by Maria Evans
We’ve probably heard the opening verses of our reading from Isaiah, many times, whether it’s at its familiar turn during Proper 28 C in the Revised Common Lectionary, its once every two years spot in the Daily Office, or even if it’s only in a disaster movie when the ship or plane is about to go down, and people are huddled around some clergy person because they figure they’re not going to make it.
But have you ever pondered–really pondered–what a new heaven and earth would look like? One so glorious everything you take in with your own eyes right now, you would forget all that you knew?
When I always ponder that question, I generally start with my own body. First thing I’d do is get rid of those little 5th toes that seem designed specifically to hook the legs of furniture in the dark. I’d re-do the radius and ulna so that people wouldn’t get Colle’s fractures by instinctively putting their hands out to catch themselves. Oh, and the appendix. I would definitely get rid of the appendix, even though I’ve made a good living off of receiving inflamed ones. (They’re a pretty easy piece of surgical pathology, honestly.) Sometimes I get cute and wish for a tail like a dog, that I could wag when I’m happy, or a sense of smell that I could be able to smell half of what my dogs smell (only the fragrant half.) I’d probably work on some other animals too, like the opossum. Poor things, I’ve never understood why a possum has to be so homely.
Yet, in the end, when I ponder these things, I realize that the best I can come up with is basically a rather tawdry reworked version of what I already am, that pretty much looks like I do now, only with improvements. Nothing so impressive that I would never give a thought to the things I love or have learned to love about my own body these many years.
The same goes for the rest of “a new heaven and earth.” I can’t imagine a sky without a horizon, or anything different than the stars at night, or any seasons beyond the four I know, or anything tastier than a morel mushroom I found myself. In short, what’s being promised to us is beyond our imagination…almost.
Our Gospel for today hints at about the only thing we are near-totally able to rework–the desires of the human heart when we try to obey the two Great Commandments–to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and mind…and to love our neighbor as ourself. When we have a change of heart, whether that is changing the way we feel about “the other,” or when we sacrifice ego and self to serve “the least of these” and actually see those people we didn’t fully understand as our neighbors, or actually find forgiveness for those who’ve hurt us–a strange forgetfulness can occur. Once we’ve freed ourselves from remorse and guilt, and commit ourselves to a new path, well…it’s weird, but it’s sort of like the way we used to be, or the intensity we used to feel about it all–can, at times, become a distant memory. Oh, sure, once in a while there’s the occasional pang of regret–after all, we’re only human–but in those few times we can actually manage to let those things remain in God’s hands and God’s care, it can feel like all we ever knew is the way we feel now. We have to actually think hard to remember what it was like before.
We also know there are physiological benefits to being at peace with things–lowered heart rate, lower mean arterial pressure, endorphin release, just to name a few. Even when we can’t quite get there, it’s been proven time and time again looking at people across a wide religious spectrum among those with regular prayer practices–whether it’s Buddhist monks or a person who regularly prays the Daily Office or a repetitive prayer practice such as rosary beads–display positive physiological changes. We know that the ability to forgive unconditionally is associated with longevity.
So sit back, put your feet up, and have a little fun, first imagining what that new heaven and earth might look like, and then turn to the harder work of the two Great Commandments. What might it feel like to forget those things you used to know with such intensity?