This Advent, in the Year of the Great Pandemic 2020, it seems appropriate to look at The Apocalypse – that is, The Revelation of John. This is the ninth of twenty-six short reflections.
We are used to thinking about time in a few ways. One is as duration, the time that is subjectively passing. We understand it as something in which the present becomes the past and the future the present – and yet the past, relative to this present moment, is unchangeable and the future ever inaccessible.
We construct the past. We know our own past, but particular things stand out in our memories. I remember the Berlin Wall falling and the great wave of optimism that swept the world as the Eastern bloc in Europe and South American nations shifted from totalitarianism and dictatorships to liberal democracies and open economies. I still am somewhat in wonder that it, like the Good Friday Agreement and the transition from Apartheid in South Africa, was all so peaceful. I remember smallpox vaccinations. Some of the folk in the congregation at St Thomas, Kefalas remember the end of World War II. Some things were told to us. My paternal grandfather fought in World War I, and I have his diary. My maternal grandmother remembered when Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tomabaugh.
We imagine the future. 2020 is not what I thought it would be in 1980, when I started university. I never thought I would live in Greece. I was sure I would keep climbing the cursus honorum of the Anglican Church of Canada. I sure never expected a pandemic, or climate change, or the stagnation in incomes. I was brought up to expect progress, but now we have . . . challenges.
There is clock time, which is “objective time”. Then there is time in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. I have forgotten all my high school calculus, but one thing we did in Grade 12 Physics was work through the equations for special relativity, which demonstrated that, yes, time was relative, and clocks would measure the same events differently if they were in different inertial frames.
Then there is history. I love reading history, but I have read enough to know that histories are subjective and selective. I have read all of Winston Churchill’s volumes on the Second World War, but I know that he left much out, such as the breaking of the Enigma codes, or the decision to allow a famine in Bengal.
The Revelation of John approaches time in none of these ways. In Revelation the past, present, and future are sometimes all present in a single vision, sometimes two of them together. It can all get a bit complex. Jesus in chapter1, verse 19 says to John:
Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this.
This captures the past, present, and future aspect of the visions, and that time is all jumbled together.
John’s initial vision is of the throne of God in heaven.
42 At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! 3 And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. 4 Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads . . . 56 Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne.
This is, of course, to be read symbolically, not literally. Jesus is symbolically the lamb of God, not a real sheep, whether on earth or in heaven. This is also one freaky lamb, which again should persuade us not to take this literally. But the truth is that this is Jesus, the one who has died and is now resurrected and ascended, and who is to come to judge the living and the dead. So Jesus takes the scroll, and breaks the seals.
Most of what happens with the breaking of the seals, the blowing of trumpets, presumably is in the future – but John sees it in the present. In chapter 12 we read:
121A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3 Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.
Is this a reference to Jesus being born of Mary? Probably, as he “is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron”, but the description is in very symbolic language. The confrontations of Satan with Jesus – in the wilderness, in the exorcisms, and finally at the cross – are reduced to the challenge of the dragon before the woman and the threat to eat her new born child. The child is swept up to heaven – his resurrection and ascension. The woman, who then seems to be a metaphor for the church, escapes into the wilderness. In historical terms, the church was mainly in the cities, but they functioned like wildernesses. The chapter continues:
7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God.
11 But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
When was there war in heaven? Is this at the time when the “blood of the Lamb” was shed – which is to say, somewhere around 30 CE? Or was it, as John Milton has it in Paradise Lost, something that took place before the creation of the material world? Or is the defeat of Satan something yet to come, or something that is ongoing? It is not at all clear; the answer to all of this could be, “Yes, all of these.”
Thus, while much of Revelation is dealing with future events, it is also dealing with the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection, events that have already happened but which are made present by the Holy Spirit in the lives of God’s people and in the sacraments. Time is, as I said, “wonky.”
But what is the future for John the Divine? Was he imagining these symbols and metaphors to refer to things in our future as well, or did he think it would all come to pass soon, and very soon? That will be tomorrow’s discussion.