Thursday, April 25, 2013

"I make all things new!"

Read Revelation 21:1-5

It happens to all of us: to want to start over again, to wipe the slate clean, to have a second chance. A relationship was broken, a project didn’t succeed, some opportunity passed us by, and there we are, torn by the regret for what could have been and the wish we could try again.

Isn’t this what lies behind all those resolutions we’ve made along the road of life? Whether it be on New Year’s Day or on a birthday, whether it be when a promotion came along or we met someone new, we promised ourselves that everything would be fresh and new, everything would be different, this time.

Not that we want to erase all of our past, or all of ourselves. We are all gifted one way or another. We all cherish some moments of our histories, some aspects of our lives. But we also realize that the inherent limitations in our beings and in our world are like an albatross around the neck, dragging us down and tearing us up. We can’t become all we’d like to be, all we’re meant to be.

In the dream that Saint John shares in the Book of Revelation, the sea is a symbol of all that drags us down, whether within us in our personalities or outside of us in the world. The sea is what we can’t control, the unfortunate happenstance, the negative energy of chaos.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” says Saint John, “and there was no more sea.” Imagine a world from which all these negative forces are banished, a universe where I can truly become myself, where my talents, my virtues and my abilities can freely flourish. Imagine a world where each person can become everything he or she is meant to be, where beauty, truth and freedom can really blossom.

This is the world, says Saint John, that is being birthed in our midst under the care of the Holy Spirit. This is the world that flourishes beyond death. This is the world in which God “makes all things new,” a world where death no longer reigns.

To believe in God is to believe in the possibility of such a world. To believe in this possibility is to strive to build it here and now, in us and among us. Faith opens up for us unimagined possibilities. The first step is simply to believe.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Water and blood, tents and Temple

Read Revelation 7:9-17

The feast of tents - Sukkot - was one of the three yearly feast days that required the Jewish people to make a pilgrimage to the Temple of Jerusalem. There, they would build huts in memory of the forty years of wandering in the desert before they entered the promised land. There, they would take up the water from the well of Shilo'ach to wash the altar and the Temple precincts, remembering the water God made gush from the stone in the desert. There, they would process around the Temple, holding palms in their hands, calling on God's saving grace. Zachariah prophesied that in the days of the Messiah, people from all nations and lands would come to Jerusalem for the feast of Sukkot and rejoice in God's wondrous works.

The passage we read today in the Book of Revelation echoes this imagery. In John's visionary dream, Zachariah's prophecy has come true: people of all nations, races and languages surround the Temple, holding palms in their hands. They no longer ask for saving grace, but rather praise the God for the salvation they have already received.

Who are they? A voice reveals that this is the assembly of the martyrs who died because of their faith in Jesus. It is important to remember that the Book of Revelation was written at a time when Christians were being persecuted by the Roman empire. All were supposed to adore the emperor as a god, but the members of the young Church refused to do so. This refusal often meant death. But by dying with Jesus, they find new life. In his blood, they are washed clean. (Only in a dream such as this can blood whiten soiled clothes!)

John takes up the images of psalms 23 and 121, psalms of pilgrimage, to sing of God's care for his people even as they journey, not through a desert, but through death itself, striving for the promised land we know as heaven. “They will no longer hunger, they will no longer thirst, the sun will not strike them down, God will shelter them in his own tent.”  They no longer have to build their own huts, they can abide in God's own dwelling!

A final, powerful image follows: “The Lamb will be their shepherd and lead them to the waters of the springs of life.” This was a powerful message of hope and comfort for those believers being persecuted for their faith. They realized that they were living what the Jewish people had lived in the desert, but in a manner that was even more radical. The God who had been faithful in the past would once again be faithful. Beyond all pain and trial, there is a promise given in Jesus Christ that gives courage and hope: “He will wipe away all tears from their eyes.”

This promise still gives hope to all of Christ's followers today.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The slaughtered lamb yet lives!

Read Revelation 5:11-14

It happens in our dreams that contradictory elements combine to create very weird effects. I can dream that I’m in total darkness, but able to see what is going on. I can dream that I see myself as a character in my dream, all the while feeling inside myself what is going on. Or I can dream that a person is very young, and yet simultaneously very old. What is impossible in real life suddenly happens in dreams.

In the dream he describes, Saint John presents us with such a contradictory figure : a slaughtered lamb that is standing, alive. This lamb was obviously killed in sacrifice, as was the custom at the Temple in Jerusalem. Yet, this lamb is still alive and stands as if ready to walk. The lamb is fully alive; and yet, the lamb is dead.

This lamb stands before a throne where “someone” is seated. Around the throne, there are twenty-four elders, leaders of their communities. There were twenty-four classes of priests at the Temple in Jerusalem: could that explain the number?

Before the throne are four beings that resemble animals: a lion, a young bull, a flying eagle, and a fourth with a human face. Each being has six wings, covered with eyes: they see everything. Might they symbolize all living creatures in the universe?

And suddenly, millions upon millions of angels join the elders and the four beings in proclaiming the praises of the slaughtered, living lamb. Even more: all the voices of the universe, every creature “in heaven, on earth, underneath the earth and in the seas” start praising this lamb and the one who sits on the throne.

What a majestic scene: a universal liturgy where adoration is joined to praise, and song is wedded to poetry. Who is this liturgy for? For the one who sits on the throne, God, the Lord and creator of the universe. And for the dead-alive lamb, the risen Christ, Lord and saviour of humanity.

This dream teaches us that our frail human liturgies are in fact bound to a reality that surpasses us infinitely. Our churches reflect heaven itself. Our religious hymns echo the angels’ songs. Our congregations give voice to the immense number of creatures that, throughout the universe, find their source in God and their health in God’s Messiah.

Even now, we are caught up in this mystery, taken up in this celebration of love. Heaven reaches down to earth and eternity has already begun. Our little liturgies are greater than we can imagine.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Book of Revelation: from dreamscape to reality

Read Revelation 1:9-19

For many of us, the book of Revelation is the most mysterious book in the Bible. Full of strange symbols, fantastic imagery, scary scenes and exuberant poetry, it seems to describe the future. Yet, in reality, it addresses the present time of its author.

It belongs to a literary style called apocalyptic, which itself means “lifing the veil.” The veil represents everything that hinders our understanding of the deep meaning of what is going on around us. Apocalyptic literature implies that we are blind to this meaning, and we need help to see clearly. This is exactly what John, the author of this book, proposes to do. Yet, he does so in a very peculiar way, not with clear explanations and reasoned arguments, but with images taken from the world of dreams and nightmares.

This was not so strange for readers in the first century, the time when it was written. This literary genre, this style of writing was quite popular at the time. Many authors used it to pass on their teachings. But for us, used as we are to the direct language of newspaper reporting and the methods of history and philosophy, this language is not at all familiar.

Actually, one of the temptations we must overcome is to read this imagery as if it were a newspaper report or a history textbook. The challenge for us is to understand the symbolic language used by the author. Taking up this challenge of reading and interpreting will help us understand the author’s intent and receive the message of hope and courage he wanted to share in a time of distress and persecution.

The very first verses of this book present us with the central figure of the text: the risen Christ who reigns over the universe, even if his reign is hidden at this time. John wants to help us see that, contrary to all appearances, Christ is indeed the master of history.

The author sees Christ in a dream. And as in all dreams, images are both striking and unfocused. Christ wears a tunic, like a priest in a liturgy. His belt is golden, the colour of royalty. He shines forth with light, just as he did at his Transfiguration. His feet are of precious bronze, like those of a solid, unmoveable statue. His voice is immense, a sign of his power. He holds seven stars in his hand, symbols of the seven churches that are to receive this text. A two-edged sword comes out of his mouth, representing his word that cuts to the heart of all thoughts to reveal what is truth and what is falsehood.

He declares: “I am the alpha and the omega,” the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. He is the beginning and end of all things: of the world’s history, and of each of our personal histories. Everything else John will write will help us understand how the risen Christ truly is the Lord who is present in the midst of the world and journeys with us towards our own resurrection. This is truly a message of hope for a desperate world. In the coming weeks, we will continue decoding this fascinating, beautiful book.