Sunday, April 18, 2010

Making Sense of the Resurrection in a Stressed-Out Age - Part II

In the reading from Acts (9:1-20) for today’s liturgy, Luke writes: “[He] heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting...’” The conversion of the Apostle who would become Paul occurred probably two or so years after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, and probably within a year after Saul had witnessed, as an eager bystander, the stoning of Stephen, the Hellenist/Jewish deacon. This was some 35-60 years before John the Presbyter recorded his visions in the Book of Revelation, depending on the actual date of composition. Stephen’s was but one early instance in a long line of continuous suffering and victimization, down to and beyond the present time, faced by Christians which John comments on in Chapters 6-18 of Revelation.

Part I (last week) ended at Chapter 6, just before Jesus, the Lamb of God, breaks the first six seals on a scroll given him by the Father, symbolizing ongoing tragedies which plague humanity. You and I know of such dramatic calamities in our own time which have touched our lives in one way or another: the devastating earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, Mexico, and China; and the tragic deaths of nearly 100 of Poland’s top tier leaders. Such occurrences serve as signs of warning, of testing and of purifying. John borrows language and images from both the Old and New Testaments to describe such catastrophes, visualizing them in Chapter 6 as the figures of the legendary Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Seal # 1 is the one riding on a White Horse: no one knows with certainty what this means. One view holds that the rider represents imperialism and the use of war in order to dominate. In this case the “bow” might refer to the fierce Parthians who were a constant threat to Rome at the end of the 1st century. A second conjecture is that the rider symbolizes the victory of the Gospel through the Risen Christ, the Word of God. The bow, figuratively, conjures up the rainbow of Genesis 9, a symbol of peace; or, perhaps, the image of God in charge, stretching his bow, as in Psalms and Lamentations. The color white generally symbolizes something favorable and good. John uses the word “conquer” in Revelation to indicate the triumph of good. A message that Jesus is in charge, even amidst war, famine, and disaster, is consistent with John’s overall theme. In fact, it’s alluded to in 19:11-16 where the rider of the White Horse is actually identified as “the Word of God”.

Seal # 2 depicts a rider on a Red Horse: undoubtedly symbolizing war, or some aspect of it, possibly civil war, with which John would be familiar in the period after Nero’s death, when three Roman emperors quickly succeeded one another.

Seal # 3’s rider is on a Black Horse: a reference to famine and to the accompanying inflation plaguing people trying to survive. People of that time were being charged 5-12 times the normal prices! John would have noted at least four periods of famine in the mid-1st century during which people tried to survive.

Seal # 4, the rider on the Pale-Green Horse, a corpse-like color, depicts pestilence or death. Along with the other plagues, this one has only limited power to depopulate humankind because the God of mercy is in control.

The last three seals utilize end-time images from the Old Testament prophets. Seal # 5 pictures those Christians who have given their life-blood for the Risen Christ. Their sacrificial death and their salvation by
Jesus are expressed in their being “under the altar” [i.e., the altar of holocausts in the Jewish Temple]. Giving vent to the frustration and anxiety of 1st century Church members, John depicts the martyrs crying out “How long, sovereign Lord...?” When will God come to defend God’s own? On the other hand, John also shows the martyrs, clad in the symbol of white robes, already in the midst of heavenly bliss, the fullness of which will be realized only at the end of time. What John is trying to convey by the 5th seal is: 1) that Christ’s victory will definitely take place, but only at an unspecified time in the future; 2) that, in the meantime, the Church on earth will undergo other persecutions; but 3) that the faithful departed already enjoy the fullness of God’s presence.

Seal # 6 deals with signs on earth and in heaven. No less than eleven OT and seven NT apocalyptic expressions are repeated here. John mentions various phenomena occurring in nature as foreshadowings of the end: a great earthquake, darkened sun, blood red moon, falling stars, the sky rolled up like a scroll, mountains and islands removed, all classes of society in upheaval.

John’s point is that God’s enemies at different stages in human history will be forced to recognize signs preceding God’s final judgment, and to understand that ultimately there is no escape for them from God’s justice. John, however, reassures the readers who’ve been reminded of God’s rightful judgment that they’re not among those to be punished. God watches over the elect, and the Lamb shepherds them in safety. In Jewish tradition angels were entrusted with control of the universe. John says that the four winds of the earth are held in check by God’s angels, or messengers, until the elect are marked with the seal of the living God, brought by an angel coming from the East, i.e., from the divine region of good omen, the place of light, the starting point of God’s manifestations. In John’s vision the “servants of our God” are marked with the symbolic “seal of the living God”, referred to by the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel. This seal is visualized as a Tau from the Greek letter, one form of the cross; or as an X, a crux decussata, i.e., pairs set alternately at right angles.

The number of God’s servants is vast, so vast that John says: “I heard the number...”, rather than “I saw...”. It is the totality of the Church’s members who are marked as God’s own: all Christians in glory, followers of the Risen Jesus, at any given time in history. The symbolic number of the sealed is depicted as 144,000: i.e., 12,000 for each of the 12 tribes of Israel and/or of the 12 Apostles: in other words, a perfect square. It’s like the idea of a census of the whole chosen people being taken: the ideal “Israel”, the whole Church.

The use of the words “seal” and “sealed” not only occurs over and over in Scripture, but is vividly descriptive of the realities of the sacrament of Baptism. St. Paul, particularly, uses this terminology: “God...who has anointed us...stamped us with his seal...”; “you, too,...were sealed with the Holy Spirit”; “you were sealed for the day of redemption...”; “upon Jesus...God has set his seal.” In the baptism liturgy, candidates are commonly anointed with Sacred Chrism, accompanied by the solemn declaration: “ are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” In Revelation, as in Baptism, “sealed” denotes action which lasts, endures, and is permanent.

John’s focus then shifts to an uncounted multitude of the heavenly triumphant Church, already standing before the Father and the Lamb, i.e., in God’s presence. Their white robes are a symbol of purity and victory over the world. The palm branches which they carry allude to the Feast of Tents or Tabernacles (Sukkoth, in Hebrew), the most joyful of Jewish feasts. With one voice they joyously attribute salvation to God and to the Risen Jesus. Their song of praise has seven elements: praise, glory, wisdom, thanks, honor, power, and strength: in other words, this is the highest, most perfect praise by everyone in heaven, on earth, under the earth and in the sea, that is, the whole universe.

The heavenly “multitude”, according to John, have “come out of the great tribulation”. For John and the early Christians, this meant Nero’s persecution, in 64-68 AD. In a wider sense, it applies to all the trials, sufferings, calamities, and persecution which the Church of all ages will experience before the end of time, as well as those individual daily crosses which you and I bear as we seek to follow the Risen Jesus.

John describes the heavenly triumphant throng as those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”. They (and we) participate in the sufferings and death of Jesus himself. They (and we), in this sense, are martyrs, i.e., witnesses. They (and we) also share in the resurrection of Jesus to eternal life, in the purification and triumph won at the cost of Jesus’ shedding his blood for us, which touches each of us personally in the reality of our baptism. The full impact of the passage is that anyone who accepts Jesus as Lord in faith and is baptized into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit comes into never-ending relationship and life, i.e., abides in God’s real presence, both now and in the life to come. Using language reminiscent of the Jewish Feast of Tents or Tabernacles, originally a celebration of ingathering of the harvest, and later, of establishing the Covenant, the elder in 7:15 says to John: “...God...will spread his tent over them”. This recalls two images: 1) the Shekinah: i.e., God’s visible, glorious presence with the people in the tabernacle in the Exodus wilderness, and later in the the Jerusalem Temple; 2) Jesus’ Incarnation, so eloquently expressed in the Prologue of John’s Gospel: “...The Word became flesh and made his dwelling [i.e., literally, “pitched his tent”] among us...

Seal # 7 is then opened (8:1), after which there is silence, a period of profound awe before God’s majesty, and a solemn waiting, symbol of the time preceding the Day of the Coming of the Lord. This serves as a bridge between the seven seals and what follows. The Book of Life is now completely open, and there is a symbolic time anticipating new tragedies and calamities. Nevertheless, the ones which John depicts throughout the rest of the central section of Revelation, in part dovetail with, or are entirely parallel to, those which went before. John tries to interpret in his vision the situation of the Christian community, the Church, in the “short time” before the end of the world in the vivid images which follow: i.e., of the seven signs, the seven bowls, and the seven sights in Chapters 8:2 - 20:15.

Though the Risen Jesus has already won the final victory, and, as God, thereby exercises full power over the world, yet the Church, living in space and time, has yet to reach its final destination in his Presence. Jesus’ followers continually face power struggles in every age between the divine reign and kingdom, and the powers of darkness and evil. For John’s generation, Satan the Adversary’s reign is personified in the emperor who arrogantly demands imperial worship of himself and, indeed, of the empire of Rome. John refers to them as the “beasts”. The “Babylon” of which he speaks represents, immediately, the 1st century Roman Empire, but also, in the course of history, all other power structures, civil or religious, with their idolatrous, unjust, immoral beliefs; customs; practices; and loyalties which stand in opposition to those of the Risen Jesus. John indicates that, at least for a time, the anti-God powers, whatever form they may take in each generation, appear victorious and in control of the earth, as Christians throughout the Church’s history await the final appearance of Jesus to restore justice and to put evil in its place for good.

Today’s Gospel passage (John 21:1-19) seems to put some of Jesus’ Twelve (Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James & John, and two others, unnamed) back at square one regarding this person whom, to all appearances, God raised from death as promised, since Jesus had actually appeared to them the day it happened, and again a week later. The opening line gives the impression that some time had passed since then, that the Apostles were back to “business as usual” by the Sea of Tiberias. Perhaps bored, Peter says, “I’m going fishing.” The others say they’ll go too. After all those breathtaking events they’d witnessed, they go fishing! They spend the whole night, catching nothing. Here’s a snapshot of a little community of faith whose each day had become
ordinary again, unproductive, no mountaintop experiences, with no signs that much had changed.

Then notice John’s editorial comment: “Jesus showed himself again to the disciples...” Just after daybreak, they see someone on the beach whom they don’t recognize. Jesus asks them a telling question: “...You have no fish, have you?” When they admit the obvious, Jesus suggests that they cast the net to the right side of the boat, “and you will find some.” They do so and, wonder of wonders, they can’t haul in the net because of the load of fish! Instantaneously, the disciple whom Jesus loved and Peter know: “It is the Lord!” Peter impetuously reacts very much unlike a fisherman: he lets go of the net, abandons the catch, jumps into the water and swims to Jesus, the others following close behind towing the net. “Come and have breakfast”, Jesus invites them.

Just as the Book of Revelation, John’s story helps us come to grips with making some sense for ourselves of Jesus’ Resurrection in the midst of our hectic world. They teach us that by yielding up any false sense of control, by “going with the incarnate Son of God”, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we discover the true essence of what it means to live “in Christ”.

Here’s how Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner, one of the 20th century’s most preeminent theologians, in his book The Eternal Year (1964), expresses the reality of our earthly sojourn: “The risen Lord has not moved out from earth’s little hut. For, as a matter of fact, he still has his body -- in a definitive and glorified state, yes, but still his body. It is a part of this earth that belongs to the earth forever as a share of her reality and her destiny. He has risen in order to reveal that through his death the life of freedom and of bliss remain forever rooted in earth’s narrow confines and in her grief, in the very center of her heart.

What we call his resurrection -- and unthinkingly take to be his own private destiny -- is only the first surface indication that all reality, behind what we usually call experience...has already changed in the really decisive depth of things. His resurrection is like the first eruption of a volcano which shows that God’s fire already burns in the innermost depths of the earth, and that everything shall be brought to a holy glow in his light. He rose to show that this had already begun. The new creation has already started, the new power of a transfigured earth is already being formed from the world’s innermost heart, into which Christ descended by dying. Futility, sin and death are already conquered in the innermost realm of all reality, and only the‘little while’ (which we call history ‘AD’) is needed until what has actually already happened appears everywhere in glory, and not only in the body of Jesus.

Because the waters of grief and guilt still flow on the surface where we stand, we fancy that their source in the depths is not yet dried up. Because evil still carves new marks on the face of the earth, we conclude that in the deepest heart of reality love is dead. But these are only appearances, which we take for the reality of life. But [the Risen Jesus] is there. He is the heart of this earthly world and the mysterious seal of its eternal validity.

That is why we children of the earth may love the earth; that is why we must love her, even when she terrifies us and makes us tremble with her misery and her destiny of death. For ever since Christ, through his death and resurrection, penetrated the earth for all time, her misery has become provisional and a mere test of our faith in her innermost mystery, which is the risen One himself...

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