By Roger Ferlo
Trick or treat?
Have you ever tried to read the book of Revelation, the whole thing, front to back? Go into a darkened room, light a few candles to read by and to set the atmosphere, give yourself an hour or two, and then read the whole thing aloud. It’s an unsettling experience, perfect for a Halloween night, particularly if you want to scare yourself. The images and obsessions of the book of Revelation have perhaps wreaked more havoc in people’s lives—created more strife, fomented more demonic fantasies, misled more people—than any other book in the Bible. To a hostile reader (and in the history of this book there have been many such readers) the book is absolute craziness—disjointed, inconsistent, violent, madly repetitive. That, you might say, is the trick part. But even its severest critics recognize the power of its cadences, the seductiveness of its symbols, the mad glories of its theophanies, the elemental resonance of its presiding myths. The dragon with the seven heads, the women clothed with the sun, the Lamb upon the throne, what the Dante scholar Peter Hawkins has called “the cubed jewel box” of the heavenly city—these are symbols that have shaped the religious imagination of the west for two thousand years. That’s the treat.
Like all texts with a claim to divine revelation, this one can be dangerous stuff—a seedbed of violence and ideological close-mindedness. To the credulous insider, these are no mere symbols. This book is a map of the future. It is propaganda for the elect. No detail is too trivial, no symbol too opaque for the believer who is determined to read his or her own agenda into this compendium of apocalyptic fantasies from an age long past. The book of Revelation has been used to justify all manner of things. Revolution and counter-revolution. Anti-Catholic polemic. Christian Zionism. Pietistic quietism. Sectarian violence. The book can be a happy hunting ground for bigots and fanatics, and the distortions of its purpose and its meaning are as rampant today as they were two millennia ago. One need only look at the marketing figures for the Left Behind series to be convinced of this book’s enduring and questionable power.
And yet it is the book of Revelation that supplies the readings for the feast of All Saints, the day for which Halloween was supposed to prepare us. Why invoke Revelation on a feast day like All Saints?
The association is not accidental. Passages from Revelation associated with the rites of All Saints Day (and also with the rite of Christian burial) no longer read like the mad fantasies of an obsessive paranoic or a divinely dictated plan for the future. Revelation is at its heart a book of consolation, a vision of comfort for a people persecuted and in distress. It is often hard for Americans to imagine what persecution might feel like—a life lived in fear and trembling, always on the run, always faithful, never sure. It’s the kind of life that the emperor Diocletian inflicted on the early Christians who wrote and preserved this book. They were the first saints of the church, brothers and sisters in the faith, risking all that they had for the sake of a name—the name of Christ that they knew was above all other names, including the name of the emperor himself. For Diocletian, what was at stake was a matter of state control, including control of the religious imagination. For Christians, what was at stake was control of their inmost identity. In putting on Christ in baptism they had been made citizens of a heavenly city, a city not made by human hands, and could do no other than act in the name of the Christ for whom they themselves were named, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
How these people suffered, how they recanted, how they died, how they escaped such persecution—of these matters very little is known to us. But in a book like this, we do know how they imagined their freedom, should it ever come. And even after two millennia, in this startling vision of God’s triumph contemporary Christians can catch a glimpse of their own fears and their own hopes. What these people saw was extraordinary. They were Jews become Christians in a Roman world, members of a heretical wing of a minority faith barely tolerated by a brutal empire. Yet what they saw and preached was a vision of universal brotherhood, a new heaven and a new earth, a holy city coming down from heaven, prepared (in that powerful apocalyptic marrying of things heavenly and earthly) as a bride adorned for her husband. “And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See I am making all things new.” No wonder they wrote all these things down, for in a world of shifting values and imperial terror, they knew that these words of consolation and promise were “trustworthy and true.”
In these parlous times, when innocents are tortured and immigrants demonized, you begin to hear these words in the way they were intended. They constitute the ancient cry of the persecuted and the dispossessed. Knowing what we know about torture and rendition, it’s hard to get these cadences out of your mind. To hear this reading on All Saints Day is to hear a summons to solidarity with all those suffer persecution and unjust imprisonment—whether in the farthest reaches of the first-century Roman empire or in the drug-ridden streets of an Brazilian slum or in the faceless corridors of a secret American prison. When a part of the body suffers—whether Christian or Muslim, Buddhist or Jew—all suffer. Whether we acknowledge it or not, their tribulation is ours. Who knows when it will come back to haunt us?
“Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” No tricks here.
[Adapted from an essay on Revelation 21:1-6, scheduled to appear in the new 12-volume John Knox/Westminster press commentary on the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary.]
The Rev. Roger Ferlo is Director of the Center for Lifetime Theological Education at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where he also directs the Evening School of Theology. His books include Opening the Bible (Cowley 1997), Sensing God (Cowley 2001) and Heaven (Seabury 2007).