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Who art in heaven

by Sr Tamsin Mary Geach o.p.

In the Scriptures, Genesis Chapter 1,'the heavens' are the first thing that God creates, and thereafter there is some ambiguity about how He relates to these – Sometimes the heavens are seen as where God dwells:

‘Look down from thy holy habitation, from heaven, and bless thy people Israel’ (Deut.26.15),


‘Why should the nations say,

  “Where is their God?”

Our God is in the heavens;

    he does whatever he pleases.’(Ps 115.2-3)

In other places, God is seen as outside the whole context.  Several of the words that are translated as ‘heaven’ or ‘the heavens’ are often also the same word as the word for ‘the sky’.  But some are much more in keeping with our concept of ‘heaven’ as the spiritual realm – Solomon asks, as he prepares to build the Temple in Jerusalem

‘Who is able to build him a house, since heaven, even highest heaven, cannot contain him? Who am I to build a house for him, except as a place to burn incense before him?’(2 Chronicles 2.6)

and later

‘“But will God dwell indeed with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!(2 Chronicles 6.18),

A later king, Hezekiah prays

‘O LORD the God of Israel, who art enthroned above the cherubim, thou art the God, thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; thou hast made heaven and earth.’(2 Kings 19.15).

In this rather ambiguous usage of heaven as either the physical sky, or as the spiritual realm, the first univocal occurrence of heaven meaning the latter is when Hagar has been cast out by Abraham, and thinks she and her son will die:

‘God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her,

“What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.  Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”(Gen 21.17-19) 

The next time is similar.  Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac, and God sends an angel from heaven:

‘The angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Gen.22.11-12)

When Solomon is dedicating the Temple he prays at length, with a recurrent phrase ‘hear thou in heaven.’(1 Kings 8:30ff) He prays for the dynasty of David, for the people of Israel, and for any foreigner who might happen to pray in the temple, that God will hear their prayers ‘in heaven thy dwelling-place’ and when He hears, that He will vindicate the righteous, condemn the guilty, forgive the nation when it falls into sin, answer their prayers and protect them against their enemies. In all these petitions God is to ‘hear from heaven.’

In a word, in much of the Old Testament when God is addressed as being ‘in heaven’ or speaking ‘from heaven’ it is to protect, to vindicate the covenant, to forgive sin, to reach beyond the national boundaries, to protect the people of Israel, to succour the helpless and to hold His people back from the child-slaying religions of their pagan neighbours.

A second recurring theme to examine whilst trying to understand ‘who art in heaven’ through the Old Testament is the encounter with God in His Divinity, theophany.  Jacob encounters the living God in a dream as he flees from his brother:

‘he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! 13 And behold, the LORD stood above it[b] and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants…’Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place; and I did not know it.” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen 28:12 ff)

This is one of many encounters with God in which there is an experience of a ‘place’ where God speaks to His people.  Moses, when tending to his father-in-law’s flock saw the “Angel of the LORD” who ‘appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush….The bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed”  God called to Moses from the bush, telling him, “Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground”.  (Exodus 3:2-10)

In Exodus Chapter 20 we read that Moses whilst the Hebrews stood ‘afar off…drew near to the thick darkness afar off,’ while Moses approached where God was.

‘And the LORD said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the people of Israel: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven.’ (Ex.20:21 ff).

Later, Moses along with Aaron, Nadab, and Abi′hu, and seventy of the elders of Israel

‘saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.’ (Exodus 24 9-11).

Moses reverts to this occasion later as he sums up the experience of the People:

‘you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom. Then the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice.’ (Deut 4.11-12) 


‘Out of heaven he let you hear his voice, that he might discipline you; and on earth he let you see his great fire, and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire. (Deut. 4.36).  This is foundational to the Covenantal principle that they must lay to heart: ‘ the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.’(Deut 4.39)

Various of the other prophets encounter God directly, in an experience that can be described as other-worldly:  Elijah experiences the earthquake wind and fire, but only goes out to meet God when what happens is the ‘still small voice.’  Several, – Moses, Jonah, Jeremiah -object to their calling as prophets, and are able to enter into discussion with God.  Jacob wrestles all night with a Being that he identifies as God;  Isaiah

‘saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”(Is 6.1-3)

Daniel sees ‘the Ancient of Days’ Who takes His seat,

‘His clothing… as white as snow; the hair of his head…white like wool,’ His throne flaming with fire… to Whom ‘one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven’ approaches, to Whom is given ‘authority, glory and sovereignty’, Whose ‘dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.’ (Daniel 7.9 ff)

Ezechiel sees 

‘what looked like a throne of lapis lazuli, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him.  Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD.’(Ezechiel 1.26 ff)

In every instance of this sort of vision the culmination is that the prophet is sent to give word to the people – of hope, of a call to repentance, of God being mindful of His people.

Had we but world enough and time I would lead us through the rest of the scriptures looking at how ‘heaven’ is to be understood and imaged when we pray ‘Who art in heaven.’  Doing a search of the word ‘heaven’ in scripture would be a fruitful spiritual exercise which you could do on your own, but perhaps it is enough to say that when first we hear of heaven as the spiritual realm in the Old Testament it is in the encounter with God of a slave, a woman, an outcast, a homeless person in desperate need, whom God has come to rescue, and that it is from heaven that God hears the prayers in the Temple in Jerusalem, including those of foreign nations and of sinners.  This I think is how the first disciples would have heard, and how we are to hear and understand ‘Who art in heaven.’  We also see God as transcendent and terrifying, and a true experience of God does not leave the one experiencing it calm an unmoved – But we are told of the elders of Israel ‘they saw God and ate and drank.’

In the New Testament in Matthew we read that when Jesus was baptised

‘behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him;  and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”’ (Matt 3.16-7).   Heaven has touched earth, and the barriers have been thrown down.

So what should our attitude be to heaven? As Christians, Heaven should be not a thing we dread, but a longed-for goal. We take as our own the prophecies of Isaiah, the new heavens and the new earth with all those lambs dwelling with wolves and lions eating inappropriate fodder – but the central theme is the Lord Himself Who will ‘rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in [His] people,’ Who will ‘create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy’  (Isa 6518-19).  This present and comforting Lord is promised to us by Christ Himself, Who says

‘I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no-one will take your joy from you.   In that day you will ask nothing of me.’(Jn16.22).

Of course, in part this promise was fulfilled in the Resurrection, but then the Lord goes on to say in His prayer to the Father

‘Father I desire that they also, whom Thou hast given me may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which Thou hast given Me in Thy love for Me before the foundation of the World.’ (1.Jn 17.24). 

This risen relationship of comfort and joy with God continued to be preached by the apostles:

‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ (1 Cor 13.12)

The reality of the coming Kingdom was generally preached, but was also seen as something already attained and attainable in this world, already accessible in a living relationship with Our Lord, and in the sacrifice of the Mass. The author of Hebrews writes, referring back to the formation of the earlier covenant with Moses with its dramatic sound effects and visual aids: 

‘you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest,  and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them.  But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect,  and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel….let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.’  (Hebrews 12.)

This is the basis of human hope, and the whole of our eschatology is a commentary upon it.  It was in preaching this message that the faith of Christians was preached and spread from Asia to Britain before a hundred years had passed after the Resurrection. 

The early Christians looked for an early return of the Saviour – so much so that St Paul had to quell the anxieties of those who had lost dear ones, that by dying they would not miss out on the coming Kingdom (cf I Thess. 4.14).  Over time, as our understanding of the age of the world has increased, the time we have been waiting has also increased – or has it?  The longest time, in the present state of medicine, that any Christian has to wait before meeting his living Lord is about a hundred years.  Most of us will not live so long, and some of us will die very much younger than that.   In this situation, not new, all of us should look daily for the coming of Christ, at least in our own lives, with hope and not with fear.  As St Cyprian put it in On Mortality:

‘The kingdom of God, beloved brethren, has begun to be at hand; the reward of life and the joy of eternal salvation and perpetual happiness and the possession of paradise once lost are now coming with the passing of the world; now the things of heaven are succeeding those of earth, and great things small, and eternal things, transitory. What place is there here for anxiety and worry? Who in the midst of these things is fearful and sad save he who lacks hope and faith?   For it is for him to fear death who is unwilling to go to Christ.  It is for him to be unwilling to go to Christ who does not believe that he is beginning to reign with Christ.’

In his exposition of the Apostles Creed St Thomas lists the things that Christians hope for in the life to come:  We shall be raised again, soul and body, to eternal life, which St Thomas describes as ‘The end of all our desires.’  Eternal life is characterised first of all by our being united with God, Who ‘Himself is the reward and the end of all our labours’.  According to St Thomas this vision of God consists ‘firstly, in perfect vision,… Secondly, in a most fervent love… Thirdly, in the highest praise’ This, St Thomas says, is  ‘the full and perfect satisfying of every desire’ since  ‘God only satisfies and infinitely exceeds man’s desires; and, therefore, perfect satiety is found in God alone.’

Turning to a more recently beatified saint, Blessed John Henry Newman, we find that he too is focussed on a heaven chiefly defined by the vision of God.  He writes:

‘After the fever of life; after wearinesses and sicknesses; fightings and despondings; languor and fretfulness; struggling and failing, struggling and succeeding; after all the changes and chances of this troubled unhealthy state, at length comes death, at length the White Throne of God, at length the Beatific Vision. After restlessness comes rest, peace, joy;—our eternal portion, if we be worthy; —the sight of the Blessed Three, the Holy One; the Three that bear witness in heaven; in light unapproachable; in glory without spot or blemish; in power without "variableness, or shadow of turning."

As a place, by contrast with the Garden of Eden, and in contra-distinction to our modern prejudices, heaven is described as decidedly urban.  St. John in the Apocalypse writes:

‘I saw the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.’  (Rev. 21.10-11)

However the important thing about the City remains the presence of God with us:

‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.’ (Rev 21.3 ff)

Thus the Father Who is in heaven invites us to intimacy and joy with Himself.  Calling Him our Father in Heaven does not put us at a distance from Him, but is rather an invitation to union. Heaven is primarily a matter of seeing God and rejoicing in Him. 

So is it all hope for an uncertain future, pie in the sky?  Scripture seems to affirm that Heaven can be seen felt and tasted, even in this life.  Sometimes, as if to remind us of this, there are remarkable stories of conversion, even up to our own times, where a person previously without faith is touched by the living God. A remarkable instance of this kind of thing is to be found in a lovely account by a C20th theologian, a convert Jew who came from having been an atheistic Communist.  He entered a church where exposition of the Blessed Sacrament was going on to look for a friend who was there, and as he was idly looking about was suddenly converted.  He writes

‘…that is the moment which without warning sets off the series of wonders that with inexorable violence are going to demolish instantaneously the absurd being that is myself and bring to dazzled birth the child that I had never been.

First of all, these words are put to me: “spiritual life.” … The last syllable of this murmured prelude has no sooner entered my consciousness than the avalanche begins. I cannot say that heaven opens; it does not open, it is hurled at me, it arises like a sudden silent thunderbolt from out of this chapel in which one would never have dreamed that it was mysteriously enclosed. How can I describe it in these reductive words… It is like a crystal, indestructible, infinite in its transparency, almost unbearable in its brightness (a fraction more would annihilate me) and, as it were, blue, a world, another world of a brilliance and density such as to reduce ours to the faint shadows of unfinished dreams. It is reality, it is truth, I see it from the dark bank on which I am still held back. There is an order in the universe and, at its summit, beyond this veil of dazzling mist, the evidence of God, evidence become presence and presence become the person of the One whom a moment ago I would have denied, the One whom Christians call “our Father” and from whom I learn that He is gentle, with a gentleness like no other, … active, breaking open, far beyond any form of violence, capable of shattering the hardest stone and, harder even than stone, the human heart… The whole is dominated by the presence, beyond and through an immense multitude, of the One whose name I can never write again without feeling the dread of wounding His tenderness, the One before whom I have the happiness of being a forgiven child, waking to learn that everything is gift.’(Froissart: God exists, I have met him Full Story here)

God is our Father ‘in heaven’ and in praying thus we claim, as His children, our birthright in that Kingdom, where we as firstborn sons can even now and even here begin to taste the good things of God.