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.

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...

Sunday, April 11, 2010

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

Today is commonly called “Low Sunday”. The origin of the name is uncertain, but it’s apparently intended as a contrast between it and the great Easter Sunday festival, and also, perhaps, to signify that, being the Octave Day of Easter, it was considered part of that feast, though in a lower degree. In Episcopal circles, of course, its significance may also have to do with traditionally lower Sunday attendance!

In today’s Gospel (John 20:19-31), Jesus reminds “doubting” Thomas, apparently a visual learner who needed to see before he could accept Jesus’ Resurrection, that “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Though you and I didn’t witness Jesus being raised from the dead, yet as Christians we hold by faith that, in fact, God did raise Jesus, thus fulfilling Jesus’ promise of salvation. But living in the times in which we do, in an age where many are stressed-out and fearful for a multitude of reasons, and where many are skeptical or outright disbelieving about the hope which the Risen Christ holds out to humankind, how are you and I to make sense of the Resurrection?

I believe that the final book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation or The Apocalypse, as it is called, can help us answer this question. The Epistle readings for the next six Sundays, coincidentally, are taken from it. Today, at Shepherd by the Sea Episcopal/Lutheran Mission, Gualala, CA, in the Diocese of Northern California, I began a three-week series of homilies on Revelation, called Making Sense of the Resurrection in a Stressed-Out Age, which I’m including here on the blog starting today.

Please note at the start: the book is NEVER called Revelations. It is the Book of Revelation or simply Revelation, or The Apocalypse. The equivalent word in Greek, 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 accomplished and continues to accomplish for the benefit of all humankind to the glory of the Father. And so “what must soon take place”, in the first verse, are not things unknown to the readers, but point to the continuous unfolding of God’s providence now in the fullness of time. According to 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, by most Christians, the most 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 the faith and encourage perseverance of fellow-Christians 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 in the Christian 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 he’s trying to communicate in coded language.

For example, certain numbers are symbolic. The number 7, in gematria, a system of assigning numerical value to words/phrases, was the symbol of perfection, wholeness, whereas the number 6 signified imperfection, evil. Thus, the famous 666, the number of the Beast, equals the epitome of evil. Simply stated, the writer’s overall message to his 1st century hearers and their descendants, including us, is that there’s a constant and never-ending struggle between evil and good, between the forces of darkness and God. Yet, no matter what form evil takes, the good will always ultimately prevail. Persecution, suffering, and a lot of other bad things may continue to happen to good people in the short-term, but in the end, the Risen and living Jesus, God’s Son, along with those faithful to him and to his purpose, will always emerge victorious.

As to who wrote the Book of Revelation, it appears to have been authored by a Jewish Christian prophet/teacher, named John. Reliable scholars agree that this person was undoubtedly not John, son of Zebedee, one of the Apostles. The implausibility, for example, appears in Chapter 21 where the writer himself records a vision of the New Jerusalem emerging from heaven, on whose walls, he says, are written “the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb”, a group in which the writer, obviously, doesn’t include himself. (21:14). Nor is he the author of the Gospel and Epistles of John. Even in the 3rd century Dionysius of Alexandria raised questions based on clear differences in thought, style, and language. The name “John” being a common name in the early Christian community, both Dionysius and, earlier, Papias simply referred to Revelation’s author as “John the Elder/Presbyter”. It’s certainly possible, even probable, that John the Presbyter had some contact with the school of writers who produced John’s Gospel and Epistles. With all this in mind, I’ll simply refer to the writer of Revelation as “John”.

John launches Revelation by addressing each of the seven churches, who represent the whole Church: those of Smyrna and Philadelphia, about which nothing bad is said; Sardis and Laodicea, about whom nothing good is said; and finally Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira. These last three were dealing with problems of false teaching; Smyrna and Philadelphia struggled with persecution; Sardis and Laodicea were plagued with complacency, something uncomfortably pertinent to the current American church scene! All of them were challenged not to sacrifice their moral and religious principles to those of the surrounding society.

Each letter to the churches begins with a description of the Risen Jesus: “The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand...the words of him who is the First and the Last...the words of him who has the double-edged sword...”, etc. John recalls the presence of the Risen Christ in, and his vigilance over, each of the churches. Ever-present, Jesus knows perfectly the condition of the whole Church, good and bad. He gives praise and he notes shortcomings, and at the end of each address Jesus reminds them: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Just as the Spirit has inspired this message of John, so they and we should be constantly tuned in to the Spirit in order to live out the message of Jesus.

John gives us a remarkable picture of the early Church: of the many faces of fervor in the early Christian communities, living as they did amid pagan neighbors. Many are poor, forced, because of their beliefs, to live as outcasts of society. John’s personality as a leader shines through. Sometimes he’s stern, sometimes inflexible, but he’s always desirous of firm and faithful allegiance to the Risen Lord. We see Jesus, alive in the Church, his divinity in full splendor, as well as his tender humanity. Jesus is the loving Friend of 3:20, who knocks at the door, eagerly anticipating an invitation to come in and to be our guest, as well as our host simultaneously.

In Chapter 4, the first of four heavenly interludes, John uses a rush of lavish symbolic imagery to portray heaven’s court and God’s presence. He introduces 24 elders, priest-like figures, representing the glorified saints of the Old and New Testaments, along with four living creatures, with wings and eyes, symbolizing the whole created universe in worship and praise of God the Creator. In these creatures the highest powers of nature and life are united into one: patience and tenaciousness as in a bull; impetuousness and violence as in a lion; swiftness as lightning and power as in an eagle; and intelligence and reason as in humankind. From this assembly of glorified saints and all the created universe a mighty crescendo of praise rises up to God.

In Chapter 5 God appears to be holding a sealed scroll, a sort of papyrus leaf with text written on both sides, rolled up and sealed outside by seven wax seals, so that no one could begin reading until all the seals were broken. The scroll’s contents are beyond the capacity of creatures. God offers the scroll to anyone in heaven, on earth, or in Sheol, who can open it, but creation is powerless to accept that challenge. John weeps: a vivid way of signifying his worry and anxiety, and that of other Christians, who, faced with upheaval in their lives, try to understand what’s happening now and what’s to come. A heavenly representative reassures John and us that Jesus, the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed over darkness and death through his own death and resurrection. Only Jesus, as Master of history, gives meaning to the Old Testament and to life, can solve its mysteries, and carry out whatever is decreed in the scroll.

John envisions the Risen Jesus as “a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain”. This is the Lamb of the Jewish pascha or pesach, a word meaning to hop, to skip, to pass over: the “Paschal” Lamb, bearing the marks of sacrificial death, yet standing upright, full of life, victorious over every form of death. The seven horns indicate complete power; the seven eyes/spirits are God’s Holy Spirit/Breath, emanating from the Father and being poured out over the whole Church. As Jesus takes the scroll from the Father he is glorified (which is what we understand as the “Ascension”), and receives the adoration of angels and all creation along with the prayers of the Church, symbolized by rising incense. The heavenly assembly breaks out into song, the first of three in succession, acknowledging that as God and Redeemer, Jesus has the right to take in hand the unfolding of all the events of the past, present, and future and to give Scripture its full meaning.

The second song of praise speaks of seven things which Jesus the Lamb is worthy to “receive”, i.e., to reserve to himself and to lavish upon his creatures, namely, power, wealth (i.e., sharing in the riches of divinity, resulting from redemption), wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing. In other words, the Risen Jesus engulfs us in all-encompassing and perfect salvation.

In the third song of praise John hears the glorious finale of a crescendo which has gradually picked up steam: first, from the four living creatures and the elders, then the living creatures, the elders and myriads of angels, and finally from all of the above, plus all of creation.

What’s the practical implication which you and I might draw from these ideas? Consider the phrase in the second song (5:9-10): “...with your blood you purchased [lit., went out to the marketplace for; a note of intentionality] [humans] for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests for our God...” The idea here is that God, in Jesus, deliberately chose our freedom, our liberation. The OT writers were highly aware that the “redemption” of Israel included freedom from Egyptian slavery, as well as the God of the Covenant binding them in relation to himself. NT writers picked up on this, as we see in Peter’s first letter: “ are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light...” Again, Paul in Acts, speaking to the elders at Ephesus, says: “...Take care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son...

In the Old Testament the blood of the Paschal lamb, smeared over the tops and sides of the door frames, signifies to the destroying angel that the house’s occupants are God’s people and are to be spared. The Sinai Covenant sacrifices also indicate a community of life, a family relationship, with God. Blood is sprinkled upon the altar which symbolizes God, and then on all the people also. Since life is in the blood, this commingling signifies a blood relationship, a sharing of life.

In the New Testament, in an incredibly higher way, the Father in Jesus acquires the Church for Godself through the mediation of Jesus‘ own blood. Jesus‘ blood is also sacrificial, the symbol of his supreme act of self-emptying love and obedience, reversing our own subsequent, disobedience, rebellion, and turning away from God in selfishness.

Through the precious blood of Jesus, therefore, freely offered and given to his Father, humankind, which had cut itself off from God, is now set free and restored to relationship and solidarity with God “in Christ”, as St. Paul so often says in the Epistles. That's the reality of our lives, if we willingly accept it. God’s liberating us, God’s uniting us with Godself, in and through Jesus who was one of us is the astounding Good News of salvation. We each come to God in our own time and manner, but most of all, in that moment when you and I allow Jesus into our lives, so that he can lead us to the Father. For St. Paul it took a good many years of his own life, opposing Jesus and the Church, until, literally knocked down and blinded, he was led to understand the reality of what Jesus was doing to and for him, and for all of us: “...And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before [God] -- provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard...I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel...” (Colossians 1:21-23)

In our own time, Bishop Jim Kelsey, of Northern Michigan, who died tragically in 2007 at age 55, left us a similar reminder and challenge to live as Resurrection people: “This is something I have found to be true without exception: that when we, any of us, focus on things in our lives that are passing away, we get scared, we get anxious, we get depressed, we lose hope; and when we focus on things that are being birthed and are coming newly into creation, we get excited, we get imaginative, we get optimistic, we feel drawn close to one another, we feel as if we have meaning and purpose in this life, and we have joy...we are given change as an ingredient in life. We can be frightened and anxious and resistant to it or we can embrace it as a tool to transform us.