Sunday, April 21, 2013

Through Sorrow to Joy, By Way of the Ordinary

Given the events of this past week, in Boston and in Texas, today’s Scriptures couldn’t be more relevant! Let’s continue to pray for and remember those who lost loved ones, and were injured and traumatized by both events, and give thanks for the hard work, professionalism and restraint of all the law enforcement officials. 

Fr. Romano Guardini, a 20th century Italian priest, philosopher, and writer 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.” (The Lord, Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1956)

Today’s second reading, (7:9-17) taken from the Book of Revelation, certainly gives us a vision of the Resurrection’s ultimate meaning for us. Undoubtedly, few readers or hearers of Scripture today would deny that the Book of Revelation, sometimes referred to as The Apocalypse, is one of the most challenging books of the Bible. Please note that the book’s title is not Revelations, but the Book of Revelation or simply Revelation. The Greek equivalent, apokalypsis, means an uncovering, an unveiling, a disclosure, a revealing of something. 

From the opening chapter, Revelation is an unveiling or revealing of the complete work which the Risen Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed One, has already accomplished for the benefit of all humankind to the glory of the Father. And so “what must soon take place”, referred to in Revelation 1:1, points to the continuous unfolding of God’s providence now in the fullness of time. According to the writer, John, there’s an order in God’s method of revealing these mysteries, reflected in the sequence of persons who receive: God to Jesus to an angel to John to the reader to the hearer. Blessedness, true hearing of the message, according to Revelation, is guaranteed to the one “who takes to heart what is written in it...”, for in that person the true purpose of the disclosed message is lived out.
The Book of Revelation is probably the most misunderstood, misused, and, sadly, the most needlessly neglected writing in the Bible. What it reveals or unfolds for us are past, present and future hidden things. The writer’s primary purpose, however, is pastoral. John writes, not to foretell the future or to satisfy curiosity, but to strengthen people’s faith, to give hope, and to encourage perseverance of fellow followers of Jesus in a string of churches in the western sector of Asia Minor in the late 1st century. They, as we, lived in a society full of anxiety, fear, upheaval, and uncertainty, particularly because of Roman government-inspired religious persecution. Because they faced active opposition, the writer had to communicate in a cryptic way, a sort of code, in terms which they, but not their adversaries, would readily understand. His message is expressed with symbols and images recognizable within the believers’ community, but not by the surrounding pagan culture. 
The first caution for us modern readers of this immensely hopeful book is to not get caught up in the minute, specific details and symbols, but rather to look at the bold and broad strokes which the author paints: to get an overall sense and “feel” for the message which he’s trying to communicate in coded language.

The late Fr. Raymond Brown, a great student and interpreter of John’s writings for most of his life, summarizes it this way: “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 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...” (An Introduction to the New Testament, Yale, 1997)

Another theologian, Fr. Karl Rahner, puts it even more succinctly: “...[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...” (Biblical Homilies, Herder, 1966)

Today’s passage from Revelation (7:9-17) captures the essence of what these two men try to convey. It’s a sort of snapshot of the Communion of Saints surrounding the God who is one, yet three. It describes a glorious, pull-out-all-the-stops heavenly liturgy, full of ecstatic glorification of God, in words of love, hope, and life. It’s to this vision-become-reality that the Risen Christ continually invites you and me. 

The conclusion of the Book of Revelation, especially the last nine verses (22:12-21), speak 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 all the years of each of our individual lives, from the moment of birth to the moment of death. Seven times 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. “Seven” is a biblical symbol of fullness, completeness. Repeating this seven times shows that it’s not just a passing statement of Jesus, but, rather, a promise. The blessedness offered is the gift of everlasting life, symbolized by the Tree of Life and by Jesus’ action of ushering the redeemed directly into the heavenly City, the New Jerusalem.

The Spirit of Love, who is the very life of 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’ invitation to “Come! into this blessedness, an invitation repeated five times within the last two verses. There’s a sense of urgency, of passionate desire, of anticipation. It moves all of us, who are the Church, to voice our willingness in words commonly used by the 1st century Christians: “Marana tha! Come! Come, Lord Jesus!” And John records as Jesus’ final response to the Church in all ages, and to each of us, what is also repeated seven times in the Book of Revelation (2:5; 2:16; 3:11; 16:15; 22:7; 22:12; 22:20): “Yes, I am coming soon.” It, too, is not just an offhand statement, but a sure and absolute promise.
As if it were a bonus, in today’s Gospel passage (John 10:22-30), John the Evangelist adds these words of Jesus, the Good Shepherd: “...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? Such hope motivates us to put aside our fear and worry. It enables us to look beyond, while not ignoring or down-playing, the evil and unjust suffering around us, and which we ourselves experience, to believe that Jesus continues to achieve God’s purpose for us through the very way in which you and I live our lives.

John writes these words in the very beginning of the Book of Revelation: “Blessed 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...” The way we live and treat other people indicates whether or not you and I take the Word seriously. Luke’s story about Tabitha of Joppa, in the first reading (Acts 9:36-43), is quite revealing. He describes her as one “devoted to good works and acts of charity”, apparently to many of the community’s widows. She becomes ill and dies. Her friends, hearing that Peter is close by in Lydda, send two men to summon his help. As all weep and lament Tabitha’s passing, they show Peter samples of her handiwork, “tunics and other clothing”, which she created to clothe those in need. Peter prays, and Tabitha is restored to life. Could there be a better example than this woman’s simple, humble devotion to the body of Christ and to the community?  

The Book of Revelation speaks of many 1st century issues which continue to plague us today: false claims of political and economic systems which hurt or destroy principles and people to whom, as followers of Jesus, you and I are committed; complicity with evil and injustice of the surrounding society, in any sector, whether international, national, local, or even within the Church itself; 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. It would be irresponsible for you and me to ignore such issues. But perhaps we, like Tabitha, need to act most in the ordinary everyday venues in which we find ourselves: in our local community, or school, or office, or family, or home.
John the Seer helps us to recognize that God the Father, the Risen Jesus, and the Spirit of Love are to be glorified through faithfulness in living, whatever the cost; to what we’ve pledged ourselves to do in Baptism: to devote ourselves to “good works and acts of charity” and to share the living Word of eternal life, as someone has said, by “crying the Gospel with our lives”.

To the One who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom, priests to serve his God and Father -- to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.


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