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 last of twenty-six short reflections.
Tomorrow is Christmas Day, in which we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. How does Revelation relate to that?
The birth and life of Jesus barely seems to get a mention in the Book of Revelation. We get a sideways glance at it in chapter 12:
12 A 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. –Revelation 12.1-6
That’s it, there’s Christmas in the Apocalypse. Jesus is born and Satan is waiting there to eat him up.
The image of Jesus in Revelation is that of the resurrected Lord. Thus we read in chapter 1 and in the addresses to the churches in Asia:
the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth . . . who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood Revelation 1.5
the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force. Revelation 1.13-16
I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Revelation 1.17-18
the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation Revelation 3.14
Further on Jesus is described as
a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes Revelation 5.6
Much further on, in chapter 19, Jesus is described as a warrior:
11 Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” Revelation 19.11-16
A key thing is to remember that all these images are symbolic. Jesus is not actually a lamb. Likewise, Jesus is not literally a warrior on a white horse, although it is tempting to read that the passage from Revelation 19 as if it were predicting the future. It describes a future reality in spiritual terms, which is that God in Christ is destroying everything that is evil. Inasmuch as the earthly Jesus drove out demons, healed the sick, raised the dead, and spoke truth to power, Jesus was already doing this.
Jesus, in his death and resurrection, has already triumphed over evil. The forces of evil just refuse to acknowledge that they have lost – not unlike Hitler and Nazi Germany in the last months of the Second World War in 1945, or certain politicians in the United States following the elections in November. Evil is psychopathic, denies facts, and tries to con willing marks until the end.
So on this last day of Advent we are brought back to the revelation of Jesus Christ in the person who was born some 2000 years ago and who lived and died then. The symbolic language of Revelation needs to be read side by side with the historic reality of that person.
Paul, in an eschatological poem in his Letter to the Philippians, wrote:
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Philippians 2.5-13
Paul urges his readers in Philippi to be like Jesus in emptying themselves and being humble and obedient, serving others. Grasping onto privilege is not the way of Jesus, but rather letting go. In Hellenistic Greek the word for “he emptied” is ἐκένωσεν ekenōsen. Some theologians in the 19th century began to look into what it meant for the divine Word to empty itself, and these developments in Germany, Scotland, and England came to be known as kenotic theology. It was picked up by the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergei Bulgakov in the 1930s, who saw it not simply as a characteristic of the Word in its hypostasis of human and divine, but was the key to understanding the relationship of the Holy Trinity, between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each person of the Holy Trinity related to the others in a self-emptying love; they also relate to the created world in this kind of kenosis. It was subsequently picked by by the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, and the Anglicans Sarah Coakley and John Polkinghome.
If God is kenotic, and we are made in the image of God, and we are being remade into the image of Christ, this kind of servanthood is a chief characteristic. If we wish to be glorified with him, we must be like him. If we wish to share in his glory, we will also share in his humility. The last shall be first, and the first shall be last. In a broken and sinful world, this will often entail suffering, perhaps to the point of death.
John knew this suffering and death, but the martyrs were with Christ under the heavenly altar, praising him, and joining him in his thousand-year reign. Jesus may be the resurrected Lamb of God, but he still has the wounds of his killing. He may be a conquering warrior on horseback, but his robe is dipped in his own blood.
So we are called to let go of our attachment to things, of our fears, to let go of our fear of death and Hades, and to trust in Christ. We are called to be kenotic. I have made kenosis a central part of my PhD dissertation, seeing it as an antidote to the genocidal theologies which have often plagued the church.
Tomorrow we celebrate the humbling of the Word of God in the child of Bethlehem. In that image of vulnerability may we find ourselves.
Thank you to those of you who have joined me on this Advent journey through the Apocalypse. I pray that God will reveal to you the Jesus you need, and unveil the call that you have received.