Monday, October 26, 2009

"As a Flame of Fire": Reflections on Revelation 1:4-20

"....And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength....... And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death." Revelation 1:13-18.

There are a number of things I'd like to write a blog post about, and I was thinking of writing one today. But then I realized this week has an interesting cycle of readings coming up, in preperation for All Saints' Day, drawn from the Revelation to St. John. This last book of the New Testament is one I really like- though I don't pretend to understand it. As St. Augustine once said, no one undestands the Last Things except God, not even the angels in heaven: it passes their understanding as it passes ours. That's why the Book of Revelation is written in such mystical, symbolical language.

Tomorrow's reading starts with the vision of Christ to St. John, on the island of Patmos. It's not certain when it took place, but sometime between the reign of Nero and the reign of Domitian, under both of which the Christians were savagely persecuted.

We are told that "no one has seen God at any time" (1 John 4:12) and further, St. Paul describes in heaven seeing "indescribable things, which no man may utter" (2 Corinthians 12:4). St. John is of course describing, here, God in human form, the Word Incarnate. But even still, he finds it hard to describe the vision of Christ in normal terms. When Jesus lived on earth he took the form of a normal man, as we are told, not particularly handsome or striking: "He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him" (Isaiah 53:2). In his ascended, resurrected body, He is so beautiful and awe-inspiring that John can only describe him in the most symbolic, figurative terms. His feet are like shining brass, his girdle like gold, his hair like white wool, his eyes like a flame of fire.

Here we see, most clearly, the difference between the way things are on earth, and the way things are in heaven. On earth we see each other, and plants and animals and natural things, in normal, physical form, with all our infirmities, injuries, and imperfections. But what we see on this earth are simply shadows and copies of the ideal, perfect natures of things that we will see in the world to come. St. Paul tells us, "It is sown corruptible, it is raised incorruptible" (1 Corinthians 15:42), and so it is with all things: what Christ shows us in the vision to St. John is what will happen to all things in the world to come. Everything beautiful we see around us- trees, deer, fish, flowers, birds, other people- will be more beautiful in the world to come. Tertullian said, in refutation of Marcion who claimed a lesser, corrupt deity had created the world, "Look at a wildflower: thus do I refute Marcion." But even the prettiest flower in this earth is short lived, and will be surpassed in beauty and longevity by the flowers of the world to come.

Christ tells us, "I hold the keys of hell and death", and alludes to His return from death, from which no one, or hardly anyone, was believed to ever have returned. In Christ we see that death is once and for all conquered. We still die of course, but we have the hope, and the faith, that death ultimately has no power over us, that it simply leads to a gate, opened by Christ, through which we can enter into paradise. No more does hell have power over us, for hell is the kingdom of the power of evil, and Christ has once and for all confronted evil and conquered it.

White wool, shining metal, fire all strike us as beautiful because they reflect or produce light. In the same way Christ reflects the light of the Father, and he is Light in his own right as well, as it's said, "God from God, Light from Light, Very God from Very God" in the creed. We can't fully understand what light is, or how it can be both a wave and a particle at the same time. Neither can we understand the nature of God, how He can be three Persons and one Being. But the beginning of the vision to St. John shows us that maybe we were not meant to understand, that perhaps sometimes all we can do, and all we are asked to do, is to kneel and lose ourselves in the beauty and mystery of God.

More to follow....

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