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 twenty-third of twenty-six short reflections.
Remember this song? Remember hair in the ’80s?
Carly Simon is anything but a gospel singer, but in this Oscar and Grammy award winning song she is channeling some of Chapters 21 and 22 from the Book of Revelation, via William Blake and “Jerusalem”, Walt Whitman, and the city of New York:
Let the river run
Let all the dreamers wake the nation
Come, the New Jerusalem.
Silver cities rise . . .
There are two images here that seem to be inspired from Revelation – flowing rivers and the New Jerusalem. Those of us who know New York City a bit would never confuse it with the city described by John, which is why it is, perhaps, a silver city, whereas John’s city is gold. Despite all that is so wrong with the place, it is still a wondrous place, unlike anywhere else in the world. Even its poor and working class have a loyalty to it that seems justified, somehow. Seeing this video after thirty years is all the more poignant for seeing the two towers of the World Trade Center. I know I was a much more naive and sentimental optimist back then.
But yesterday I suggested that we should not take the New Jerusalem literally. This is not to say that we should not look forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises, and some sort of coming of Christ in glory, but John’s visions are visions, spiritual representations of a reality that is past, present and future. Then how shall we read it? Perhaps this way:
- a new heaven and a new earth God is changing the whole of the cosmos, beginning with Jesus in the resurrection (heck, might as well say beginning with the Incarnation, when the human is joined to the divine).
- the sea was no more Chaos is gone. At least, the kind of chaos that destroys. I still like fractals, so I am hoping they are still around.
- the holy city, the new Jerusalem In the Hebrew Bible Jerusalem is the designated dwelling place of God. This is still the case, only instead of it being a city made by humans, this is a city given to us to be with God. It is the reverse of Babel, the city human beings tried to build in order to be gods. It is a reimagining of the Garden of Eden, but it is not the same as the Garden, for humanity cannot exactly go back to where it began, there’s been too much water under the bridge – but, like the Garden of Eden, it is a gift from God.
- coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband The other time in Revelation that John uses marriage imagery is in chapter 19:9: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. The New Jerusalem in 20:9 is described as the bride. So, while John does not describe eating at the feast as such, we are looking at a vision of the bride at a marriage, and the feast will come, and we are the guests. There are allusions here to The Song of Songs, which is a book of erotic love poetry that was included in the canon of the Hebrew Bible because the love of the man and woman in it was read by the Rabbis as the love of God for Israel; Christians, building on this passage, have read it as the love of Christ for his followers. Ecclesiastics in subsequent centuries read it as Christ’s love for the institution of the Church. That would make the New Jerusalem the Church, then. The closest we can get to the New Jerusalem is the Church.
- “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them” How does God dwell with us? Arguably in several ways (as Rowan Williams suggests in a recent book). One of those ways in in the Incarnation – God is with us in the person of Jesus Christ. That presence is made real among us in the Incarnation. And by the power of the Holy Spirit Christ dwells among us, and transforms us.
- “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” In his own death and resurrection Christ defeated death. This victory over death is made present to us and memorialized at every celebration of the Holy Eucharist. It is a foretaste of what we hope for: that what Christ is, we will become.
- “the holy city Jerusalem . . . has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal.” Here is another clue that this cannot be taken literally – jasper is not clear, but opaque, typically red, although it is also yellow, brown, green, and occasionally blue. The point is the simile, in that it radiates God’s glory.
- “on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites . . . the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” The city is a place for the twelve tribes of Israel. John the Divine does not address the issue of gentile Christians being followers of Jesus, which was the calling of Paul, but he does not exclude them either. As Christianity and Judaism had not yet really emerged from the varieties of Fisrt Century Judaisms, he probably sees them all as one, where Gentile Christians are grafted onto the vine of Israel.
- “The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. 17 He also measured its wall, one hundred forty-four cubit” Even by modern standards the city is huge. Why so large? As I have suggested before, to accommodate the large numbers redeemed by the Lamb. God’s redemption is inclusive.
- “And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.” Again, suggestions not to read the description literally, as it is not clear how a pearl can be a gate (think of the size of the oyster!), nor how gold can be transparent. These images speak to the wondrous glory of the city, and should not be read literally.
- “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” By the time John wrote his visions the Temple in Jerusalem may well have been destroyed, and the city itself devastated. By describing the New Jerusalem John suggests that God would be/has been/is the one to act by giving the new city from heaven as a gift, and the human inclination to rebuild a temple is unnecessary.
- “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.” I do not think that John says there is no sun or moon, only that their light is unnecessary, because God and the Lamb are the light. The nations and those nation’s kings come to it, in an echo of Isaiah 2, and again we have the notion of an inclusive establishment. Perhaps this is one of those few places where John refers to Gentile followers of Christ.
- “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” The river is an image John took from the New Jerusalem described in Ezekiel 47:
Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. 2 Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me around on the outside to the outer gate that faces toward the east; and the water was coming out on the south side.
3 Going on eastward with a cord in his hand, the man measured one thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. 4 Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the waist. 5 Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed. 6 He said to me, “Mortal, have you seen this? Ezekiel 47.1-6
- The waters represent a refreshing of Judea, a reversal of the judgement upon Sodom and Gomorrah. The water flows from God, and transforms the land, and thus, the people. In Revelation this is God’s transforming power which “to the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” (Revelation 21.6b).
- “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” The tree of life is last seen in Genesis in the garden of Eden. There are two trees described in Genesis 3 – one is the tree of life, which presumably keeps one alive. It is a symbol for eternal life, that is, life with God. The other is the tree of the knowledge of good and eveil, which, of course, is forbidden to the primordial humans, Adam and Eve. This tree is no longer present, for the the inhabitants of the city presumably already know more than enough about good and evil. The leaves are for healing, for the people of God’s city are wounded, from the oppressions which they have suffered.
- “they will reign forever and ever” The tradition that Christ’s disciples would reign with him predates Revelation, and can be found in some of the gospels. The martyred Christians in heaven reign with Christ in the thousand years, and this seems to pick up on a more eternal reign – or perhaps John is just using “reign” as a word that suggests participation in the Christ who reigns.
Having parsed and deconstructed the description of God’s new creation in these two chapters I trust it is obvious that a) this is a vision that is not to be taken literally and b) that it refers to a reality that is variously past, present, and future. A Christian lives in time and out of it, both in the present and eternally, transformed by the past victory accomplished by Jesus Christ and looking forward to a full transformation in the future. The main issue for the Christian is not what will be, but how to act now. So I guess we will have to discuss this tomorrow.