Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.Revelation 1:3
In this Maronite liturgical season of the Holy Cross, we read from the Book of the Apocalypse, that is Revelation. I love that this mystifying book begins with a blessing to those who read it aloud and to those who hear it–as we do in the Liturgy, and those who keep what it is written in it–as we are instructed to do with all liturgy. It doesn’t necessarily pronounce the same blessing for those who completely understand this book, which is wonderful because I don’t understand it.
It’s mysterious. It cycles between liturgy and destruction, liturgy and catastrophe, liturgy and the angelic messengers saying “hold my beer.” At least that is how it feels. In its essence, however, the book is hopeful, beautiful, and is an unveiling of who Christ truly is. Apocalypse actually means “unveiling” or “disclosure.” Which is new for me because I grew up with an eschatology of fear. If I told you how many times as a child I thought I had missed the rapture because the house was too quiet at night or I came home from school and couldn’t immediately see my mother. I thought I must have been left behind. The elaborate plans my child brain made for how I would survive when (not if) I was left behind would make you laugh (or cry, depending how what side of therapy you are on). Somehow I found it completely plausible that all my family would get taken and I would be the one left alone. For a little soul that was already inclined toward scrupulosity, this rapture theology put me right over the edge.
But what if Revelation is actually an unveiling of a relentlessly tender Jesus who longs for and loves his people? What if it is actually not about the end of the world, but about how Christ shows us the Face of the Hidden Father? What if our response to the book does not cause us to make radical plans for surviving a world where all God’s faithful got sucked up into heaven and because we had a bad thought before bed last night we got left behind to fend for our nine year old selves without the help of the grace of God? Asking for a friend.
What if it is actually a liturgical book that tells us how to live life in the here and now? What if it helps us to make our whole lives a liturgy? (Liturgy actually just means “public work.”) What if Revelation grounds us in hope and establishes Christ’s victory–past, present, and without a doubt in the future? And if that is true, where did all this terrifying theology come from?
“If our hearts are not anchored to the goodness of God when tragedy strikes, we lower our theology to match our pain.”Christa Black Gifford
I think, now hear me out, we may place too much emphasis on understanding. Yes, I know it is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. But I don’t think it means merely intellectual assent or being able to dissect something or to distill it to its most basic parts. I mean, someone might say they understand me because they also speak English. Or they may understand me because they know I am a single parent of a tribe of kids. Or they may understand what I mean when I say I am a Myers Briggs ENFP, Enneagram 4, a Melancholic Sanguine, or any other way you want to break down my personality. But the ones who really understand me know when to sit next to me and be silent, when to listen, when to just let me cry, when to make me a playlist of angsty music, when to poke fun at my idiosyncrasies, when to help me despite me saying I am fine. It is a knowing that goes beyond explaining.
Christianity is full of knowing that goes beyond explaining.
It’s why we can chant in Latin (or in my case Syriac) and receive the spirit of the liturgy, even if we cannot explain all the words. It is why our wordless prayers rise with the incense before the tabernacle. It is why the priest can receive peace from the altar, pass it to the servers, who pass it to us, and it heals us. It is why we wear sacramentals and look at icons and light candles and do a thousand things that cannot be expressed properly with words, because they are “too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.” (Psalms 139:6) Which is an odd thing to say for a person who spends hours pouring out words in a blog.
At the end of the day we need mystery. Our souls actually rely on it and when things are too easy to understand we fall apart a little. I have believed this for a while, but it was perfectly illustrated in a conversation I had a while ago with two Catholic professors over lunch. We started talking about my conversion and how I was raised a charismatic protestant. One professor asked about me leaving my charismatic roots. I explained that I haven’t left them because at its core Catholicism is charismatic–meaning that the Church never stopped believing in the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in the world, as opposed to the cessationists of the post Reformation. The Church has mystics and miracles and such things are so central to the faith you can’t escape it. Even the Eucharist is a miracle. So I said that it was a rather easy transition in some ways because charismatic expressions are part of my faith. He said, “Not mine.”
At this point the other professor spoke up. She said she had written a paper in her undergrad work years ago on the Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church. And found it so psychologically fascinating that in the wake of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II and the insistence on everything being in the vernacular so that everyone could easily understand, suddenly people starting gathering to speak in tongues. She said, “Maybe it is misguided to think everything needs to be explained and understood as easily as we tried to make it.”
The first professor expressed that he didn’t want to go back to Latin Mass when he couldn’t understand everything. The second professor said maybe we have oversold the idea that we have to understand it all in order to receive it.
And here we are back at the beginning–blessed are they that read aloud the words of unveiling and blessed are they that hear the words of unveiling and those who keep what it is written in the unveiling.
The late Rich Mullins wrote, “The Bible is a very great book. It is the written witness to God’s revelation of Himself in His Word: Jesus Christ. And, if you like, you can make a great deal of it.
You can speculate about it: This will make you a philosopher and people will think you are deep and very smart.
You can pontificate in view of it: This will make you a preacher and people will marvel at your courage and gift for oratory.
You can adulate it: This will make you its No. 1 fan. You can display your very fine collection of its various versions all over your house.
You can attack it: This will make you a skeptic and people will admire your honest, blind determination to live in your grim, faithless little world.
You can adapt it: This will make you a youth pastor or a Christian musician or a feminist theologian or a popular author. You, too, can be the icing on a cake.
You can systemize it: This will make you a theologian and people will quote you and regard those quotes as some sort of authority.
You can criticize it: This will make you a scholar–and those who are not put off by your eggheadedness will confer on you M.A.s and D.D.s.
You can theorize about it: This will make you an expert in biblical slants on contemporary issues like political science, psychology, church grown economics, sex and marriage.
You can ponder it: This will make you a mystic and people will turn to you for spiritual advice (and from you when they get it).
You can practice it: This will make you a model citizen–a fair, generous, and righteous (if somewhat uptight) person.
Of course, what we make of the Bible will never be as great a thing as what the Bible will–if we let it–make of us. For that which is born of the flesh–our human understanding and handlings–is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit–God’s revelation of Himself and the power of that revelation to enliven us–is spirit. The will of man will not ultimately prevail against the will of God. It is the will of God that we should know Him as He has revealed Himself and that will has not only survived the arrogant attacks of the scientific and “enlightened” men, it has (even more miraculously) thrived in spite of our best intended, though sadly misguided, attempts at “rightly dividing” that seamless rode of revelation.
So, let us press on with no faith in our own understanding and nothing but faith in the Truth that is too great to be diminished by our feeble minds and too great to not transform us. Salvation comes from God, not from our cleverness. The Bible is a very great book. Let us submit to it so God may do the great work of making us into a great people.”