminded of the beautiful gift that the Lord gives us in the Ever Virgin Mary. He has given us His mother as our protector. I was reminded of the hope that our Lord offers us. The church building itself is a reminder of that. It is a reminder of how God provides for His people, how He hears their prayers and answers them. He does not abandon us. He mourns when we mourn, and he rejoices with us in our joy. He wants to draw us to Himself; he wants to bring us to a deeper experience of His love for us.
I was particularly struck by a comment that the parish priest made during Vespers on Saturday evening. He said that “God wants to celebrate with us. In moments like this, he dances with us.” God wants to share in our joy. It was a reminder of the personal nature of God’s love. For me, that was the theme of the weekend. It was an experience of God’s embrace, of God’s love for us. God offers us hope and joy. He wants to know us and love us in deeper ways. We need to be open to His love. We need to allow Him to know us and to strive to know Him.
The weekend was an experience of heaven on earth. It was a reminder of how God loves His people, how He provides for us. I’m not a member of the parish, but I was still welcomed into their joy. I was able to partake of their joy, to share in it. I felt like I was able to take some of that joy and that hope with me when I came home. Now I want to bring that joy and that hope to my own life and to my own parish.