In the name of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Amen!
“Almost Heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River. Life is old there, older than the trees, Younger than the mountains, growin’ like a breeze” (Take Me Home, Country Roads).
Sitting on a rock, in the middle of the woods listening to the roaring waters of the beautiful waterfall; No noise pollution or light pollution – this must be paradise.
In 2010, Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent co-wrote a book entitled “Heaven is For Real” where they told the story of Todd’s 3-year old son, Colton, who due to complications of appendicitis had a near death experience on the operating table.
After the surgery, Colton began telling stories of how he had died and gone to heaven, where he had seen Jesus and the angels. At first he was met with skepticism naturally, however, he began telling stories interactions with people such as his great grandfather, who had died 30 years before he was born.
My dear brothers and sisters, where is Heaven, what will it be like when we get there? Is it like West Virginia, is it a bliss mountainous wilderness or like the stories we hear from our loved ones who have had near death experiences? Will our pets be there? Will my annoying neighbors be there? Will I have wings or be playing a harp? Whether it is in literature, music, movies, poetry or even our own reflections – Heaven is a place we view as good and yet, very mysterious. Repeatedly, throughout the Gospel’s we read of how Christ Jesus proclaims, the Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God is near. In one of today’s Gospel readings we read, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19-20) And so we automatically begin to envision that Heaven is this wonderful place, where neither rust nor thieves can take our treasures. Heaven is this place where, as we read from the Old Testament and proclaim during our Badarak, angels are continually singing and praising God and where we the children of God will gather with the saints after our death. In Heaven there will be no sickness or toil; no pain or loss. Rather we will be in peace and with our loved ones.
We all have our own ideas of what Heaven may be like. “Heaven is my throne, and earth my footstool. What house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest?” (Acts 7:49) My dears, let us image for a moment that our Church sanctuary is Heaven. We are gathered here with all the angels and saints, and we together are praising God who is invisibly enthroned on the Holy Altar. If God for some reason got up and walked out the doors and decided to go sit downstairs in the hall, what would we do? Would we follow Him? Would this sanctuary still be Heaven or would Heaven now be in the hall?
Today, the Armenian Church celebrates 2 feast days. The first of these is Diaruntarach or Presentation of the Lord to the Temple – where we remember how Christ Jesus as a child was brought to the Temple 40 days after his birth, according to the Laws of Moses, to be dedicated and Simon the Elder came to Jesus and made his blessing. The second feast is the Great Feast or “joyous living” – Poon Paregentan. This day proceeds what will begin tomorrow, Great Lent. Therefore, today we celebrate how Adam and Eve, how all humanity, enjoyed Paradise, the Garden of Eden and all it’s blessings. The greatest of these blessings was of course that they openly communicated and were continually within the presence of God. We read in Genesis, how God walked in the garden and spoke directly to Adam and Eve just as we speak to each other. They were at peace as they enjoyed all creation around them. Some Church Father’s even say that Adam and Eve were able to communicate with the angels because they were in heaven. Yet, through sin, we know, they were cast out of the garden and the presence of God.
This means, my dear brothers and sisters, that Heaven, Paradise, the Kingdom of God is not a place, whether it be Eden, this Church, the hall downstairs or even West Virginia. Heaven is the presence of God! That is also why St. Gregory of Datev of the Armenian Church states, that when Christ said the Kingdom of Heaven is near, Jesus was declaring that it was His presence that brought the Kingdom of Heaven – it is when God is with us that we are in Heaven. Whether we will have wings, be dressed in white or playing the harp; whether we will be taller, or shorter, or be with our loved ones; whether, we are up there or in a completely different place – as long as we are in the presence of God, we are in Heaven. However, to be in the presence of God does not require for us to die or have a near death experience.
To be with God, we must be in communion with God and that communion begins with the life we live here. A life where we must repent of sin, pray, reflect, fast, do charity, show mercy, not worry as much but trust, we must come to Church and learn everything the God has given us, just as Adam and Eve enjoyed everything God had blessed them with. We must be baptized and freed from our sins and finally we must receive Holy Communion. Christ taught us how to repent, how to pray, how to be compassionate and trust God. Christ Jesus cleansed the waters for us to be cleansed by and taught us how to break bread together teaching us “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood is in me, and I in him.” ( John 6:56) That is why Christ Jesus does not say go and do good – but rather, go and do as I do.
My dear brothers and sisters, when we are in communion with God, even in this life, we are already in Heaven because we have the presence of God with us. As we prepare to begin our journey of Great Lent, this for us again is another opportunity to come into Heaven – to come into the presence of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Not in the invisible world after we die, but here in our world. Because God is with us here today and each time we live according to His divine commandments God is with us there as well. Yes, today we remember how we were in Paradise with God but we also remember how Simon went to God in the Temple. Therefore, let us come before God here, trusting in His love and care by living our life in communion with Him. Doing so we will already be in Heaven each day and with each moment, always living in the presence of God and bringing God’s presence to those in our life, who are searching for Heaven, searching for His light, searching for God. By the grace of this day, may we remain always in the presence of God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit eternally, Amen!