By Derek Olsen
It’s the Easter season and we bask in the newly recaptured glow of the resurrection. Our services reflect the glow with mystical musings from the Gospel of John, dramatic stories of the earliest church from the Acts of the Apostles and—the Book of Revelation.
Wait a minute, how’d that get in there?!
Quite naturally, actually… Remember that we didn’t always have books with the really thin paper in today’s Bibles. Furthermore, getting a big stack of paper in the ancient world wasn’t quite as easy as it is today. Costs were literally calculated in the cows or sheep whose skins provided the pages. One complete Bible would require an entire flock! To keep the page counts and costs down, the biblical books were split up over a number of volumes: the four gospels were bound together, as were the epistles of Paul, and—according to some of the most common reckonings—Acts and Revelation were bound in a volume. In the monastic Night Office lectionary dating back to the eight century, Acts and Revelation were read together during the Easter season. The great lectionary revisions following Vatican II that resulted in the Revised Common Lectionary honored this ancient tradition by selecting the first reading during Easter from Acts and the second from Revelation.
And that couldn’t make me happier; Revelation is one of my favorite books. Yes, it can be strange and difficult; yes, it has provided fodder for some of the worst impulses of religion and yet—I find its poetry and cadences compelling. One image from the book that I find myself returning to again and again this Easter shines from its closing pages: Revelation 21:9–22:5, the vision of the New Jerusalem.
I love the detail and the dazzling description, the whirl of odd images joined together. I love that—but what draws me back is the glitter of light through stone. It’s the image of the city, the New Jerusalem, built of gemstones one to another, cleaving in a clash of light, colored and reflected as it plays through crystal. Truly, St. John has given us an image of rare beauty—but to what end?
Scholars of Classical Greek tend to turn up their noses at the prose of the New Testament—it’s a low-brow dialect, removed from the diction and rhythm of Golden Age Athens—but when they come to the Greek of Revelation, they throw up their hands in horror. The Greek of John’s Gospel, simple as the vocabulary might be, at least conforms to the basic rules of grammar and can contribute an interesting turn of phrase—but this? This is down right barbaric… It reads like a rude translation by someone for whom Greek was a second language. It reads like a work written by someone not steeped in the proper exempla of fine Greek prose. Or, perhaps, it reads like a work written by someone steeped in a rude translation…and so it is. For the language of Revelation, the terms, the turns of phrase, the images are not new—just newly recombinated. The language echoes, nay, inhabits the tongue of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, produced in the last few centuries before Christ, the translation that was the first Bible of the early church. This is not Classical Greek, nor is it trying to be; rather it is Bible Language, a dialect we recognize deep in our bones when a preacher suddenly lapses from words of cell phones and cell structures to thees, thous, forthwiths, and forsooths. The language of the book is our chief lead. Its meaning is indistinguishable, inextricable from, incomprehensible without the Old Testament.
The chief artform of jewel and light is the mosaic, where thousands of tiny bits of glass and gold and jewel called tesserae combine to form glittering vistas, haunting visages of emperors, kings, clergy, or Christ. This bejeweled city is nothing less than a myriad of scintillating fragments of Old Testament prophecy and praise forming a portrait writ in three dimensions of one indistinguishable, inextricable from and incomprehensible without the breath of the Spirit speaking through the prophets. The tesserae glisten and play: the liturgical garment of the Aaronic high priest, the city of hope for an exile people, the vision of a temple rising from desolation, the garden of God, the peerless bride of the great king, even the slain beloved of the Lord. And together they form an image where these fragments are bound and transformed, set one with another until their individual hues blend and blind and form a new image wrought of the old. It is truly a paradise, truly a city, truly a temple, truly a people. Composed of a myriad jewels, the city rests upon its twelve great foundations: jasper and emerald, diamond and chysolite, topaz and amethyst and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
Lean close and I will tell you a mystery. This is the mystery of the gleaming city, the New Jerusalem. The twelve great foundation stones, they do not represent the apostles. They do not stand for the apostles. Rather, they are the apostles. And the soaring pinnacles of rubies, the windows of agates, the pavers of gold, who are these, you ask, who are these—but you and me? Lain with fair colors, living stones, builded one with another, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. The company of all the faithful people—do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? For God's temple is holy, and you—all of you—are that temple.
At the center of the city, at the heart of the New Jerusalem, lies the Bridegroom’s bower, the throne of God and of the Lamb and the city has no need of light for the glory of God is its light and its lamp is the Lamb. The light shines forth in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. And our calling, our spiritual worship, is nothing less than to reflect and to refract. Our role is to allow the light to splash and play, to illumine and be illumined, to catch fire and be cast by our facets into the darkness. The light of the resurrected Lord blazes in and through us. We—we—are to spread that light into a dark world as it filters and shines and is hued by who and what we are and what we do. We are the people; we are the city. We are the beacons to spread the light of the dayspring who has visited us to shine upon them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. (Rev 3:12). Amen; Come, Lord Jesus.
Derek Olsen is completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. He keeps the blog Haligweorc.