Monday, January 19, 2009

Second Sunday of Epiphany - Ian Boxall

Most visitors to the holy island of Patmos today make their way to two unmissable sights: the Cave of the Apocalypse, and the Monastery of St John. But, for those of us in the know, Patmos has another closely-guarded secret. To find it, you need to head down a little side-street near the port, until you find a tiny electrical shop opposite the moped rental office. This is Patmos’ hidden secret. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can buy a CD entitled To dákry tou Yánni, by the chart-topping Greek musician Stamátis Spanouthákis. To dákry tou Yánni translates into English as ‘The Tears of John.’ It’s an album which may not feature much in the charts this side of the Aegean. But it is a beautifully evocative musical interpretation of the Book of Revelation, which is as good an entry into the Apocalypse as sitting in John’s Cave on Patmos.

The title of the album, ‘The Tears of John’, of course, comes from today’s New Testament reading from Revelation. John is on Patmos, where he is caught up ‘in the Spirit’ on the Lord’s Day. Or as Fr Couratin famously put it to a former student of this House, ‘St John fell asleep at Mass, dear boy.’ John is caught up into the heavenly throne-room, where he sees the One seated on the throne, holding a sealed scroll in his right hand. The scroll contains God’s secret plan for the future, his plan to frustrate evil and injustice and bring about a new heaven and a new earth. All that needs to be done is for someone to open the scroll, so that the plan can be put into effect. At this point, an angel comes onto centre stage. Not just any old angel, but a mighty angel, a powerful angel, looking for a candidate worthy enough to open the scroll. But no suitable candidate can be found, no-one in heaven or on earth or under the earth. And John bursts into uncontrollable tears.

I want to explore two questions raised by this reading, whose answers might not be as obvious as they first appear: Why does John weep? And are John’s tears the right kind of tears?

On one level, the reason for John’s tears seems obvious: he is weeping because no-one worthy can be found, so that the scroll must remain resolutely sealed. It is perhaps not surprising that no-one under the earth is found worthy to open the scroll: the underworld isn’t very promising material for the salvation of the world. It’s where evil lurks; from where the beasts emerge, and an army of rather terrifying locusts, and it is where the dead are consigned. That no-one on earth is worthy is perhaps not too surprising either, given human sinfulness and weakness. But what is most extraordinary is the claim that no-one in heaven was found worthy. Surely one of the thousands upon thousands of angels could do it. Or if not a mere angel, then this ‘mighty angel’; or one of the seven archangels; or one of the cherubim or seraphim; or one of those super-angels like Metatron, who are so closely identified with God’s throne that they are said to bear God’s name. But no; not even one of these will do, so unsurprisingly, having had hopes raised that the scroll was about to be opened, only to have them bitterly dashed, John weeps.

But this bitter disappointment may not be the only reason for John’s tears. Because the twenty-four elders around the throne are holding golden bowls full of incense, which John tells us are the ‘prayers of the saints’, being presented and heard right at the heart of heaven. Later on, we will hear one of those prayers, the prayer of the martyrs, crying to heaven with the prayer ‘How long, O Lord…?’ So John may be weeping because God’s people weep. His tears may be representative of the tears of the faithful throughout history. And these tears are the tears of real human tragedies, apparently overwhelmed by the reality of persecution and injustice and struggling to maintain faith when it has been stretched to its limits.

Which brings me to the second question: how can we be sure that John’s tears are the right kind of tears? To answer this question, we need to realise that there are two kinds of tears described in the Book of Revelation. There are John’s tears. And then there are the tears shed over Babylon by the kings of the earth, the merchants and the seafarers. These are people whom have found meaning in Babylon (and by Babylon John is probably thinking of the empire of Rome); they have invested all their energy and resources into Babylon, and now stand weeping as they watch the whole political and economic system collapsing before them. So these tears over Babylon aren’t straightforwardly bad tears: there are real human tragedies reflected here too, tears over dashed hopes, destroyed lives, and betrayed promises.

The difference between John’s tears and the tears of Babylon’s admirers seems rather to be that they represent two opposing visions of where ultimate value is to be found. The tears of the kings and the merchants are the tears of those who have invested everything in the shallow and transitory promises of Babylon, whose prosperity has been built on bloodshed and slavery and exploitation. The alternative vision, which John sees in heaven, is the vision of the Lamb. This is also a vision built on bloodshed, but of a very different kind, that of self-sacrificial offering. And the paradox is that it is precisely through this sacrifice that the Lamb proves himself worthy to do what not even an angel could do: to open the scroll, and in doing so to enable God’s promises to be fulfilled. And among them, one particular promise stands out: the promise that ‘God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’ (Rev. 7:17).