You know how the curtain parts at the beginning of a play, and you see a new scene, with characters and sets and incidents that had remained hidden up til then? Church last week was like that. Except the curtain was made up of all the things I thought were real – the pastor, the table, the pulpit, the east wall of the church. It all disappeared and behind it I saw things I had never dreamed of.
It started at the call to worship. The pastors had processed to the front, and one of them was greeting us, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Good old stuff, comfortable stuff. Then he went all flat and crumply, and he began to fold and split in two, and half of him was drawn to one side of the church and half to the other, with gaping darkness in between. Another voice came out of the darkness, a voice like a trumpet, and then a shape. It was human, or human-form at least. He was enormous, with a robe like a storm cloud, eyes burning like fire, hair gleaming white as snow, his feet glowing like molten bronze. I couldn’t look at his face – it was like looking directly at a blazing sun – but I could see something flashed from his mouth as He spoke, a tongue that looked like a sword.
I looked wildly to my wife next to me – she was still there, somehow, and others with her. She was sitting calmly, as if the voice were still the pastor’s voice and the face still the pastor’s face. She slid forward in her pew, and knelt. I didn’t move for a second; I was too frightened to move, and she threw me a look. Then I was on my knees, on my face, trembling, struck dumb, ready to die, almost dead already. I don’t know how long I was down there, and I don’t remember how I stood up. Someone touched my shoulder said “Don’t be afraid,” and I was up again. My wife was on her feet too, along with everyone else, and I supposed they were listening to the absolution. My heartbeat slowed. I let myself hope it was all over, and I began to catalog what I had eaten and drunk on Saturday evening.
It wasn’t over. It was only beginning. I looked up and realized that the roof of the church was gone, just gone. I was standing under the blue sky when I should have been standing under a vaulted roof. That was scary, but not as scary as what happened next. That same trumpet voice called out, and now the sky began to flatten and go all crumply, it folded and pulled back, and before long there was an opening in the sky, and somehow the voice was pulling me up through a door into heaven.
That’s when things really got weird. I was standing at the edge of what looked like the throne room of a very wealthy king. At the center there was someone on a throne, but he was too bright to see clearly. Encircling him were other thrones, and on them were men and women in white robes with brilliant sheen. And encircling them was a company that I could not begin to count, millions of millions of . . . of what I don’t know. Some, I’m sure, were human, or had been. Others were creatures I could not identify, strange hybrids and genetic freaks, with wings and fangs and talons and manes. They were all singing. I recognized the hymn, it was one of my favorites, and I remembered seeing in the bulletin that we were going to sing it this Sunday.
One of the creatures was standing before a golden altar. He held a pan burning with incense, and the incense was rising before the altar. As the smoke went up, I heard murmuring voices, shrieks and screams of anguish, as if I had stepped into a abattoir on a day of butchering. The murmur grew louder until it was a roar so loud that I could hear nothing else, like the crash of water at the foot of a waterfall. The creature somehow gathered up the roar, mixed it with the smoke, and then sent it on up higher, up toward the throne at the center. Then he took some of the coals from his pan in his hand, burning all the while, and threw them down through the opening in the sky, down toward earth. I peeked through and saw gigantic thunder-heads, miles high, flickering with lightning and booming with thunder, and in the breaks in the clouds I could see – somehow it was clear to me, even from my great height – buildings shaking and bridges bending as the earth reeled and quaked.
Beside the king on the throne was a Lamb, but not a Lamb like any I had ever seen. He had seven horns, and seven eyes, and he was holding a scroll. The scroll had been closed up, I could see where the seals had been broken, but now it was open and the Lamb was about to begin reading it, in a voice that sounded like a trumpet. He read a word, and a storm of fire and hail broke out below, and as he read sentence after sentence, trumpeting out each word and phrase, mountains whizzed by through space, stars fell to earth, the moon and sun went black, and a cloud like smoke rose from hell, full of monsters. He spoke again, and I saw a dragon standing on a beach, and a beast like a leopard with four heads coming up from the sea, and another beast like the first one struggling out of the land like Adam on the day of his creation. And the dragon and the beasts took their weapons and went off to fight the saints, and I knew there was going to be a great slaughter, blood flowing as high as the chest of horses.
From where I stood, though, up in the sky, the war didn’t look like a war. It looked like a harvest. It looked like a procession. Dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of people, battle-scarred, still wounded, some beheaded and some torn in pieces, were somehow marching, dancing up from earth, through the door in the sky, into the throne room, singing all the while. All the mayhem down below was adding voices to the choir of heaven. Smoke and fire filled the room, and everyone stayed and sang on.
I heard the voice again, the trumpet voice of the Lamb, and this time he was issuing orders to another group of creatures. Seven of them came through a door carrying chalices of gold, like priests starting a Mass. They stood at the edge of the opening in the sky and began to pour out wine down to the earth. The first poured, and the followers of the beast were stricken with boils and sores, then another poured and the sea and rivers turned to blood, and as the wine poured out onto the earth the sky went black, and the thunder rolled and the lightning flashed, and the earth swayed like a drunkard. Finally, the sky itself shattered into pieces that fell to earth like giant hailstones. I saws beasts crushed beneath the stones, a city in flames, and everyone who had drunk the blood of the saints was judged and thrown into the fire.
“It’s time to leave,” one of the creatures said to me. “Time to go.” The Lamb was on a white horse, only now He wasn’t a Lamb anymore. He was the man I saw at the beginning, the man with the trumpet voice and the shining face, and I saw now that the thing coming from his mouth was a sword. Thousands were following Him through the doorway of the sky, an army in white, marching down through the atmosphere, down to earth. “You can’t stay here,” one of them said to me. “You have to go back down. Time to go.”
“Time to go,” my wife said. I was in my pew and she was nudging me on the shoulder. “You haven’t been paying attention at all. You’re as bad as the kids. You hardly worshiped at all.”
I knew better. I think it may have been the first time I ever worshiped – really worshiped – in my life.
Peter J. Leithart is President of the Theopolis Institute. This is the second in a series of essays on Bible. Liturgy. Culture.
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