I don’t know if the word „heavenly“ is still in your vocabulary. If so, I would like to ask you if you can remember the last time you used the word. „It was heavenly!“ or „It’s heavenly here!“ – these are sentences that are used, for example, on vacation, for example when you come to a beautiful place and look at a landscape. These sentences can fall on a sunny day in the garden, like now in spring, when you are sitting under a blossoming fruit tree with a piece of cake. Some would say it after a concert, where the music has touched or fulfilled them in a special way, or even after a great meal, sitting back in a chair, full and happy. However, the word „heavenly“ does not refer to a specific thing, i.e. the landscape, the garden, the music or the good food. Rather, it denotes an overall impression, a condition, a feeling. It’s „heavenly“ on vacation because the beauty of the landscape comes together with the feeling of relaxation and carefree free time. And it has to do with the people I’m walking with at this moment, the intimacy and community, the happiness of being in this place together. Everything just fits together for the moment. This moment is heaven. There are no worries, no duties, no conflicts in this moment. „Heavenly“ is where the soul stretches out and becomes free.
For people of all generations, heaven [which is in German „Himmel2, the same word as „sky“] has never been just an astronomical something, a blue dome that arches over everything, a shell to which the stars are attached, an infinite universe that opens up a view of its vastness when there is no sunlight. For people, heaven is always an inner state, a redeemed existence, a great harmony that one longs for from the experience of the impermanence and turbulence of the world and of life.
The Chinese Emperor Yongle had a city built in the early 15th century that he had planned as a city of heaven. He understood his imperial commission as “Tianming”, as a mandate from heaven. The emperor was to be the link between heaven and earth and thus the guarantor of heavenly harmony, which would also become effective and visible on earth, the balance of power, the well-being of the citizens and, last but not least, peace over the empire that he ruled . The city was built symmetrically and showed the image of the seasons on its four sides. In the center stood the Imperial Palace in crimson. This was considered the color of the Pole Star, the only immovable star in the firmament as seen from Earth. Something like a cosmic anchor was thrown here, from which the world as a whole was ordered. The inner core of the sky city was the „Forbidden City“. It was inaccessible because the inner harmony must not be disturbed. Because around the imperial palace everything was order, all harmony, all ritual. There should be no coincidences, no traces of chaos, nothing unforeseen. Everything ran according to fixed rules and thus embodied a trace of eternity. The fact that tourists visit the Forbidden City today would have been an unspeakable crime 100 years ago, an unforgivable disturbance of harmony and thus of heaven itself.
Our Christian tradition also knows this idea of heaven. When you look at paintings depicting heavenly glory, you see order, light, peace, prayer, music, liturgy. The construction of churches in the Middle Ages followed exactly these ideas. The Gothic cathedral was an image of the heavenly city of Jerusalem floating down to earth from above. Here is the space of the sacred, of music, of silence, of light, which pours into the room in all its colors through the colorful windows. The construction itself is harmony and symmetry. And yet the Christian heaven is more than mere harmony.
One would misunderstand Christ’s ascension if one saw in it only a return of Jesus to the harmony of heaven, that is, a moment in which the separation of heaven and earthly life was accomplished. Pope Leo the Great makes this clear in a sermon. It is clear that Jesus, as an earthly human being, has already brought the reality of heaven to earth in his signs and speeches. Leo then says about the Ascension Day:
“Today we rightly commemorate and celebrate the day when Christ exalted our low nature above all the host of heaven, above all the choirs of angels and all their sublime powers, upon the throne of his Father.”
Leo’s words might sound a bit complicated. What is meant, however, is that the heaven in which we believe is not a closed society of God and angels. It is not a mere opposite to the earth. Rather, in the ascension, Christ brings our wholly earthly existence into heaven. This means our very own human needs, suffering, concerns, joys, our life and being. The spheres of heaven and earth interpenetrate. The heavenly harmony is not complete, but remains open until the final redemption for what moves and defines me personally, for my story. My life has a place with God.
And vice versa, heaven can already be experienced on earth. This doesn’t just mean the situations we would describe as „heavenly“. This means above all that in the connection with God a state is created in which my soul comes to rest, in which I can experience his presence as healing and consoling. And as for people of all times, this meeting of God and man is a rite, embedded in signs and words, in music and processes that remain the same, in the sacraments, which are a special place of encounter between God and man. However, these rites are not rigid, but they want to be filled with earthly life, with my personal concerns, my own beliefs and hopes, my needs and my joys.
The word „heavenly“ expands in meaning. It means more than the experience of great harmony. At its core, it points to an experience of the existence of God, to a heaven in which there is room for me.