Sunday, April 25, 2010

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

In this last of a three-part series, and as an segue into the last four chapters of the Book of Revelation, I’d like to leave you with some wisdom from several biblical experts:

How can Revelation be presented in a way that is both factual and meaningful?
To a contemporary culture that idolizes science and calculable knowledge, apocalyptic [which, as you remember, refers to uncovering/disclosing/revealing something hidden] is an enduring witness to a reality that defies all our measurements; it testifies to another world that escapes all scientific gauges and finds expression in symbols and visions. That world is not created by imagination, but images serve as an entrée. Artists...have understood that...On a religious level mystics have offered insight. Liturgy, properly understood, brings ordinary believers into contact with this heavenly reality. To a world that accepts only what it can see, hear, and feel, Revelation is the final scriptural gateway to what the eye has not seen and the ear not attests forcefully that at every moment of human history, even the most desperate moment that causes people to lose hope, God is present...
(Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, Yale, 1997)

John (and thereby his readers with him) is taken up into heaven in order to see the world from the heavenly perspective. He is given a glimpse behind the scenes of history so that he can see what is really going on in the events of his time and place. He is also transported in vision into the final future of the world, so that he can see the present from the perspective of what its final outcome must be, in God’s ultimate purpose for human history...
...[John] sought to maintain the faith of God’s people in the one, all-powerful and righteous God, in the face of the harsh realities of evil in the world, especially the political evil of the oppression of God’s faithful people by the great pagan empires...
(Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, Cambridge, 1993)

The dramatic narrative of Revelation...could be likened to a dramatic motion picture [presumably best seen in 3-D, of course!] whose individual scenes portray the persons or actions every time from a different angle while at the same time adding some new light and colour to the whole...John creates a ‘literary vision’ instead of a sermon...
(Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation, Justice and Judgment, Augsburg, 1998)

The images of Revelation are symbols with evocative power inviting imaginative participation in the book’s symbolic world...Not all of these will be noticed on the first or seventh or seventieth reading. They are one of the ways in which the book is designed to yield its rich store of meaning progressively through intensive study...
(Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, Cambridge, 1993)

[As a personal parenthesis, I find it inconceivable that, having read the Book of Revelation, any fundamentalist/evangelical Christian could possibly find fault with J. K. Rowlings’ 7-volume Harry Potter series, which, for the record, I’ve read in its entirety and found absolutely delightful!]

The crowns, the thrones, the gold, the jewels, the colours, the trumpets, the violence of action and the impact of incredible numbers and awe-inspiring size -- all these images stir that threshold of the brain where monsters lurk and supernatural glories blaze. John is stirring with a kind of surrealistic artistry the vastnesses of our unconscious minds. The figures created in the mind are vivid and powerful enough to transport us to another spiritual dimension...
(J. B. Philips, The Book of Revelation, Fontana, 1960)

“...[God] has told us that he has sealed us with the seal of [God’s] eternal love and that [God] sends down no road that will not lead to [God], puts us into no history that will not end in [God’s] beatitude, calls no one into existence who is not chosen and sealed with God’s eternal love...
(Karl Rahner, Biblical Homilies, Herder, 1966)

In the final chapters of the Book of Revelation (19-22), John the Presbyter paints for us magnificently vivid images of judgment and salvation in which “Babylon” (Rome) and its followers are all judged: whether in John’s and the Christian community’s local 1st century situation, or throughout the Church’s entire history in whatever age, or once-for-all at Christ’s final coming. The dragon, symbol of the ancient serpent, Satan, is utterly annihilated, as is his “family”: two “beasts”, one from the sea (13:1-10) and one from the land (13:11-18). The first beast is the symbol of the political/societal anti-christ. The second beast, also called the false prophet, symbolizes the religious/intellectual anti-christ, which includes all false cults and philosophies.

The presence of God “seated on the throne” (19:4) marks the reign of God and of the Risen Jesus, bringing ultimate liberation from suffering, oppression, and death, and bringing divine Presence, relationship, for God’s people. The angel hosts raise a hymn of praise at the Lamb’s victory over evil and death. In reading these passages, it’s as if we find ourselves participants in a glorious, pull-out-all-the-stops liturgy! The heavenly assembly repeatedly shouts out “Hallelu/jah!”, the Hebrew for “praise”, joined with an abbreviated form of the divine Name, “Yahweh”. The Risen Jesus, as the bridge between the divine and the human, calls out, inviting the faithful on earth to join in this heavenly praise. In response, says John, “a great multitude”, i.e., the entire Church, raises its voice in praise, “like the roar of rushing loud peals of thunder...shouting”. If you can think in terms of Georg Friedrich Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” at the conclusion of Part II of his Messiahmultiplied infinitely in its majestic power, then you might have just an inkling of what John must have been feeling!

John, using the great image (19:11) of the Day of the Lord, one dear to the Old Testament prophets, describes the whole series of the Risen Christ’s triumphs throughout salvation history. Jesus literally appears, in this vision, as a victorious Hero riding in on a “white horse”. Jesus is “Faithful and True”, the very embodiment of truth itself, who judges with complete justice and transparency. His gaze is penetrating, even to the most hidden secrets of every heart; his name is “the Word of God”, but no mortal can begin to comprehend what that name above all names” means; his “armies” are “the white-robed choir of martyrs” mentioned in the Canticle Te Deum of Morning Prayer; and finally “the sharp sword” of Christ’s word, mentioned also in the Letters to the Ephesians (6:17) and to the Hebrews (4:12), his very Self, is the standard by which God judges human beings.

John’s vision in Chapter 21 reveals the coming to be of “a new heaven and a new earth”, “the new Jerusalem” or City of Peace. He lingers over his description of the situation of the holy ones. “The dwelling of God is with mortals”, John exclaims, and is characterized by the absence of all that makes life here below so painful: no more distress, chaos, separation, disappointment, death, or grieving.

Following the common Old Testament practice of personifying cities as women, John does the same in regard to what we’ve traditionally called “heaven”. John’s symbolic terms for it -- “the Holy City”, “the new Jerusalem” -- point to the deeper reality of the Church as it exists beyond time and space in God’s glorious presence, though even here on earth already, as Paul reminds us in Philippians, “our citizenship is in heaven”. (3:20) John sees the Church as “the bride, the wife of the Lamb”, “beautifully dressed for her husband” to receive her: in “fine linen, bright and clean”, God’s gift to her and symbolic of the good deeds of the “holy ones”. John notes that “there was no longer any sea”, symbol of the dwelling place of the Dragon/Satan. Chaos and evil are gone; they cannot exist wherever God is present, as God abides in each of us and in the Church generally. “The heavenly Jerusalem” is envisioned as having an external structure: a sign that the Church is everywhere, universal and excluding no one; and that it is a body “sent” [from the Greek apostello = to send] to reach out to others, and, therefore, apostolic. God’s Presence includes all who are willing to receive it. The Church’s foundation is Jesus’ teaching, coming to us through the Apostles, and handed on by each of us through the ages. The City’s symbolic geometric dimensions indicate its flawless and lasting unity. The precious gems and materials used to form the City -- softly radiant pearl, transparent gold, and incandescent jewels -- are images of the luminous and multifaceted richness and holiness which fills the Church. The ornamentation can be seen as the unique diversity of gifts and virtues of each member of the faithful, and the joy, refreshment and peace experienced by living in God’s presence. This profusion of stones is illumined by the transcendent glory of Godself. The spirit of each follower of Jesus, through his/her perfection, reflects and mirrors the perfection of God’s glory. Finally, “the river of the water of life” and “the tree of life” (22:1-2) symbolize the Holy Spirit’s presence poured out over the Church by the Father and the Risen Jesus [recall the blood and water from Jesus’ side at the Crucifixion]: symbols of divine Life and Spirit.

The last nine verses of Revelation (22:12-21) announce that the Risen Jesus will come soon. John speaks of Jesus as “the Alpha and the Omega”, “the First and the Last”, “the Beginning and the End”. Jesus encompasses everything: the history of humankind, from the creation to the final coming; every age of the Church, from Jesus onward; and each of our individual lives, from the moment of birth to the moment of death. For the seventh time in Revelation (1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9a; 20:6; 22:7; 22:14) Jesus declares “blessed” all those who have entered or will enter into and embrace his offer of salvation made possible through the shedding of his Blood. Repeating this seven times, a sign of fullness/completeness, shows that it’s not just a passing statement of Jesus: it’s a promise. The blessedness which is offered is the gift of everlasting life, symbolized by the Tree and by Jesus’ action of ushering those saved directly into the heavenly City, the New Jerusalem.

Jesus confirms that he himself has sent his “messenger” with this testimony, which is the whole book, for the entire Church. Jesus speaks of himself as “the Root and the Offspring of David” and as “the bright Morning Star”, resonating with Isaiah’s ancient prophecies, as well as with the magnificent Exsultet hymn of the Great Vigil of Easter. As the morning star promises the sun’s appearance, so Jesus proclaims the source of Light, the Father. In the words of the Creed, he is “Light from Light, true God from true God”.

The Spirit of Love, who is the very life of the the Bride, the Church, and who, as St. Paul says,
intercedes “with groans that words cannot express”, moves the Church and each individual soul to respond to Jesus to “Come!” This invitation, “Come!”, is used five times within the last two verses of Revelation. There’s a sense of urgency, of passionate desire, of anticipation. In view of John the Presbyter’s gift of the revelation of the whole drama of salvation to the Church, all of us together can only voice our concurrence with the liturgical intercession commonly used by the 1st century Christians: “Marana tha! Come! Come, Lord Jesus!” John gives us Jesus‘ final response to them, to the Church in all ages, and to each of us. It’s a response which has also been repeated seven times in Revelation (2:5; 2:16; 3:11; 16:15; 22:7; 22:12; 22:20), just like the blessing mentioned earlier. It, too, is not an just an offhand statement; rather it’s a sure and absolute promise: “Yes, I am coming soon.

My original description of this series of three homilies was Making Sense of the Resurrection In A Stressed-Out Age. I quoted Fr. Romano Guardini who said that, if we accept the mystery of what happened between the day of Resurrection and Christ’s return to the Father, “then we must ask what they mean in the life of the Lord and what their significance is in our own Christian existence.

I believe that the Book of Revelation, of all the books in Scripture, ably points us in the right direction. And, as if it were a bonus, John, in his Gospel passage today (10:22-30), couldn’t have given a more perfect summary than the one he puts on the lips of Jesus, the Good Shepherd of the flock which is the Church: “...I have told you...The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me;...My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.

What greater expression of joyful Resurrection hope and encouragement could Jesus himself offer to you and me? It gives us the most convincing reason of all to put aside our fear and upset. It enables us to look beyond, while not ignoring, the evil and suffering around us and which we ourselves experience, to believe that he has already achieved God’s purpose for us, and that, despite the evil which is allowed in the present moment, God will bring us to full understanding through Jesus’ abiding presence and love.

We need not worry ourselves so much about the time or circumstances of Jesus’ second coming, or about when we will die. The Risen Jesus is always near, and our responsibility is to live every day in that reality. Why would knowing the exact time make any difference at all to a faithful follower of Jesus?

Revelation addresses issues which will continue to challenge us, as they did 1st century Christians: the false claims of political and economic systems when they destroy principles and people to whom, as followers of Jesus, we’re committed. Or the surrounding society’s complicity with evil and injustice, in any sector: whether international, national, local, or even within the Church itself. Or the dangers of sectarianism and exclusivism in any form, whether outside or inside the Church, which pervert the Gospel by claiming to have a special wisdom or special authority to alienate, penalize, or exclude others.

Central to the Book of Revelation is the reality of God as the Lord of creation, history, and life. Theologian Pheme Perkins, commenting on the Book of Revelation, notes that it “...has used all the mythic and symbolic resources at its disposal to show Christians the dangers of a false estimate of the powers of this world. Christians live on the edge of times. They take their values from the gospel and from the way God sees things.They should always expect that ‘the Lord is coming soon!’

John the Seer helps us to recognize that God the Father, the Risen Jesus, and the Spirit of Love are to be glorified through our lives. He calls his first century community, as he call us in the 21st century, to faithfulness, whatever the cost, in living out what we have pledged ourselves to do in Baptism; to ground ourselves in the Father, in the Person of the living Word, and in the Spirit: to share that Word with others, as someone has said, by “crying the Gospel with our lives”. He also calls us to love, to give ourselves continually and unselfishly, in the relationships in which we find ourselves.

In the end, perhaps the best advice are these words from the very beginning of the Book of RevelationBlessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near...To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father -- to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.

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