At Harvard there are resonances with Oxford, not least a fast-flowing river and oarsmen rowing. Connecting the boathouses with Harvard and crossing the Charles River is a bridge with, on either side, gate piers, as in some 18th century Oxfordshire Palladian parkland, and on those gate piers are inscribed words from tonight’s second lesson: “On either side of the river stood a Tree of Life, which yields twelve crops of fruit, one for each month of the year; the leaves of the trees serve for the healing of the nations”.
I’m not quite sure why that moved me so much when I first crossed that bridge to the Memorial Church at Harvard. Perhaps it was something to do with the countless names emblazoned on the wall of the chapel of those who’d come to Europe and then beyond Europe to the Pacific to die in the Great Wars of the 20th century, those young oarsmen transposed into names on that war memorial. So it is with this Revelation to John and its poetry. We’re not quite sure where it carries us, but we believe the Revelation, this apocalyptic from the hand of John the Seer, was intended to be read aloud, for its kaleidoscopic visions have an effect upon us more like music that logical argument. Like a symphony this book needs to be heard as a whole, the overall structure carrying demand for discernment and message of redemption. Everything illuminates a crisis of which the seven churches of Asia Minor in the Roman Empire were unaware.
Written on Patmos, off the west coast of modern-day Turkey, the Seer speaks to his time, the time of the formation, persecution, and perhaps worse than persecution, a time of compromise, of settling in to civil society of the early Church. Nero’s persecution, AD 60-70, perhaps, but more likely Irenaeus was right, that leading Greek theologian of the 2nd century, in dating the Revelation toward the end of Domitian’s reign, AD 81-96, with its time of peace with some local persecution; the moves and pressures more subtle than persecution, to make Christians conform to local culture, as in chapter 2, to eat food sacrificed to idols and practise fornication, a common metaphor for religious infidelity.
This book is both an unveiling, for that’s what apocalyptic is, and also prophecy in the form of a letter, illuminating a crisis in a series of three disasters: war, death and famine, with the pictures of God as Creator and Redeemer, and of the renewal of heaven and earth, and that rainbow around the throne, signifying that God has not forgotten his promise to Noah in the 9th chapter of Genesis. All this memory from Ezekiel and memory from Daniel, re-worked by the Seer, the Seer’s imaginative ability, the Lion of Judah transposed into a Sacrificial Lamb, a profound change, a change which makes this seemingly violent and vindictive book profoundly Christian, a fitting climax to the biblical story.
“I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb” – a temple which has become a lamb. The metaphors and images shimmer and recede, advance and brighten, darken and are transposed, like some Baroque opera. The scene changes, with gods descending and hell opening up beneath, to puzzle, inspire and appal by turns. What is it that’s at work here, that makes an American carve words from this apocalyptic on gate piers, either side of a bridge over the Charles River at Harvard, with its resonances of Oxford, its memories transposed, a gateway to a memorial of appalling cost and sacrifice on the walls of the Harvard Memorial Church?
More than forty years’ ago, when the preacher was himself at university, there was a question in the New Testament paper for theologians: ‘Should the Revelation to John form part of the New Testament?’ The suppositions around it were that to read it literally left one with a sub-Christian vindictive cruelty, a miasma rather than a vision, more fog than sunrise. For this priest, remembering next year forty years of ministry, listening to the human experience of others has brought the preacher to see that John the Seer speaks truths which only his music can embody with any justice. But, the warning of this book is that those who are literal-minded will die through lack of imagination. Perhaps here, with what leads one to another, the river of the water of life, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, both in Oxford and in Harvard; perhaps what is borne towards us, sometimes overwhelming and sometimes almost engulfing, in our human experience. As we get older, more battered and buffeted by the pains of others and of ourselves, we come to value more deeply the strange kaleidoscopic, shifting lights, T S Eliot’s ‘fancy lights’ of the Revelation to the Seer, John.
The late Kathleen Raine, poet and visionary, founded an academy called Temenos, for the transmitting of the perennial philosophy. In Surrey, near the Cathedral where I work at Guildford, a founder member of Temenos lived in a little studio in a field called Pasturewood. Dr Thetis Blacker made for Winchester Cathedral a great set of banners, which at the Christian festivals unfurl in the nave, illuminating themes of Creation and Recreation, dazzling the beholder with apocalyptic vision. The literal-minded either writes the book of Revelation off as incomprehensible, 1st century muddle or, and this has recurred throughout Christian history, a key to the political and religious events of the time of the reader. Rome equals Babylon, or the Reformation period’s Roman Catholicism, or the Ottoman Empire, and there are plenty of such religious people about today in the 21st century who give this extraordinary book a bad name. But as Surrey’s Pasturewood was transformed into a foothill of the Himalayas, so Thetis Blacker rediscovered and displayed the great archetypes of Revelation.
Perhaps we too are invited here to be carried along by this river of the water of life, sparkling like crystal, for it does indeed flow from the throne of God and of the Lamb. Perhaps the suffering of Tibet and the injustice of Zimbabwe, and the chaos of Iraq and the horrors of Afghanistan require a broad and deep canvas behind them, against which some of the great themes of religious life can, if not understood, at least be approached: God, Creator and Redeemer, the renewal of heaven and earth, the rainbow round the throne, the not-forgotten promise to Noah, the Lion of Judah transposed into a Sacrificial Lamb.
Those young university oarsmen at Harvard were transported, not only across the Charles River but across the world, and their names now adorn, and adorn is the right word, the war memorials of the University Church – ‘But their name liveth for evermore’. For the titanic struggle between good and evil to which the Revelation to John bears witness is not over and the struggle happens not only in the battle field, but in the study, in the costly engagement of one human person with another where there is sickness, suffering and desperate need. The water of the river of life is offered to us at a cost, for we, the thirsty, receive this water from the one who himself cried out on the Cross, “I thirst”, and who in himself renounced the power of the Lion of Judah for the weakness of the nailed Saviour, and by his death showed us, who dare to approach these mysteries, what it costs God to be God.
“‘Come’, say the Spirit and the Bride. ‘Come’, let each hearer reply. Come forward you who are thirsty, accept the water of life, the free gift to all who desire it’ ….. Amen, Come, Lord Jesus!”
Very Rev’d Victor Stock, Dean of Guildford Cathedral
27th April 2008