Today marks the last day of a very brief season – three days for contemplating that which is unseen – both the dark and the light. The season began with Hallowe’en, the eve of All Saints Day, which technically was yesterday, and ends today with All Souls Day. It’s a season for facing down fear and remembering the glory that is witnessed to by the saints and promised to all. It’s a season for reading the Book of Revelation.
The Book of Revelation is a strange book – there’s no denying it. It comes from a literary tradition that is foreign to us; a social world that is foreign to us; a mystical tradition that is, largely, foreign to us.
In spite of its strangeness – or perhaps because of it – it is a powerful book. The images grip the imagination and speak to our own experiences of powerlessness in the face of evil – be it the evil of famine or disease or corrupt power. Its surreal and rather lurid style seems to be able to slip right past our rational processes in order to engage us on an emotional level, to speak directly to our fears about this world and our hopes for the future. For this, fundamentally, is what the book is about – what all apocolyptic writing is about.
Take, for example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for those who don’t know, is a tv series largely from the 90s about a teenage girl (Buffy) who turns out to have special powers and a special calling to fight vampires and other such forms of supernatural evil. She lives in a lovely California town called Sunnydale – where the high school just happens to be built on the Hell Mouth – the portal between that world and this. It sounds ridiculous, I know – but it is, I maintain, one of the finest tv shows of all time and is actually an impressive piece of apocalyptic literature.
An apocalypse is an uncovering – a revealing. Apocalyptic visions or writings tear away the veil that prevents us from seeing the truth of the world around us – the political and social conventions, the religious platitudes, that allow us to pretend that all is just as it seems – safe and predictable and ordered and just. Such writings often arise from within oppressed communities, especially during times of upheaval – religious and ethnic minorities in dangerous or precarious political contexts…or, you know, teenagers in modern society.
In Buffy, writer/creator Joss Whedon tears back the curtain on high school life in specific and comfortable middle-class America in general, to reveal a world where boyfriends turn into blood-sucking monsters, the mayor is in league with demons, neglect can actually make you invisible, and adults can mostly be counted on only to not notice what is right in front of them. And, roughly once a season, all of this gets dangerously close to the surface of things and Buffy and her band of misfit friends are called upon to save the world…again.
This is the fear and the hope expressed by Buffy – the world is in danger from forces of violence and hypocrisy and selfishness but the end can always be adverted by the dedication, skill, and sacrifice of people like us (or mostly like us, anyways). But, after the world is saved, nothing is any different and it will need to be saved again. As Buffy’s boyfriend observes, after being around for a little while: “I find myself needing to know the plural of apocalypse” (It’s apocalypses)
The fear is similar to that of the prophet Ezekial writing in the context of the Babylonian exile or of Daniel writing at the time of the sacking of the Temple in Jerusalem and the Maccabean resistance – or of John writing his book of Revelation in the context of the Roman empire.
The fear is familiar to us – it is expressed all around us – fears about Islamic fanaticism infecting young Canadians; fears about powerful, charming men who abuse their power and their charm; fears about plagues that neither science nor politics can control; fears about leaders who are too inept or too selfish or too corrupt to be trustworthy.
The fear -that our world is under attack by forces within ourselves, within our communities, beyond our borders, and beyond our knowledge – the fear is shared.
But what of the hope?
The Biblical writers offer a different hope from the one offered by the Buffiverse – a hope that does not simply depend on the vigilance and the work of humans to hold back the evil that lurks behind everything. The Biblical apocalyptic visions contain not only a description of terrible darkness but also a description of the great promise underlying reality –that darkness is not the natural, necessary order of the world and that we are not alone.
And it is this assertion that we celebrate today, reading a passage of the book of Revelation which offers hope rather than a passage that focuses on the horror.
“I looked and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…saying Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb”
There is a spaciousness in this vision, a joyfulness in the inclusion of all people in God’s salvation, God’s wholeness, that belies any attempt to then limit that salvation to a deserving few. God knows we have tried – are still trying – to earn our way in and dismiss others as unsuitable but that is not how it works. Salvation is not ours to earn or to award. It is God’s.
And salvation is not just for souls. Salvation is being sheltered from the sun; freed from hunger and thirst; relieved of sorrow and pain. Salvation is people – bodies and souls.
And salvation does not just happen after we die. Remember, John’s vision is about the world – naming that evil that pollutes it and the salvation that awaits it; this is not a vision about individuals.
John’s vision of the multitude gathered in praise is a celebration of the fulfillment of God’s purpose for the world – a vision of the world as it should be and as it will be.
For Buffy, salvation is our responsibility and it can only ever be temporary, a holding back of reality waiting to break through a veneer of order and peace. For us, salvation is a promise and a gift and must, finally, be final – the healing of a broken and incomplete reality.
Which does not free us from all responsibility and does not erase the source of our fear – there is evil in the world and it must be confronted.
But our hope can free us from the fear itself – fear that we are not up to the task of confronting the darkness; fear that it won’t do any good anyways; fear of despair and loneliness.
For we are not expected to transform the world; we are expected to live in the world bearing witness to that which is unseen; joining the saints and martyrs, prophets and apostles, the multitude from every tribe and nation, in unmasking the dark and proclaiming the light.