Easter 5: 19 May Revelation 21:1-6
This passage is a tapestry of Old Testament images of hope. Notice that the hope is for both a new heaven and a new earth. In many people's theology hope has been heaven only. Earth is left behind or irrelevant. No need to care about it. The writer stands in the tradition of Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22, which has its roots in a positive attitude towards God's creation rather than a dualism which sees spirituality as abandonment of what we are and where we belong. Paul could also speak of a renewal of creation in Romans 8:18-23. If we follow the gospel logic of affirming the kingdom of God not just as a future hope, but as an agenda for the present, we might find here much more: a deep engagement in love for earth. We should not, however, read too much into this text. We surely do not need to. Values stand and fall not only on texts but on contexts - and a "hint" of positivity and renewal has the potential to connect us to the wider context of creation and its renewal which becomes the passion of those who share God's passion.
It is also possible to read the references to the old earth and heaven much more negatively. Certainly many peoples saw the sea as anything but a source of life and hope. It was the mythical source of danger, of monsters and dragons, the abyss. Revelation leaves no place for the sea where we might find spirituality impossible to imagine without its mystery. The ambiguities have lived themselves out in ambiguous attitudes of Christians towards creation. But we can take responsibility for our own responses and engage such visions with integrity. We don't have to twist them to make them say what we want to say. Respect means allowing them to be what they were in their time and making decisions about what we do in ours in the light of the wider traditions which waters our faith. "No sea? No surf? What kind of future is that?" It's not very cool!
The land as our mother, a common reflection of people close to the land, becomes for peoples settled in urban contexts: the city is our mother. It is a big shift, but inspires poetic images of Jerusalem as a weeping mother or as a women carrying a people's passion and concern. Like members of a Greek chorus who dance the soul and emotions of a tragedy, "the daughters of Jerusalem" carry the pain and the joy of the nation. Israel's hope became focused for some on Jerusalem and its future. Jerusalem destroyed: lament! Jerusalem rebuilt: rejoice, your king comes to you! This is the proverbial "good news" which inspires the metaphors of Jesus. Zion's hill becomes a point of gathering not only of the dispersed people of Israel but also of the Gentiles. Isaiah 25 plays with the image of a great ecumenical feast, inspiring ultimately our eucharist. That same passage finds its echo in our passage which picks up its promise that God would wipe away all tears.
The extraordinary image of a new Jerusalem descending from heaven is probably, like the image of the new heaven and new earth, not a rejection of earthly cities or Jerusalem, but a translation of hope into new dimensions. What people yearned for in Jerusalem ultimately only God can bring. Jerusalem is like a bride being presented to her husband. The wedding imagery receives no immediate expansion, although one can understand Jesus as the bridegroom. Revelation 19 pictures the lamb as the bridegroom and the true believers as the bride. Here the focus, however, is not on Jesus, but on God. In fact God appears to be operating from varying angles: creating the city in the first place; then giving commentary on its significance (21:3) and finally being the partner in the intimacy which ensues.
In fact the intimacy is between God and the new Jerusalem, and the author may well have marital imagery in mind. Ancient Israel's hopes of God's future presence find their echo here. God will come to dwell among the people (Leviticus 26:12; Ezekiel 37:27; Zechariah 2:11). Who would hold out hope that tears be wiped away, death and pain cease? Surely people in the midst of pain or facing its prospect. Such pain generated visions of hope, some of them wild, some of them bizarre. But they are a defiance of current suffering, the obverse side of despair and hopelessness. Without touching such extremities it is hard for us to enter what these hopes mean, let alone engage their poetry. Perhaps our best response is to open ourselves to both sides where they raise their voices in our world. It is shocking and uncomfortable to listen to the imaginations of the desperate. We draw back from the terror and find the hopes quaint. Revelation is as strange as some of the extremities of religious movements in our own world which seek to defy the world order, ultimately in response to pain which is, of course, not unrelated to our vested interests. One can simply drop Revelation from the canon and turn self protectively away from some of the madness that injustice generates in people.
Revelation saw in the other city, Rome, what many today see in the west. As we engage Revelation we may find ourselves much more aligned with the woman sitting on the seven hills than with the painful striving after hope which meets us in its pages. But if we allow ourselves to drop our alliances with the powers of wealth, and engage with our hearts and minds the injustices which drive people to the craziness which generates dreams of renewal at one end and terrorism at the other, we might find a way for ourselves in their poetry and have some chance of meeting them where they are.
Revelation's hope is in the one who makes all things new. This is an assertion that runs counter to the evidence, unless we reduce it to western individualism and personal conversion. In Revelation it is an assertion about world order. It is a kind of madness which affirms God where God is not "running the show". To say, in the end God, is to stake one's life on hope and love. Perhaps none of the dreams will come true. Perhaps all the imaginings will come to nothing. The sheer diversity of Revelation's visions which only sects will try to homogenise may well reflect a sense that ultimately the most certain element about hope is God and very little else - perhaps very little else counts.
Our passage ends with a wonderfully rich image which takes us to Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman and beyond that to the invitation in Isaiah 55:1. If words and ideas fail, then let us at least open ourselves to God's life and being as we would to eating and drinking. This has informed sacramental spirituality and beyond that invites us to acknowledge our thirst and to find our way to the water. The image connects us also to the creation around us, the world of animals and birds, and drinking holes. Perhaps it gives us also a vision for what we can be together - so many people coming to a watering place? perhaps a creation where there is water and sustenance for all?
First Reading: Easter 5: 19 May Acts 11:1-18
Gospel: Easter 5: 19 May John 13:31-35
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