According to Scripture, our first explicit encounter with the holy angels was after the expulsion from Paradise. At what should have been its welcoming gate, we found ourselves face-to-face with the Cherubim – their sharp, burning swords pointing our way. The message was clear: we were no longer welcome. Between us and Paradise these august spirits were flourishing the “word of God … living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hb. 4,12) This should give us pause to reflect upon our relationship to both Paradise and the angels.
The Garden of Eden was planted by God “in the east.” (Gn. 2,8) It was to be the place for man to “grow and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it.” (1,28) The symbolic “east” suggests that we were created close to our origin, that is, close to God – theologically put, in the state of grace. Through the ensuing trial of our love, we were to be accepted into the fullness of God’s glory, and that meant we were destined not only to stand in his presence, but, far more intimately, to “dwell with him.” This abode, however, would have to be freely chosen by submitting to God’s will regarding the mysterious Tree of Knowledge. This source of enlightenment was not the sort of thing that could be forced upon us. We know only too well the outcome of this trial, but let us consider the Garden for a moment. We were driven from its precincts, but – and this is the good part – the rest of sacred history would be the long and eventful narrative of how our relationship to God and his dwelling were to be reconfigured.
The river of grace that flowed “out of Eden to water the Garden” (Gn. 2,10) divided into four rivers.
(It bears reminding that here, early in Genesis – as will also be the case late in the New Testament, in the Apocalypse – we are in the presence of events and realities so primordial, or in the Apocalypse, so eschatological, that only symbolic and “mythical” language can venture near them. But unlike most myths and symbols, what are referenced here are concrete times and places, and truths as solid – indeed more solid – than those of secular history. They are just too distant and unfamiliar to be described in literal terms.)
Thus, God’s first home for us was to be a Garden bounded by four symbolic rivers. We still live by preference in four-sided houses and rooms; we still speak of the four directions, the four elements, the four moral virtues, the four temperaments, and so on. God’s grace had originally constituted us in a state of perfect order and harmony, symbolized by this Garden of four rivers, supernaturally surrounding and sustaining our natural, quaternal structure.
After having proven our love and obedience by following the divine ordinance regarding the Tree of Knowledge, we would eventually have been admitted to the inner sanctuary of God’s glory. We would have joined the highest angels in a life of praise inconceivable to our minds today. But that plan was frustrated, and by the willful interference of our own disobedience. We foolishly chose to try our hand at “understanding” evil by doing it. The performance of evil acts, however, brings darkness, not light. Only a saint can understand sin. As Fulton Sheen once said, there is only one thing on earth you never learn more about through experience, and that is sin.
The infinite God, however, is not easily frustrated. After our fall from grace, he immediately opened the stores of a divine “reserve plan.” Thus began the much longer, but to all appearances, much more glorious design of our Redemption and Sanctification. The promise regarding Mary has already been mentioned [in an earlier chapter of the book]. We shall now pick up the story where it foreshadows the rebuilding of a created sanctuary where God’s majesty can once again dwell. This would be our only hope to finally get past those sharp, Cherubic swords. The sanctuary will evolve through history in stages of progressive blueprints, from the Ark of Noah to the Ark of the Covenant, from the Tabernacle in the desert to the Temple in the city, from what will come to be known as the Church, and then on to its consummate architecture in the New Jerusalem.
When we fell, and the Cherubim stood suddenly and sternly at the gates of our lost home, that home itself seemed to withdraw into the sky. Some mystics claimed to have sighted it on a high mountain. Dante put it in the Southern Hemisphere, still imagined as a highland of sun and treasure to the medieval mind. It will be more theologically coherent if we simply picture it as withdrawing into the choirs of the angels, far above the reach of all our towers of Babel. (Gn. 11) The Earth is too fragile for glory quite yet. After all, we were left “to till the ground from which we were taken” (Gn. 3,23), that is, to labor in the state of gross material nature, and a wounded nature at that.
High in the choirs of angels, the former Garden of Paradise is being repurposed into the future City of God. One day it will descend upon the earth as the final dwelling place of God with his creation. Much of the language used is of course figurative. The “descent” of the City may simply refer to the progressive sanctification and transformation of the world as we know it. Cosmic annihilation, at any rate, does not figure in God’s plans. The cosmos will be changed, but certainly not destroyed.
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning with labor pains together until now. (Rm. 8, 19-22)
We read about that final consummation at the very end of the last book of the Bible: “Behold, I make all things new.” (Apoc. 21, 5); and “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men.” (23,3) That celestial metropolis, full of angelic occupants, is glimpsed at times by the prophets of the Old Covenant under other figures, such as the “Chariot of God.” (cf. Ezekiel 1) But long before it begins its symbolic descent, “coming down out of heaven from God” (Apoc. 21,2), we, in the meantime, are being primed for our new habitat. By following instructions on building small dwellings on earth – as if in miniature imitation of that celestial abode – we begin to relearn what it means to dwell with God.
With the building of Noah’s ark (Gn. 6), a dimly perceived historical fact rises before our eyes, still nestled in the symbolic ambience of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Here is the first post-paradisiacal dwelling place for God’s children. But it is still, like the primordial chaos (Gn. 1,1-2), “moving over the face of the waters.” Only with Abraham (Gn. 12ff.) does the promise of solid land give assurance that the divine dwelling will indeed gain foothold in creation.
Later on, God will say to Moses: “Make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in your midst.” (Ex. 25,8) And on Mount Sinai, Moses is shown the archetypal dwelling in heaven that is to be the model for the tabernacle on earth. “And you shall erect the tabernacle according to the plan for it which has been shown you on the mountain.” (26,30) Accordingly, instead of the four rivers, we have the four sides of the tabernacle; later with Solomon, the four-sided Temple of Sion will become the great Old Testament mock-up of God’s future dwelling among men. The whole of the Old Testament Covenant revolves around this evolving divine edifice and the cult God ordains to be performed within it. From the Temple cult to the Christian liturgy of today, we are being trained to assume the position of love and obedience we lost in Paradise.
Through its infidelity to the Law and its whoring after false gods, the Chosen People will largely be unable to recognize Christ as Emmanuel, God-with-us. They will even collaborate in destroying him and his body just as the Roman Emperor was to destroy the actual Temple of Jerusalem in the year 70. But before Our Lord entered the Passion and submitted to this death, he had taken his Apostles into the four-walled room of the Cenacle and instituted the Sacrifice of the New Covenant in his Blood. That first Christian assembly became the model for all the churches to come, and the true successor of the Temple of Jerusalem.
Here, through the Eucharist, God was to be present in an altogether new way. By now entering the temple of the human body – with its four humors, four temperaments, four limbs and a soul destined to initial perfection in the four moral virtues – the final preparations are being made. His mysteriously glorified body was now to be made present in the new “showbread” (Ex. 25,30) of the Christian liturgy. The construction of his new headquarters among us, and in us, is now fully underway.
The Church and its greatest treasure, the Holy Eucharist, continues and perfects the work of the Tabernacle in the desert and the Temple in Sion. All these were new terrestrial dwelling places for the God who had been banished from his own creation by sin. But the Eucharist, which is Christ himself, is the definitive building block for his final and Apocalyptical dwelling in the renewed creation.
Cherubim stood with their “flaming swords which turned every way” at the gates of Paradise. Cherubim were also carved at the two sides of the Mercy-Seat in the Temple, there where God spoke to man. (Ex. 25, 18-21) The Mass too begins with the sword of Scripture and doctrine, in which God speaks to man in the Liturgy of the Word. But now the august word is buffered, as it were, with the humanity of Christ; we pass unharmed through the sword’s edge of those holy utterances, and on into the intimacy of the sanctuary. And in the Eucharistic Preface, we turn with confidence to the angels – “with angels and archangels” – as we proceed to the Consecration.
Likewise, before the Church inherits the full perfection of the New Jerusalem, she too will have to turn to the angels in the mysteries of the Apocalypse. And that means experiencing the fulfilment of Our Lord’s promise that “he will send out the angels, and gather the elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (Mk. 13,26) And as for the purification, he insists that it is the angels who will perform these last works of his Church’s cleansing; it is they who will “gather out of his Kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers.” (Mt. 13,41)
The entire book of the Apocalypse can be seen as a working out of the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection on the global level. Ever again, in its history, the whole Church will suffer the fury of hell, at times apparently die, and then, suddenly, rise from the dead just as dramatically as did Jesus on Easter Morning. But one day it will be his whole Mystical Body that rises:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men’. . . And he who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’” (Apoc. 21, 1-3,5)
It becomes evident that angel and man, and with them the material cosmos, all have parts to play in the new order of creation. Significantly, we are told in the Apocalypse that the very measures of the Heavenly City’s walls are “a man’s measure, that is, an angel’s.” (21,17) But if the measure has become the same, either humans will have become more angelic, or angels more human – or both. At the end of time, man and angel will have realized the full measure of their common praise of Christ, as their voices join with the cosmic music of material creation in the worship of the Triune God.
From my forthcoming book, The Other World We Live In, Angelico Press, 2021. Printed with permission.