Through Advent With The Apocalypse: 21/12 – (23) The Meaning of What John Sees In The New Jerusalem

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.
From the Yates Thompson MS 10 in the British Library.
c 1370-c 1390, A manuscript of the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation) with commentary, in French.
  • 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. 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.

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. 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. 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. 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.

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Through Advent With The Apocalypse: 20/12 – (22) A Timetable For The End?

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-second of twenty-six short reflections.

The Seven Trumpets, from the Bamberg Apocalypse (southern Germany 1000-1020)

As we saw a couple of days ago, Paul had a definite structure for God’s time and the salvation of the world, as described in 1 Corinthians 15:

  1. Christ is raised from the dead.
  2. Christ returns in glory as God’s anointed ruler.
    1. Christ’s own are raised from the dead.
  3. He destroys every ruler and every authority and power and thus puts all his enemies under his feet.
    1. Death is destroyed. The general resurrection.
  4. Christ hands over the kingdom to God the Father,
  5. God is all in all.

It would seem that John the Divine has a similar schedule in Revelation, with some variations. Here it is in detail:

  1. Jesus dies (5.6).
  2. Jesus rise from the dead (1.18)
  3. Jesus is in heaven
  4. The time of John the Divine.
  5. The Vision in Heaven
    1. Seven seals
      1. White horse and rider, to conquer
      2. Red horse and rider, for war
      3. Black horse and rider, for famine
      4. Pale green horse and ride, Death, followed by Hades
      5. The heavenly altar with martyred saints
      6. Cosmic earthquake
      7. The Seven Trumpets
        1. Hail, fire and blood – 1/3rd of the earth is burned up.
        2. A fiery mountain falls in the sea – 1/3 of the sea destroyed.
        3. A star falls of rivers & springs – 1/3 of waters poisoned.
        4. Heavenly bodies struck – 1/3 of light cut off.
        5. The First Woe: A star falls and releases locust-like creatures from the bottomless pit – they torture those without the seal of God for five months. They are led by Abbadon/Apollyon – “Doom”.
        6. The Second Woe:
          1. The Four Angels are released and kill 1/3 of humanity by fire, smoke, and sulfur.
          1. The Seven Thunders. Seen, but not revealed by John.
          2. Testimony of the Two Witnesses.
          3. The Two Witnesses are killed by Abbadon, and exposed in Rome.
          4. The Two Witnesses are raised from the dead, and ascend into heaven.
          5. A great earthquake in Rome. 7000 die.
        7. The Third Woe. The Seventh Trumpet
          1. The woman with the crown of stars appears, and she is pregnant.The red dragon with seven horns and ten crowns appears (Rome/Satan).
          2. The dragon makes war on the woman.
          3. The woman gives birth to a son who is to rule the earth.
          4. The child is taken to heaven, and the women hides in the wilderness.
          5. War in heaven. Michael an his angels throws down Satan and his angels.
          6. The dragon seeks to destroy the woman, but the earth itself fights for her.
          7. The dragon makes war on her other children, the followers of Jesus.
        8. The Beasts
          1. The First Beast from the Sea has ten horns and seven heads.
          2. The Second Beast, that worships the first, with two horns like a lamb but speaks like a dragon.
        9. Seven plagues
          1. Babylon (Rome) falls. The Beasts are defeated and thrown into the lake of fire.
          2. Satan is bound in a pit.
          3. Jesus and the martyred saints rule for a thousand years.
          4. Satan is release and causes havoc.
          5. Satan is thrown into the lake of fire.
          6. Death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire. The dead are given up – the resurrection.
          7. Those whose names are not in the Book are thrown into the lake of fire.
    2. The New Heaven and the New Earth, with the New Jerusalem. God makes all things new.

But it is not so straightforward. This is what I mean a couple of weeks ago when I said that time in Revelation is “wonky” – time past is also time future, and time present can also be the past represented now, and the future also made present. Thus:

  • In 5.5 the Lamb of God – Jesus – is described as already having conquered. The First Beast is all mixed up temporally, describing the kings who have been, the one who is now, and shall be. Identified as the Roman Empire, it is partially the past.
  • The pregnant woman of chapter 12 (g.a. in the schema above) has sometimes been identified as Mary, the mother of Jesus, but she seems to be more than that – perhaps the church? She gives birth to a child, who is immediately taken into heaven – and this seems to be a radical telescoping of Jesus’s life into birth followed by glorification. So, again, John the Divine sees past and future all together.
  • When is the war in heaven? If Jesus, the Lamb who has been slain but has been resurrected and is in heaven, has already conquered, why is Satan in heaven? So this war in heaven cannot be read as following on the birth of Jesus. John Milton in Paradise Lost, following developed Christian tradition, sees it as having happened before the foundation of the world – but when was that? What does it mean to say that there was a time before the creation of the material world? Is there time, strictly speaking, in heaven? Is the eternal, strictly speaking, atemporal?
  • Why does Jesus reign for a thousand years, followed by the reemergence of Satan, only for him to be thrown into the lake of fire?
  • Finally, we read in the beginning of chapter 21:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

The reason the sea is no more is not because it is the literal sea, but because it represents chaos to the landlubbers from the highlands of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. So it serves a symbolic function, not a literal one. If that is the case, then we need to read the rest of the description of the new creation as symbolic. And if that is the case, do we then read most of Revelation as mostly symbolic as well? Are we misreading the book if we try to relieve the tensions of temporal descriptions? Perhaps we should be read the book as multiple reiterations of the victory of Jesus – a victory manifested in his death and resurrection, a victory that is seen in the lives of Christ’s followers, and a victory to come fully.

This brings us back to symbolism and meaning. As one commentator said, “Too many people take literally what should be taken metaphorically, and regard as metaphors that which should be taken literally.”

So tomorrow I will look at the New Jerusalem, and the meaning behind its symbolism.

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Through Advent With The Apocalypse: 19/12 – (21) Apocalyptic Literature and Hope

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-first of twenty-six short reflections.

A coin depicting Antiochus IV Epiphanes, minted ca. 173/2-164 B.C.E. On the obverse (front) side, he is shown wearing a diadem. On the reverse (back) side, we see an unnamed goddess seated on a throne while holding Nike (victory) in her right hand, and the words Basileus Antiochos–meaning emperor/king.
credit: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.  From an article here.

It is a common statement in academic considerations of ancient apocalyptic literature that it is produced by communities in crisis and trauma. They are invariably powerless, and so they call upon God to make things right. In many cases they do not trust their supposed religious or political leaders because they are hopelessly compromised with collaboration with imperial overseers, or corrupt, or both.

This is different from ordinary prophecy, as practiced by the historical Isaiah or Jeremiah. Isaiah prophesied to the kings and people of Israel to turn from their ways. He was a priest, already a member of the religious elite, and he had hope that Hezekiah might listen to him and act in accordance. Likewise, Jeremiah preached about the coming of the Babylonians, and he was a true prophet because the destruction he predicted came to pass.

The writers of Apocalyptic do not think to change or transform the political and religious leadership. As far as John the Divine is concerned, Rome and the Empire is beyond redemption, and is fit only for destruction. He never discusses the religious leadership of Judea in Revelation, probably because he was writing and editing after the Jewish Revolution was over and the Temple was no more, but most likely because, in his mind, they were irrelevant. His conflict is with the individuals influencing the churches in the seven cities to whom Revelation is addressed, and those who persecute the followers of Jesus there.

This is true of the book of Daniel. While it purports to be the experiences and visions of a Jewish man who alternately suffers and prospers in exile under Babylon, Medea, and Persia in the Sixth Century BCE, most scholars not wedded to biblical fundamentalism see it as having been written anonymously in the middle of the Second Century BCE, about a century and a half before Jesus.

In 175 BCE Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to the throne of the Selucid Empire, one of the four Hellenistic Empires that took over from Alexander the Great when he died without an heir in 323 BCE. It had been founded by one of Alexander’s Macedonian generals, Seleucus I Nicator. Based in Babylon, it encompassed Syria and Palestine, what is now Iran and the eastern part of Turkey, as well Afghanistan and the Indus valley. Its regular competitors were the equally Hellenistic empires of Ptolomaic Egypt, Phrygia in Asia, and Macedon and Greece, as well as the Maurya empire of India. By Jesus’s time the Selucid Empire had been swallowed by the Parthians from the East (an Iranian people) and the Romans from the East, establishing a boundary that moved back and forth across what is now the modern border between Iraq and Syria.

That downfall was not envisaged in the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, although he did much to weaken the realm. He invaded Ptolomaic Egypt, and the author of the First Book of Maccabees writes,

20 After subduing Egypt, Antiochus returned in the one hundred forty-third year. He went up against Israel and came to Jerusalem with a strong force. 21 He arrogantly entered the sanctuary and took the golden altar, the lampstand for the light, and all its utensils. 22 He took also the table for the bread of the Presence, the cups for drink offerings, the bowls, the golden censers, the curtain, the crowns, and the gold decoration on the front of the temple; he stripped it all off. 23 He took the silver and the gold, and the costly vessels; he took also the hidden treasures that he found. 24 Taking them all, he went into his own land. 1 Maccabees 1.20-24

In order to strengthen the Empire he enacted a policy of Hellenization:

41 Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, 42 and that all should give up their particular customs. 43 All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath. 44 And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, 45 to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, 46 to defile the sanctuary and the priests, 47 to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, 48 and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, 49 so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances. 50 He added, “And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.” . . .

54 Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah, 55 and offered incense at the doors of the houses and in the streets. 56 The books of the law that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. 57 Anyone found possessing the book of the covenant, or anyone who adhered to the law, was condemned to death by decree of the king. 58 They kept using violence against Israel, against those who were found month after month in the towns. 59 On the twenty-fifth day of the month they offered sacrifice on the altar that was on top of the altar of burnt offering. 60 According to the decree, they put to death the women who had their children circumcised, 61 and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mothers’ necks.

The First Book of Maccabees describes how the Judas Maccabeus (Judas the “Hammer”) and his brothers led a revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes and established a renewed Jewish kingdom, reconquering Jerusalem in 164 BCE, and cleansing the Temple. Indeed, Hannukah, which ended just yesterday, commemorates this event.

All of this was in the future for the author of Daniel – all he knew was that the emperor wanted to wipe out and assimilate the stubborn Jews, who appeared to prefer death to abandoning the ways of their forebears. So Daniel envisions a beast arising who is arrogant and “made war with the holy ones and was prevailing over them” (Daniel 7.21). However, one like a Son of Man is sent by the Ancient of Days to the world and

14 To him was given dominion
    and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
    should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
    that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
    that shall never be destroyed. Daniel 7.14

How this happens is not absolutely clear, but later Daniel hears:

There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12.1-2)

The author felt powerless, so that only a direct intervention from God could save him and other faithful Jews from the genocidal depredations of the Selucid Empire. As part of that intervention, along with the coming of the Son of Man, was the day of resurrection and judgement. This was a radical hope in the face of extreme violence and anguish. As it turns out, the Maccabees took history down another course, but the lessons of the Book of Daniel were so salutary that it made its way into the collection of Sacred Writings known as the “Writings” or Kethubim, the third division of the Hebrew Bible. When it was translated into the Greek of the Septuagint some 100 years before the time of Jesus it had already received some additions. When the technology of books moved from scrolls to codices, Daniel was placed among the older prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve.

It is obvious that John the Divine knew Daniel, and he picked up multiple themes, including the beasts, the book of life, the resurrection, the day of judgement, the coming of the Son of Man, and so forth. John reinterpreted it to his context, which may have been that of the persecutions under the short-term successors of Nero in the Year of the Four Emperors, although a case has been made for Revelation being written in the reign of Domitian (81-96). Regardless, John also picked up on the apocalyptic hope. The Roman Empire was so powerful and so contrary to the values and beliefs of the followers of Jesus that he could only imagine it being destroyed by a direct breaking in of the divine. For John, this had already been accomplished in the person of Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection. In the thought of Paul, the return of Jesus to establish the kingdom had been delayed, so that he, Paul, and the other apostles would be able to proclaim the good news to the gentiles. Paul, essentially, was on an extraordinary mission to help save as many as he could from damnation. John the Divine does not get into that part of things, but perhaps he had an inclusive understanding of God’s mercies.

How might we understand this? I think there are at least three ways.

  • The first is to read it literally – that the kingdom is going to come, and all who do not belong to Jesus or are somehow saved by him (with or without faith in him, but by his faithfulness).
  • The second is to understand that the victory has already been won, and that in Christ we are already in the kingdom, that we are already living the resurrected life, and that the new heaven and the new earth is a goal to which we are moving. Thus, one does not read Revelation literally, but rather in mystical and symbolic terms for the lives we live now. This is what I understand is the Orthodox approach. The kingdom was established in the resurrection of Jesus, and has been manifested somewhat by the Christian transformation of the Roman Empire and such “saintly” rules as Constantine the Great.
  • The third is to combine the two, and to affirm the “already but not yet” aspect of Christ’s coming into the world and the transformation of the world.

Thus, we are not obliged to necessarily understand the world quite as either the unknown author of the Book of Daniel or John the Dive would have understood it, but we are to see their diagnosis of the world’s ills and to ask where we find ourselves in the present situation. Allan Boesak did this for South Africa in the era or apartheid, and Daniel Berrigan and William Stringfellow did it for the United States in the ’70s through to the ’00s. Chris Hedges does that now. I think I do it when, in my dissertation, I discern the genocidal theologies that justified the colonization of Canada, the United States, and other parts of the world. Christians do it when they challenge Trump, Putin, Johnson, and Xi to acknowledge their lies and the damage their policies have done to the weakest of the world. It seems like nothing can stop them (just as right-wing American Christians think people like me are complicit in destroying all that is good and holy about the USA), and so we struggle to maintain hope. In the face of global warming, global pandemics, the growth of inequality, the rolling back of democratic regimes, and the way in which politicians seem to act with impunity, what can we do? So the times feel rather apocalyptic.

Those of us who dare to call ourselves followers of Jesus are a people of hope. We believe that in Christ the victory has been won, that it will be won, and that we are winning it now. The struggle does not end – in this broken, fragile world we are called to take up our crosses and follow Christ, but, at the same time, because of our hope and faith with Christ, this yoke, this burden, is paradoxically light and easy.

Tomorrow I am going to return to the topic of time, and a major rule about how to read the Book of Revelation.

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Resources for Worship – Christmas Day 2020, the Year of the Great Pandemic

These are worship resources for Christmas Day, December 25, 2020. The resources are gathered from a variety of sources and, while assembled mainly for The Anglican Church of St Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, on the island of Crete in Greece, others may find them useful.

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The government of Greece is allowing services on Christmas Day, with a maximum of nine persons in attendance. We will have three services of Holy Communion on Christmas Day at the Tabernacle of St Thomas, Kefalas:

  • 9:15 am Said Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion
  • 10:00 Said Common Worship Holy Communion
  • 11:00 Said Common Worship Holy Communion with Hymns (also on Zoom)

If you wish to attend you must register in advance. To register please contact Pat Worsley by phone at +30 28257 71001 or by email at peter.worsley@btinternet.com; registration is on a first come, first served basis. As of Thursday evening, December 16, we have two spaces available at the 9.15 service, one at the 10.00am service and the 11.00am service is full.

You can attend the 11:00 am virtually on Zoom, by clicking this link or by entering the following into your Zoom application: Meeting ID: 850 4483 9927 Passcode: 010209.

Read

There are different readings at the three services, more or less.

Reflect

An old sermon of mine is here: The Christmas You Need: Choose From Five.

Pray

Collect
Almighty God,
you have given us your only-begotten Son
to take our nature upon him
and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin:
grant that we, who have been born again
and made your children by adoption and grace,
may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

(or)

Lord Jesus Christ,
your birth at Bethlehem
draws us to kneel in wonder at heaven touching earth:
accept our heartfelt praise
as we worship you,
our Saviour and our eternal God. Amen.

Biddings
I bid your prayers for the leaders and people of the nations; especially

  • Katerini Sakellaropoulou, President of Greece, and
  • Elizabeth, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and her other realms, and also in her role as Governor of the Church of England;
  • In the European Union,
    • Charles Michel, President of the European Council; and
    • Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs & Security Policy;
  • For the United Nations and its work, and its Secretary General, António Guterres;
  • for the closing negotiations around Brexit;
  • for the peoples of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland facing uncertainty over the fate of the Good Friday Accord;
  • the peoples of Belarus, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Peru, and Thailand as they continue to demonstrate for democracy and justice;
  • for the maintaining of peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and between Russia and Ukraine, North and South Korea, and for a final, just resolution to their conflicts;
  • for the President-elect and peoples of the United States;
  • for peace and justice between Palestinians and Israelis;
  • for advocates of Indigenous rights and the adoption and implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;
  • prisoners and captives, especially the over one million Uygers being held in detention in China;
  • the over 79.5 million refugees and nearly 4 million stateless person, remembering especially the crucial situation of Greece, and the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”);
  • for a lessening of tensions between Turkey and Greece; and
  • for peace in Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, and Ethiopia.

I bid your prayers for the sick and suffering and all who minister to their needs;

  • remembering the 20.8 million active cases of the novel coronavirus, and mourning with the families of the 1.67 million who have died in the pandemic;
  • for the 1.97 million people in the UK who have had covid-19 or are recovering from it, the over 66,000 who have died of it there, and the over 115,000 active cases here in Greece, and the families of the over 4000 dead here;
  • remembering those ill with other diseases, and those whose operations have been postponed;
  • all those having issues with mental health;
  • those suffering from addiction, and those in recovery;
  • those who have been affected severely by the economic effects of the pandemic, especially in food services and tourism;
  • and giving thanks for the efforts of researchers in finding vaccines, and the rollout of vaccines across the world.

I bid your prayers for the Church:

  • for Robert Innes & David Hamid, our bishops;
  • for Justin Welby our archbishop, Stephen Cottrell the Archbishop of York, and the General Synod of the Church of England;
  • for our beloved in Christ in other denominations, especially the leadership in:
    • The Orthodox Church: Bartholomaĩos, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople; and Irinaios Athanasiadis, Archbishop of Crete; and the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece in Athens;
    • The Roman Catholic Church, especially Pope Francis, and the bishop for Crete, Petros Stefanou;
    • the Greek Evangelical Church, the independent Greek Pentecostal churches, and the various Lutheran, Reformed, and other Protestant churches ministering to foreign populations;
  • we pray especially for congregations that have been obliged to cease in-person services;
  • for the churches and peoples of Japan, North Korea, South Korea, and Taiwan (World Council of Churches Ecumenical Prayer Cycle);
  • in the Anglican Communion, we pray for the Peace of Jerusalem and the people of Bethlehem (Anglican Cycle of Prayer);
  • (from the Prayer Diary of the Diocese in Europe) give thanks for:
    • the chaplaincy of Montreux: (Also serves Villars-sur-Ollon) and its chaplain, Paul Ormrod, and
    • the chaplaincy of Vevey: (Also serves Château D’Oex, Neuchâtel) and its chaplain, Clive Atkinson; their Reader, Michael Cotton; and
    • the Diocesan Environment Officer, Elizabeth Bussman.

Intercessions
Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given.
Let us bring before God the needs of the world.

Wonderful counsellor,
give your wisdom to the rulers of the nations.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Mighty God,
make the whole world know
that the government is on your shoulders.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Everlasting Father,
establish your reign of justice and righteousness for ever.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Prince of peace,
bring in the endless kingdom of your peace.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer.

Almighty Lord,
hear our prayer
and fulfil your purposes in us,
as you accomplished your will
in our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sing

On Christmas Day at the 11:00 am service we will sing four hymns from Mission Praise:

  1. Opening Hymn 491: O Come, All You Faithful
  2. Before the Gospel Reading, Hymn 749: What Child Is This?
  3. As the Table is Prepared, Hymn 196: Good Christian Men, Rejoice!
  4. At the end, Hymn 114: Ding, Dong, Merrily On High

If you cannot remember how these carols go, here are some past occasions when they were sung.

If you don’t know Puddles Pity Party, you might want to. He’s a sad clown in the big city with an amazing voice.

While this is the CBC Choir, it is not the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Choir (if such a thing ever existed) but the Canada Bay Community Choir in Sydney, Australia (hence the green grass and shirt sleeves weather). Canada Bay, part of the city of Sydney, is named after French Canadians rebels deported to Australia by British authorities after the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837-1838.

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Resources for Worship – A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols for Christmas

These are resources for a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which we will have on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 20, 2020 at 11:00 am. The resources are gathered from a variety of sources and, while assembled mainly for The Anglican Church of St Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, on the island of Crete in Greece, others may find them useful.

The Mystical Nativity, 1500-1501, by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)

Share

This coming Sunday at 11:00 am we can meet online only, in accordance with the government restrictions. We will still have our annual Festival of Lessons and Carols, though, just online. You can join us by clicking this link or by entering the following into your Zoom application: Meeting ID: 850 4483 9927 Passcode: 010209. The order of service is below, and can also be downloaded (including the lyrics of the hymns as sung in the videos) as a PDF from here:

We will have three services of Holy Communion on Christmas Day at the Tabernacle of St Thomas, Kefalas:

9:15 am Said Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion
10:00 Said Common Worship Holy Communion
11:00 Said Common Worship Holy Communion with Hymns (also on Zoom)

If you wish to attend you must register in advance. To register please contact Pat Worsley by phone at +30 28257 71001 or by email at peter.worsley@btinternet.com; registration will be on a first come, first served basis. As of Thursday evening, December 16, we have two spaces available at the 9.15 service , one at the 10.00am service and the 11.00am service is full. You can attend the 11:00 am virtually on Zoom, and the Zoom link above will get you there.

Read & Reflect

Most parishes will not be having services of Lessons and Carols, but instead will be using the readings appointed for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, which can be found here. If you would like to listen to a sermon on the readings for Advent IV, Fr Leonard Doolan of St Paul’s Anglican Church in Athens has sent us a prerecorded one here:

As we are holding our service of Lessons and Carols for Christmas, our readings are below.

A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols for Christmas

Opening Hymn: Once in Royal David’s City

Welcome, Bidding, and the Lord’s Prayer

Hymn: Joy to the World

The First Lesson

Genesis 3.8-14: The Disobedience of Adam and Eve.

Following the lesson (and after every lesson) the reader will say,
“This is the word of the Lord” Please respond, “Thanks be to God.”

Hymn: God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen

The Second Lesson

Genesis 22.1-19: God tests Abraham, and promises that in him all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.

Hymn: The First Nowell

The Third Lesson

Isaiah 9.2,6,7: Isaiah foresees the coming Messiah.

Hymn: Unto Us a Boy is Born

The Fourth Lesson

Isaiah 11.1-9 – The prophecy of the Messiah’s kingdom of peace

Hymn: O Little Town of Bethlehem

The Fifth Lesson

Isaiah 60.1-6, 19 – The coming of the glory of the Lord

Hymn: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

The Sixth Lesson

Matthew 1.18-23: The birth of Emmanuel.

Hymn: Away in a Manger

The Seventh Lesson

Luke 2.8-16: Jesus is born in Bethlehem.

Hymn: While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks By Night

The Eighth Lesson

Matthew 2.1-11: Wise men come from the east seeking Jesus.

Hymn 740: We Three Kings

The Ninth Lesson (Please stand, as you are able)

John 1.1-14: The Incarnation of the Word of God

Hymn: Adeste Fideles (O Come, All Ye Faithful)

The Blessing

May the Father, who has loved the eternal Son from before the foundation of the world, shed that love upon you his children. Amen.

May Christ, who by his incarnation gathered into one things earthly and heavenly, fill you with joy and peace. Amen.

May the Holy Spirit, by whose overshadowing Mary became the God-bearer, give you grace to carry the good news of Christ. Amen.

And the blessing of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be amongst you, and remain with you always. Amen.

Closing Hymn: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

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Through Advent With The Apocalypse: 18/12 – (20) Paul and John, Eschatological Freaks

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 twentieth of twenty-six short reflections.

Jean Paul Lemieux (1904-1990) Lazare (Lazarus), 1941, from the Art Gallery of Ontario

How do the writings of Paul relate to the Revelation of John the Divine?

The answer is that in they are similar in their broad strokes, but they differ in details. Let’s start with Paul in First Corinthians.

In chapter 15 of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (which is actually his second letter, at least – we just don’t have the earlier correspondence) Paul castigates some of the members of the church in Corinth for not believing in the resurrection of the dead. By this he means the general resurrection of all who have died, but he adds some details (capital letters added):

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. .23 But each in his own order:

A Christ the first fruits,
B then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
E 24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father,
C after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
D 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.”
F 28b so that God may be all in all.

We have here a structure of time. Christ has been raised from the dead (A) – that has already happened. Paul believes that Jesus will return, so that is the next step, or B. When Jesus comes the people “who belong to Christ” are raised. That has not happened yet, so the Corinthians would have known that they lived between A and B. The phrasing of the clauses in verse 24 can be confusing, but it seems that the sequence is that after Jesus comes (B) he judges and destroys “every ruler and every authority and power.” These are his enemies, and are not merely human powers but also the demonic powers. The last one is “death.” (D) What happens when death is defeated? All the dead are raised – the ones who were not raised when Jesus first came in glory – so this completes the general resurrection. Then the Son hands his kingdom over to the Father (E) and, in the obscure mystical language of verse 28, God is “all in all.”

In Revelation Jesus has already been raised from the dead. He has won the victory already, but it has not yet been implemented on earth. Where John differs from Paul is in the detailing of how Christ destroys “all his enemies”. And so we get the seven seals and the seven trumpets, the two beasts. Also, there appear to be two stages in the defeat. In the conclusion of chapter 19 the beast (a returned Nero) and the false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire, Jesus reigns, and you’d think that would be the end of things. However, in chapter 20 the dragon, Satan, is thrown into a pit for a thousand years, and Christ reigns with his saints during that time. Then Satan and his minions arise, besieges the beloved city (the New Jerusalem, not yet described), but fire consumes them, and then Satan gets tossed into the lake. Death and Hades are defeated, thrown into the lake of fire with the others, and the dead arise to be judged.

The structure of time in Revelation 19-20 (and other chapters) is more than a little confusing. What I think should be clear is that both Paul and John had an expectation that the end involved a battle between Christ and evil, and that there would be two resurrections.

This might strike us as a bit bizarre – Paul the Apostle and John the Divine both appear to be eschatological freaks. What we are to do with this is what I will examine tomorrow.

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Through Advent With The Apocalypse: 17/12 – (19) Praise and Triumph in Messiah

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 nineteenth of twenty-six short reflections.

The Foundling Hospital Chapel, in London, where Messiah was regularly performed from 1750 to 1759 under the direction of Handel himself, and subsequently, after his death, from the manuscript score which the composer bequeathed to the Hospital.

Yesterday I said I would look at how G. F. Handel (1685-1759) uses Revelation in his Messiah. I wrote that thinking that there were all kinds of passages from the Apocalypse in there, but when I actually looked at the libretto I found that, actually, there are only two of the 53 movements (recitatives, aria, and chorales) in it that are actually Revelation.

But look where they are, and what they are! The Messiah is divided into three parts; parts two and three both conclude with lines from Revelation, namely the Hallelujah Chorus, and Worthy is the Lamb.

44. Chorus
Hallelujah! for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
(Revelation 19 : 6)
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever.
(Revelation 11 : 15)
King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.
(Revelation 19 : 16)
Hallelujah!

53. Chorus
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen.
(Revelation 5 : 12-13)

The videos above are both recent, the first being from a Austrian staged production in Vienna in 2009, and the latter from a concert in King’s College Chapel Cambridge sung by VOCES8 (I’m not sure how to pronounce that, either), with the VOCES8 Scholars and Apollo5, and the instruments of the Academy of Ancient Music.

Handel did not choose the texts, but rather, set a text to music. The English gentleman Charles Jennens (1700-1773) had previously worked with Handel, having supplied a libretto for Saul and possibly Israel in Egypt. Astonishingly, Handel set the whole thing to music in just twenty-four days – but apparently the musician always wrote that fast. That said, the speed concerned Jennens (pronounced “Jennings”) so much that he wrote Handel about the quality of the writing, and did not hesitate to suggest improvements. This led to a breach between the two for a short period, which was eventually patched up.

Jennens was an odd duck. While an active member of the Church of England, he was part of the Nonjurors, a group which felt that the Glorious Revolution of 1689 was nothing less than a repudiation of the oaths the political and ecclesiastical leadership had sworn to James II. Thus, despite the Stuarts being Catholic and pretenders to the thrones of Great Britain and Ireland, the Nonjurors supported them, feeling that the Divine Right of Kings had been challenged with James II overthrow. As he could not pledge fealty to the House of Hanover, Jennens could neither take a university degree or political office.

He was wealthy and theologically astute, having a large library of divinity at Gopsal Hall, his residence. He was also one of the most musically literate men in Britain, and his collection of musical texts was unparalleled. He patronized composers such as Handel, and became quite active in some of the works, as we have seen.

Messiah is in three parts. The Wikipedia article has a useful summary:

The oratorio’s structure follows the liturgical year:

Part I corresponding with Advent, Christmas, and the life of Jesus;

Part II with Lent, Easter, the Ascension, and Pentecost; and

Part III with the end of the church year—dealing with the end of time.

Revelation, then, is used to mark the triumph of Christ over death, and the quotations are not the apocalyptic passages about war in heaven or the beasts on earth, nor the fantastic images, but of the Lamb enthroned in heaven. They are doxological – praise choruses, if you will.

In the libretto Jennens’ agenda is the forceful assertion of Jesus as divine and as the Messiah, the Christ. He did this because of the rise in his day of Deism – the belief that there may be a God, who is indeed the Creator, but denies that Jesus was divine or the Son of God, or that there is such things as divine revelation or miracles. Deism, obviously, is a challenge to Christian orthodoxy, and both Handel and Jennens being orthodox Christians, felt the appropriateness of the fervent affirmations of Jesus as Christ in the piece. Jennens did not respond to Deism with logical arguments – that he left to theologians – but with the persuasion of familiar texts set to majestic music.

How does Revelation relate to other texts in the New Testament, and the whole idea of the end times? I’ll take that up tomorrow.

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Through Advent With The Apocalypse: 16/12 – (18) Radical Left-Wing Apocalyptic Christians

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 eighteenth of twenty-six short reflections.

The Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, when it was only twelve novels. It is now up to sixteen. Then there are the forty short novels for children, a bunch of graphic novels, four motion pictures, and a video game.

In modern times the Book of Revelation has inspired certain kinds of evangelicals to embrace dispensationalism, a 19th century theology orginally propagated among the Plymouth Brethren, in which God carves up time into various eras or dispensations. In one of the last dispensations Christians are “raptured” or sucked up into the sky by a sacred vacuum cleaner, and those left behind deal with the “Beast” and the “false prophets” as they wreak all kinds of violence and evil on the Earth. Indeed, that’s the whole premise of the “Left Behind” series of books. If all of this is new to you, that’s because you haven’t been inside the bubble of Premillennial Evangelicalism. Tribulation sells really well, especially when it is turned into thriller fiction where new converts to the Christian faith are battling it out with the Antichrist and his new world order.

However, you do not have to be a Christian of this sort to be influenced by Revelation. In the middle of the 19th century, in the middle of the Civil War, Julia Ward Howe, the wife of a radical abolitionist – an American physician who fought in the Greek War of Independence, had sheltered runaway slaves in his home in Boston, and had helped fund John Brown in his raid upon Harpers Ferry – saw the campfires of Union troops and and was inspired to write a poem that celebrated the great conflict in Apocalyptic terms.

You know this as the Battle Hymn of the Republic. These are the original words.

1 Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
(Chorus) Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

2 I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.
(Chorus)

3 I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.
(Chorus)

4 He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.
(Chorus)

5 In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,[16]
While God is marching on.
(Chorus)

6 He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,
Our God is marching on.
(Chorus)

If you’ve been reading through Revelation, it is pretty obvious that Julia Ward Howe had been, too, as well as other parts of the Bible. In just the first verse we sing:

  • the glory of the coming of the Lord Ward was describing the Second Coming, when Christ as the Son of Man would come to judge the world.
  • He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored is an image derived from Revelation 14:19-20: “So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.”
  • He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword. Revelation refers to a sword coming from the mouth of the judge in 19: 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.” This seems to be derived from Isaiah 27: 1 “On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.”

Now, the abolition of slavery in the United States, before the Civil War, was thought to be a utopian dream, and was strongly challenged by slaveholders and racists. In fact, the opposition to it was so great that in reaction to the election of Abraham Lincoln, a moderate opponent of slavery who would have been satisfied with the prevention of its extension into any new states, nine slave states rebelled against the authority of the federal state and attempted to secede. The war to preserve the Union forced the issue of slavery, and Lincoln concluded that if he emancipated the slaves he would have a better chance of winning the war, crushing the rebellion, and preserving the Union. And so it came to pass that the slaves were freed, and the Reconstruction Amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 (as well as some other federal legislation) forced the South to accept African-Americans as equals. This came to an ugly end after the presidency of U. S. Grant, when the federal government withdrew federal troops from the South, and allowed segregation and Jim Crow to arise.

At the time, in the midst of the war, all of this seemed quite astonishing. The only way Ward could make sense of it was to draw on the apocalyptic language of Revelation and other parts of scripture, and the result was a remarkable hymn that reverberated then among the scripturally knowledgeable population of the States.

In contrast to Howe who saw Revelation being worked out in the violence of war, there are Christian radicals who read Revelation in a non-violent manner, and then apply it in their own activism. Nick Megoran, a geographer (!) at Newcastle University, in an article from 2012 entitled “Radical politics and the Apocalypse: activist readings of Revelation” noted this in the writings of contemporary New Testament scholars such as N.T (Tom) Wright, Ben Witherington, Patricia McDonald, as well as theologians such as Mark Bredin and John Yoder. Megoran looks at the work of two individuals, namely Daniel Berrigan (1921-2016) and William Stringfellow (1928–1985).

Berrigan was a major anti-war activist and Jesuit priest who, with his brother Philip, also a priest, came to the notice of the US population and the FBI when he denounced US involvement in the Vietnam War. Megoran writes:

Using the imagery of Revelation, Berrigan adds that in [the CIA and the Pentagon] ‘A chief principality is horridly, boldly on display: obscene, unashamed, up front, the cosmic whore of Revelation bedizened with her resources and wares’. Berrigan thus reads Revelation as the unveiling of imperial power. This power is unveiled not only as violent, but also as arrogant in deluding itself that it plays a beneficent, even divine, role in human history. In terrorising the world’s poor by its foreign policy, and in claiming an exceptional role as a divine agent in spreading liberty, it is the USA par excellence that represents Revelation’s Babylon today.

This argument is developed in Berrigan’s 1983 book about Revelation, The Nightmare of God. A core theme is how the American empire remains oblivious to its identity as Babylon. He draws out how Revelation depicts the continued inability, the refusal, of Babylon to learn from the judgments of God:

Babylon’s moral life is not a passage from crime to repentance, but only from crime to crime. Ourselves? From no-one do we hear, after Vietnam, ‘Remember, and repent.’ Only, ‘forget and forget.’ Thus our history becomes a progressive breakaway from all restraint. The empire rides and flogs the four horses: death, plague, famine, war in her wake. And we call it civilisation, sanity.”

William Stringfellow was a lay Episcopalian, a lawyer, active in the Sojourners community, and involved in the World Council of Churches. Megoran writes that Stringfellow elucidated his position in

the 1973 text An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. Here he writes that he wants to understand America Biblically, not construe the Bible ‘Americanly’, as has been the norm. The text majors on the Babylon passages in the book of Revelation, reading them as a parable of the operation of principalities and powers, primarily states, in any place in human history. Revelation reveals death as the social purpose behind such powers, and represents their traits. For Stringfellow, the conceit that America is the New Jerusalem is Biblical illiteracy: rather, America today stands in the place of Babylon in Revelation.

‘Stringfellow’s work was not commentary on Revelation, but the reverse: Revelation commenting on “us”’, write activists Howard-Brook and Gwyther. Stringfellow elucidates many aspects of contemporary American politics through appeals to the Babylon parable. Crises of foreign war, ecological corruption, racism, urban chaos, unemployment and deception make victims of the poor. But these forces also make victims of elites like Presidents who become pathetically dehumanised as captives to the power of death in the principalities that they work for. For Stringfellow, Revelation does not give ‘policy answers’: rather, it shows how to live ethically, how to hope and to celebrate human life, knowing that God has ultimately defeated death. This entails resisting the cultures of death, for resistance is the only way to live humanly. But, against much contemporary revolutionism, it is to resist without recourse back to death-dealing.

In his conclusion Megoran notes that Apocalypticism is a means of resistance to the powers of Empire. He gives the example of Allan Boesak, the South African anti-apartheid activist:

Boesak’s book, Comfort and protest (1987), is a commentary on Revelation, or, perhaps more accurately, a commentary on the Apartheid regime performed through a reading of the book of Revelation. He identifies specific Apartheid policies and official proclamations, comparing them to the Rome/Babylon of Revelation.

I suspect that it is tempting for many to abandon Revelation to the American right-wing evangelicals, with their incredibly profitable multimedia franchises which frame the judgement of God in speculative, poorly grounded fantasies of violence on liberals and the peoples of the world. However, the book is too important and powerful for responsible Christians to do that. We need to read it as John intended, as a critique of oppressive Empires, and as hope in the midst of much suffering.

Tomorrow I will look at how Handel used Revelation in The Messiah – a non-radical, non-left wing use of Apocalyptic.

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Through Advent With The Apocalypse: 15/12 – (17) Who’s in the Book?

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 seventeenth of twenty-six short reflections.

Not exactly something you’d want to read in bed, eh?

So, who gets to go to the New Jerusalem, according to John the Divine?

This is not a straightforward question. Some people approach this already having the answer.

  • A Protestant evangelical might say that it is anyone who has accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour, and perhaps accomplished by saying a prayer of repentance asking that Jesus’s death be fixed between them and what they should suffer.
  • A Catholic or an Orthodox person might say that it is anyone who is a baptised member of the church and who does not reject the saving grace offered in that baptism.
  • Some folk have a very narrow understanding, that only a small percentage of humanity will be saved, with the rest being damned.
  • Others, Universalists suggest that everyone will be saved, the whole of creation.
  • Some simply say Christians only, others extend it to good people regardless of faith or the lack of it.
  • Some, ignoring the history of Christian doctrine around salvation by faith, suggest that it is good people who do good things.
  • And then there are those who just shuffle their feet and hem and haw, not knowing how to answer.
  • Anglicans could be any of the above,

But if you read the text it is pretty clear what John’s understanding of salvation is.

First, let’s begin with chapters 21 and 22. The New Jerusalem is massive, far larger than any city on Earth today. One might argue that the city needs to be large, partly because there will be so many people in it.

As noted yesterday, the following are excluded: “the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars.” (Revelation 21.8) This could be read as a reference to the world in general, but I think we need to read it in reference to the position of the churches in John’s time.

  • The “cowardly” are those who gave into pressure or fear and abandoned the faith.
  • The “faithless” are those who have no faith in the Lord God, much less in Jesus.
  • The “fornicators” may refer to the sexually promiscuous, but more likely, it is a way of describing those who worship the various gods and goddesses of the Greco-Roman world; their worship of idols makes them depraved, and so they are sexually licentious. In ancient times, those in power used and abused slaves, underlings, and other vulnerable people for sexual gratification – what we would now call sexual assault. It may be this that John is reacting to.
  • The sorcerers are those who try to use magic and the power of evil spirits.
  • The idolators are those who make and worship images of gods and goddesses.
  • Liars are those who uphold all of the above, including the emperor and all his imperial structures, and who proclaim a kingdom other than that of Jesus.

This is elaborated in verse 27 of chapter 21: “But nothing unclean will enter it [the city], nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood.” So we see reiterated the liars, those who worship false gods, or those who have become unclean through association with those who lie or worship false gods.

Chapter 22, verse 15 states, “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” Apart from the addition of dogs, this is the same list, with murderers added – presumably those who slay the saints of God. I am not sure why dogs are there – they are presumably not actual dogs, but the obsequious followers of the Empire.

Chapters 2 and 3 suggest that the following will receive blessings from God:

  • 2:7b To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.
  • 2:11b Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.
  • 2:17b To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.
  • 2:26-28 To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end, I will give authority over the nations; 27 to rule them with an iron rod, as when clay pots are shattered—28 even as I also received authority from my Father. To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star.
  • 3:5 If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels.
  • 3:12 If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.
  • 3:21 To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.

The cumulative impression is that it is the one who conquers who will be in the New Jerusalem with Jesus, and whose name will be written in the Book of Life.

And who are those that conquer? In these chapters they are the ones who toil and endure patiently in Ephesus, and are bearing up for the sake of the name of Jesus. They are commanded to love one another, as their initial fellowship seems to have become stale. In Smyrna they are undergoing suffering and imprisonment, but are encouraged to be faithful until death. In Pergamum they do not deny their faith, although they are in danger of accepting false teachings. In Thyatira they are known for love, faith, service, and patient endurance. In Sardis there are a few who are “alive.” In Philadelphia they patiently endure. In Laodicea they need to turn from self-reliance and depend on Jesus.

The vision of heaven in the following chapters are more expansive. In chapter 5 we read of all creation worshiping Jesus:

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

In chapter 6, verse 9 we hear that under the heavenly altar are “the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given”. They all receive white robes, so those who suffer for Jesus are received into the New Jerusalem. There are, in 7:4 “one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel”. There are 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes, not just the remnant of Judah and Levi that made up the Jewish people at the time of Jesus and John. So Israel is saved. The number should be read symbolically, and I suggest that it means that most of Israel is saved (and please note, acceptance of Jesus is not implied in the numbers). Then, in verse 7 we hear:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

So, once again, we have an expansive vision of those who are saved by the Lamb. The angel guiding John describes them:

These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 For this reason they are before the throne of God,
    and worship him day and night within his temple,
    and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
    the sun will not strike them,
    nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

There is no sense here that they have done anything in particular to merit salvation. They are simply a great mass of people who are hungry, who thirst, and who suffer from the heat of the sun – ordinary people, in other words. They worship the Lamb because they have been saved; the converse is not necessarily true, that they have been saved because they already worshiped the Lamb.

There are various plagues and other types of destruction that follow. Chapter 9 verses 20 – 21 notes that:

20 The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk. 21 And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts.

So idolatrous murderers, sorcerers, and fornicators are condemned, which is not surprising, but the idolatrous thieves are now added.

There are more passages, but for the most part they simply reinforce what we have already seen in what has been quoted above. To summarise, on the one hand the holy people of God, suffering but faithful and patient, will be saved. Likewise, I would argue that God is faithful to Israel and redeems its people. The flip side is that those who worship the beast – those who are hopelessly compromised with the Roman Empire, the cult of the Emperor, and who worship idols and are (as John sees it) consequently depraved – they are not saved. But then, on the other hand, we see an expansive vision of vast multitudes who are welcomed, who worship the Lamb because they are saved.

So within the Book of Revelation there is a tension. John has a two senses of justice: 1) justice for those who are persecuted for the sake of Jesus and because they follow him, and 2) justice for those who suffer as subjects of the Roman Empire. John is mostly concerned with the first, but I do not sense that he condemns people just because they have not heard the good news. He is almost as angry with those who should know better – “Jezebel”, those who follow the error of “Baalam,” and the Nicolaitans – as he is with those who persecute the followers of Jesus. He has strong words for most of the churches that he addresses. But he does still have this inclusive understanding of God’s grace.

Tomorrow I will look at how Revelation has inspired some radical Christians to do some amazing things for God and their fellow human being.

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Through Advent With The Apocalypse: 14/12 – (16) The Lake of Fire

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 sixteenth of twenty-six short reflections.

Some of the most judgemental passages in Revelation are about who gets thrown into the Lake of Fire:

20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. Revelation 19:24

10 And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Revelation 20:24

14Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15 and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. Revelation 20:14-15.

But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. Revelation 21:8

If you are like me, you begin to imagine whether or not whether your name is in the Book of Life, or whether we would qualify for the Lake under one or more of the categories in Revelation 21:8.

Interestingly, the Lake of Fire is one of the few images John comes up with on his own – there is nothing like it in the Hebrew Bible. There is Gehenna in the gospels, which appears to have been a garbage dump outside Jerusalem that was invariably on fire, and in Jewish writing was used to representto Hades, or Sheol, the shadowy underworld for the dead, but that is not quite the same thing. Apparently there is an Egyptian text more than a thousand years earlier than John that talks about a Lake of fire, but it is unlikely that he knew of it. So where did he get the idea of this lake and it being a kind of punishment?

In an essay from 2007 the Dutch New Testament scholar George H. van Kooten suggests that it goes back to Nero. Following the fire in Rome at which Nero (doubtfully) fiddled, but which he blamed on the Christians (likely), he seized a vast amount of land adjacent to the Forum. There, according to Suetonius, he built an imperial palace, whose

entrance hall was designed for a colossal statue, 120 ft high, bearing Nero’s head. So vast were the grounds, that triple colonnades ran for a mile. There was, too, an enormous lake, surrounded by buildings made to look like cities (Nero 31.1).

The lake is where the Colosseum was eventually erected, so it was quite central; indeed, the name “Colosseum” appears to have been derived from the Colossus of Nero, for the massive statue stood for centuries, long after the pond was drained. Van Kooten suggests that John believed that Nero (or some version of the returned Nero) would be punished, and this is symbolized by the Beast – Nero – being tossed into the lake whose creation was facilitated by the historic fire. From there it was a short jump to throwing Death, Hades, and all unrepentant evildoers into it as well.

But who gets to escape the Lake of Fire? We’ll discuss this tomorrow.

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