Sunday, April 25, 2010

Washed White in the Blood of the Lamb: Reflections on last Sunday's reading

Here is last Sunday's reading from the Book of Revelation (Rev 7:9-17).

"After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands;
And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.
And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God,
Saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.
And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?
And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.
For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes."

This passage was the second lesson for last sunday's readings. I love the Book of Revelation, the most mystical and enigmatic book in the Bible, and I love coming back to its beautiful and haunting imagery. When thinking about this passage, I’m struck in particular by the image of the multitude praising God with palm branches, clad in robes that have been ‘washed white in the blood of the Lamb.’

The palm branches, of course, recall the way the Jerusalem crowd hailed Jesus when he entered Jerusalem five days before he would be crucified, on Palm Sunday: for we are told that the crowd ‘took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord’. The people of Jerusalem recognized Jesus Christ as their King and their Redeemer, and in the moment that they saw him riding on the colt, gave him the love and honour that was his due. In that moment, they fulfilled what we are called, as humans, to do for our God, and could not have done it any better. That wasn’t to last, of course. Even then, the voices of a few were raised in discontent, saying, “Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not”. And the voices of evil prevailed, as is the nature of things in this fallen world, and they convinced enough people to join them- or to stand by out of fear, and do nothing, that within five days the crowd had abandoned Jesus to die the death of the most vicious common criminals. Yet the love and service that they had shown him could not be erased, any more than the wounds of the crucifixion could be erased, and the proof is that it would be mirrored and echoed at a still deeper level in heaven. That love was temporary, and tarnished by the weaknesses of fallen human nature: it will be mirrored, at the end of time, by a true and undying love that will never be tarnished and will never falter.

The things of this earth are real, but we have the assurance that they are just shadows and reflections of an even deeper and even more permanent reality. Plato saw this, dimly, in his allegory of the cave. The shadows that his benighted cave-dwellers saw on the rocks were real: they represented, in a real and actual sense, the absence of light. A plant couldn’t grow in those shadows nor could an animal grow warm in them. The shadows were not an illusion. But they were, just as clearly, simply reflections of something even more real and even more concrete. The shadow of a tree, or of a man, is something interesting; but how much more interesting is the real tree, or the real man? In the same way, we can trust that in heaven, all that we love and cherish about this world of ours will be replicated in an even richer and more fascinating way, that we can cherish more deeply than we could ever cherish things in this life. Heaven will have real rivers, and real trees, for St. John tells us, again, “in the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruit…” And a very early Christian vision of heaven, which was never added to the Bible but was widely read in the early church, said that “Every vine had ten thousand branches, and each branch had upon it ten thousand bunches of grapes, and every bunch had on it ten thousand grapes. And there were other trees there, myriads of myriads of them, and their fruit was in the same proportion…” The fact that this doesn’t characterize real trees, or real grapes- no tree, unless it’s been carefully grafted, really bears twelve kinds of fruits- in our world, only means that heaven will be different, and better, then our world. It won’t be lacking any good thing that our world has; on the contrary, all good things will be present, only raised to perfection, and made even better then they are today. As we delight in the fruit of a tree today, we will be able to delight in the twelve kinds of fruit on one tree that heaven will offer us. And as the anonymous writer of the ‘Apocalypse of Paul’ suggests, as the vines of heaven had tens of thousands of times more fruit then any actually existing vine we see in the world today, so the good things of heaven will exceed those of this earth by factors of tens of thousands.

“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them”, said Isaiah, over six hundred years before Christ, foretelling with remarkable clarity the beauty and mystery of Christ’s heavenly kingdom. If we know anything about heaven, it’s that we can’t really know anything about it in detail: again, Plato had some dim and cloudy sense of this when he quoted Socrates as saying, "The only real wisdom is knowing you know nothing". But though we can’t really understand heaven, we can get some sense of what it will be like by inference from the things of this earth. Beauty comes from God, and no real and lasting beauty will be absent from heaven, on the contrary the beauties of heaven will surpass the beauties of this earth as a real tree surpasses the shadow of a tree, or as a real cherry surpasses the nasty cherry flavoured cough syrup. We are told that there will be lions in heaven, and calves; that there will be wolves and leopards, lambs and kids. But they won’t be the same, they will be better, and perfected. Think of a creature with all the beauty and grace of a leopard, with the black spots standing out of a golden fur, with the lithe form and liquid eyes, but without being dangerous to life and limb, and without thirsting to devour the kid. That’s hard to imagine: but that’s precisely the point. Heaven is impossible to understand: we can only envision it through inference and analogy. This metaphor of peaceful and meek leopards suggests that heaven will have all of the beauty and good things we see in this world, without any of the bad things that are, in our world, inextricably mixed with the good like weeds are inevitably mixed with flowers in a field. If this combination of all the good things in this world, and none of the bad, seems strange and unearthly, it’s because it is unearthly: such things could never happen on earth, for our earth is irretrievably tainted, under the domination of ‘the prince of this world’. Only when ‘a little child shall lead them’, i.e. when Christ Himself, the Lamb, shall be our King, can we finally experience the peace, joy, and love for which we were intended, and that we crave at the deepest levels of our being. “For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them”, and that Lamb shall do for us what we could never do for ourselves, and will change us into men and women who so far surpass our flawed earthly bodies and personalities as a meek and gentle leopard would surpass the leopards of this earth.

As it is with physical things like dates and grapes, so with emotional and moral goodness as well. We are able to be good, to a degree, in this life: to love God, and to love our neighbor, but not perfectly. Very far from perfectly, for all of us are tainted by original sin, and by the myriads of sins, large and small, that we choose to commit every day. The Jerusalem crowd knew Jesus for who he was, and loved him, in a way that the authorities of the day did not. But they “fell away from the love that they had at first”, just as we all do, and under the influence of fear they fell into sin, just as St. Peter himself, the first Bishop of Rome, was to do on at least three momentous occasions. In heaven, though, those of us who choose to love God and to love our neighbor will never be tempted to fall away from that love. St. Augustine, in the last book of his ‘City of God’ differentiated two kinds of freedom: “For the first freedom of will which man received when he was created upright consisted in an ability not to sin, but also in an ability to sin; whereas this last freedom of will [in heaven] shall be superior, inasmuch as it shall not be able to sin.” The kind of worship that the crowd of Jerusalem offered to Christ with the palm branches, partial and faltering as it was, was none the less real and intense: in heaven, this passage tells us, it will be mirrored at a deeper and higher level. They shall worship him with palm branches that can never dry up and turn to dust, with voices that never grow hoarse, with “love [that] never faileth” and they will enjoy and revel in the delights of a kingdom that, as the Creed tells us, “shall have no end.” The Apostle Jude tells us that God alone “is able to keep [us] from falling, and to present [us] faultless before the presence of his glory,” and that is why in heaven, when we finally “see [God] face to face”, we will no longer have to worry about falling- falling away from our love of God and of our neighbor, of humanity in general, of our family, friends, and partners in particular- ever again.

Those who hold the palm branches, in St. John’s vision, were clad in white robes: robes that had been made white by being washed ‘in the blood of the Lamb’. I heard a homily once which touched on the point that it’s difficult for us, living in the era where you can just buy some bleach at the store to whiten your clothes, to realize how difficult it was in the age before washing machines to turn clothes really white. Even now, in some parts of the world it’s difficult: living in Africa, my white clothes faded under the hot sun and got discolored by dust very quickly. How much more was that the case in the first century Mediterranean world- a hot, dusty, sunburnt place- and especially on the backwater island of Patmos, to which John the Beloved Disciple had been condemned to work in the mines. Whiteness was something very difficult to achieve, something rare and precious: and as we know even today, certain kinds of stains- from wine, from blood, from juice- can discolour white clothing permanently. St. John promises us, however, that in heaven our robes will be white with a whiteness that could never be achievable on this earth: for white clothing, just like all other earthly things, will be made perfect and reach heights of beauty and purity that we can’t even conceive of in this life. It’s paradoxical to think that washing them ‘in the blood of the Lamb’ could make them white and clean: we know that blood stains are among the most impossible to get out of clothing. There are few things that stain the way blood does. Yet Christianity is full of paradoxes, most notably how, in the Gospel reading that goes with this reading, Jesus can say that ‘the Father and I are one.’ We can believe and accept the teaching of the Trinity, and of the Incarnation, as Christians are bound to, but we can’t really understand it: it’s a mystery, and at some level all we can do is revel in the mystery, and receive it with wonder and awe.

Christ died for our sakes, that by sharing our lives and deaths he might allow us to share in his victory over death and in his triumphal reign. When we suffer, we can remember that he shared our suffering through the thirty-three years of his life, and that he spilt his blood that we might be washed in it, and become clean. This isn’t limited to certain kinds of suffering, though. This passage honours those who ‘came out of the great tribulation’, which is a phrase often used to connote religious persecution and political oppression. I don’t think that’s what it refers to here, though. St. John talks elsewhere about specifically seeing the early Christian martyrs in heaven: “I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus,” and he talks specifically about a vision of the Holy Innocents, the children who were martyred under Herod for having been born around the time of Jesus: “And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father's name written in their foreheads.” It seems likely that if he had been talking about Christian martyrs under the Roman persecutions in this passage, he would have included some reference to that fact. No: I think the tribulation he is referring to is something broader than political persecution or religious martyrdom. He refers specifically to how the Lamb shall deliver the multitude from hunger and from thirst, and how “neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.” The multitude being honoured in this passage includes all those who suffer oppression, not merely from political tyrants but from the elements and from the evils of this world: from famine, from thirst, from earthquakes like those in Chile and Haiti, from having their homes destroyed, from having their crops destroyed, from bitter cold or scorching heat. St. John speaks to all of them in this passage, just as Christ did when he said, “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

This world is often a cruel, bitter place, in which people suffer from no fault of their own, in which a heavy rain can wash away a family’s farm on the hillside and a long drought can cause a whole years worth of crops to wither and shrivel up, abandoning some of the world’s poorest people to desperate hunger. Christ, and his Beloved Disciple, call on us to help those of our brothers and sisters who suffer from hunger, from thirst, from lack of adequate shelter or housing, from disease and lack of medicine. But he also calls on those of us who are suffering to have hope, for he shared our suffering, and by his own suffering made us worthy to share in his eternal kingdom. And he is, at long last, the Lamb in whose blood we have been made white, and who shall lead us to living waters, cool and refreshing, that will refresh our souls as much as the waters of this earth refresh our bodies. As much as we weep in this world for our sufferings and pain and for the pain of others, we have the promise that “God shall wipe away all tears from [our] eyes,” and the assurance that in heaven, we will be the flock of the one true Shepherd, the one who leads his flocks to living water, who protects them from all scorching heat, from hunger, and from thirst, and who loves us with a perfect and undying love that will truly never fail.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.

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