By Father Bud Grant
For unto us a child is born,” sings the choir. The ineffable, breathless, dizzying truth of Christmas is that the Divine and the Earthly are bonded in the very flesh of the infant Messiah (Lk. 2:10-12). It is through the earth (including, finally, the Eucharist) that we experience wholeness of heart, family, community and planet.
Creation, always sacred by its very nature, is made sacramental by the Incarnation. An angelic chorus itself met the moment with a hymn: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom God’s favor rests” (Lk.2:14). That celestial choir, joined by “a great multitude that no one could count” (Rev. 7:9) including the living and the raised and “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe,” returns in the book of Revelation.
They celebrate the consummation of that union in a cosmic liturgy, replete with incense, the Word, the altar and sacred vessels, attendants and the High Priest/Lamb of Sacrifice. In addition, hymns, perhaps 21 scattered choral fragments. Often, with just a phrase, the author elegantly plants a song in the minds of the congregation. No wonder Handel’s masterpiece taps Revelation for inspiration. John provides a soundtrack, as it were, to this ultimate liturgy of giddy joyousness.
We might miss that, understandably, in a text that, after all, introduces to us the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Today’s headlines perversely evoke THAT Revelation to hype-up natural crises, probably because the biblical author does the same thing: fires in California and Greece, earthquakes in New Guinea and Indonesia, heat waves in Pakistan and floods wherever there aren’t droughts.
However, John is not, in the end, salivating at our gory destruction. Sure, it often, maybe mostly, reads with an ominous sense of doom… “because the great day of their wrath has come and who can withstand it?” (6:17). The text poses a threat or a promise, depending on one’s point of view. Hmmm, that is not quite right. It is a warning. Warnings are gestures of love and concern. It is that “STOP!” you hear in the grocery store as a child reaches for an apple from the 5-feet-tall decorative fruit pyramid.
Revelation imagines cosmically terrible events so as to steer us clear, lest we be among those who even misuse Creation itself to conceal ourselves from God (6:16). There is nothing inevitable about us triggering a third of the celestial spheres of the firmament to blink out. In fact, biblical fractions signal that these are partial crises that we should and can avoid.
In exaggerated counterpoise, angels “countless in number” and “a great multitude which no one could count from every nation…” even “every thing in the universe” sang out: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing” (5:11, 7:9-10). (It’s OK, you muttered an “amen” just there, it’s a liturgy, remember?).
A careful reading reveals this last book of the Bible to be a hymn of hope for a New Heaven and New Earth (21:1) where “God will dwell with the human race and they will be his people and God will always be with them. God will wipe every tear from their eyes and there shall be no more death or mourning or pain for the old order has passed away” (Rev. 21:3-4). If we only heed the signs of the time in time.
In the time it has taken me to write this inept prose the great Oratory of Handel has run its course (twice) to the thumping finale: “Blessing and Glory and Honor and Power be unto Him forever and ever.” (5:13). Say it with me: “Amen.”
(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)