This image has been in my head lately. It isn’t hard to see why.
And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth , and pained to be delivered. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days. And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death. Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time. And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child. And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent. And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood. And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth. And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ. (Apocalypse xii)I do not believe that the Apocalypse, this Revelation to St John the Divine is a book foretelling the future, but more a book that explains the present more than anything else. It puts forward almost the completeness of cause and effect. I know people who use the Apocalypse to give dire warnings about the future and who seek to marry up present events with the events of the Book so as to create a picture of the future. In some sense, they are right, but I think they might go into too much literal detail with some of the allegory. If it does see reality, then it sees it from an Eternal perspective in which Time itself goes a bit funny. Try to imagine your bedroom in every detail from no particular vantage point. That perhaps give us some idea of how St John was going through in what he sees.
Much of what he sees is symbolic. The number of the beast is either 616 or 666 (or even, I believe 606) – all of which link to the Emperor Nero. While that beast has been and gone and even potentially returned in subsequent despots, we can see that it is a figure that recurs through history. The themes keep coming back round and round again. The whole Bible describes this rather vicious circle for mankind: religious complacency –backsliding – apostasy – fall – languishing – lamentation – God’s redemption – resurrection – “Golden age” – religious complacency. It is a cycle that traces itself in our own lives as individuals, and it is a cycle that traces itself out at increasingly larger social groups, even to the World itself. It is as if the Parable of the Prodigal Son were put on loop.
So why have I quoted an entire chapter of the Apocalypse? Let’s just look at it.
A woman clothed with the sun? With her feet on the moon? With a crown of twelve stars?
There are lots of interpretations. The first is quite an obvious one. The Woman is Our Lady clothed in the light of God which shines through her through her purity. Her feet are upon the moon because she is a being that has her home in Heaven. The twelve stars are the twelve apostles who proclaim the child that she is about to bear – Christ Our Lord. This is the traditional image of the Theotokos.
Yet, we could say something else. Twelve stars are the twelve tribes of Israel and thus the woman represents Israel itself, an everlasting Israel given that it rides upon the two celestial bodies which describe the times and seasons. The child born comes from Israel. Thus we have an image of the Messiah, and the continued persecution of the Israelites.
Or the woman is the Church, et c, et c.
We should not fall into the trap of saying either/or here, but rather both/and. The symbols play out that way in order to draw us into deeper and deeper mysteries of God and His relationship with the Church.
What we have here is an Eternal image, an Ikon that stands in Holy Scripture for us to gaze into and see God at work.
Is God at work? He seems awfully quiet lately. Indeed with Church attendance falling, and secular values rising, we are tempted not to see God at work. But then we are forgetting that we see God in ikons. As a species, we have largely become blind.
I hate my short-sight and I am praying to God for healing from it, but most of all I am praying that my vision may be repaired. My physical sight may be restored, like Bartimaeus, or it may not, but my prayer is for an opening of my eyes to behold God at work. I believe that He is, but I don’t believe that He is self-evident.
What we are also failing to see is that there is joy in living! We are so serious at the moment, and rightly so. Our hearts are darkened with mourning for those being destroyed by hatred, either outwardly, or inwardly. We have darkened eyes, and thus our joy is dimmed. This year we have lost great comedians and comediennes, and this is symbolic of our loss of joy.
All of the things we take pleasure in are becoming corrupted because we abuse them, and we can have them “on-tap”. We enjoy our food, and, because in the West we are able almost to reach out our hands and have them filled, we eat and eat and forget about the real business of living. Likewise with sex, in throwing off God’s fatherly command not to fornicate, we find ourselves with sex on tap. Beautiful people making themselves less beautiful by prostituting their bodies, even their images by giving them to all and sundry, blinding themselves and those who view them to the exquisite intrinsic beauty of every human being by setting them impossible standards. Sex becomes a means to possess another, rather than a chance to give oneself deeply, intimately to another in the hope of further joy in a new life created by God and to be nurtured in the womb of a loving mother. We have truly forgotten to be joyful.
I read chapter 12 of the Apocalypse with a joy that trembles at the power of God. That joy is called awe and it is a joy that we are forgetting. I used to be in awe of bishops, and trembled as they pronounced God’s blessing, yet there are so many bishops who do not preach the majesty of God’s love, and so many people pretending to be bishops just so that they can wear a mitre and try and instil that sense of awe in others that it is so difficult to see God’s presence. These people seek an intrinsic awe – an awe for being them – rather an awe of being an ikon of the presence of Christ.
This awe needs to return for me, and I must seek to kindle it as I seek to have my eyesight improved by the Holy Ghost. A bishop must humble himself and work to become as pure as Our Lady so that the Light of the Sun of Righteousness will burst forth through him, like the glass of a lightbulb. This is why a bishop, and indeed all priests and deacons need our prayers so much. It is so difficult to be an ikon of Our Lord’s Eternal Priesthood as expounded in the Letter to the Hebrews because of our fallenness.
I also see bishops who are sad because they are frustrated by the overwhelming task ahead of them. This gives me joy because they see their own inadequacy and I know that they are praying hard and going through dark times. Of course, I pray with them and for them as I do for as many people as my feeble, stupid little frame can. Yet, these bishops need to find their joy again and they will when they see the light that pours from their hands into the hearts of all whom they bless and upon whom they bestow those peculiar and yet magnificent little things called sacraments.
Just because there is great pain does not mean that there can’t be great joy at the same time. Giving birth is really, truly painful. As a man, I can’t imagine it save for some unpleasant images which make me feel ill just by concentrating on them. There is a joy to come, though for too few people. Just one person who loses a baby is too many. Where is the joy in that? Either it doesn’t exist or it is hidden for a time. The same is true of all tragedy and the question seems utterly unanswerable, even it is even a gross insult to the mourners if we try. How can there be joy in tragedy?
There can be. It’s called Hope.
Even in the darkest moment of our lives – and our lives get pretty dark – there is always Hope in God. The loss of a baby is devastating, but we can cling to the hope that God has remembered even that child and brought her to being and, yet further, transformed her into a being of His Eternal Light. That child will not be forgotten, ever. Principally, she will never be forgotten by someOne who not only cares, but can and will do something about it. This isn’t much when it seems that all the light in the world has gone out, but it is something. Life can go on, even if we don’t want it to amid all the pain and destruction around us. The pain will give place to joy in time. We have to give it that time, not by forgetting what has gone, but by giving it to God for Him to work His wonders.
Christians are called to enjoy life and to bring God’s true joy to life for everyone. While there is even the slightest glimmer of joy in this cosmos, the terrorist, the hatemonger, the desecrator, and the Devil himself cannot win. Indeed, we can have hope that, in the end of things, these have lost entirely and are flung far away from the children of God.
“There may be trouble ahead, but while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance, let’s face the music and dance.” What a wonderfully Christian idea!