The Assumption of Our Lady | Homily

If you happened to turn the news on this week, you will have seen mention of little else than the Olympic Games in Rio – the world is enraptured by this demonstration of human strength and success and we participate in an unadulterated
display of national pride. However, if you turn your eye for a moment from the glistening stadiums and sporting celebrities, you see a city divided. In one half of Rio – a Brazilian elite enjoy a life of luxury on the shores of Copacabana, basking in the power which money affords and the kudos of being an Olympic Host City; in the other half of the city, the Favelas, some of the poorest people in the world – often living without running water and electricity – with children caught up in the midst of brutal gang warfare.

Two completely different worlds – all under the shadow of the Corcovado Mountain and the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer. While the world might be looking to the celebrities and stadiums and successes – the Redeemer is looking to the Favelas. The truth is, when you are seeking for God – we cannot look where the world looks for power – if you want to find the great things – look to the margins, to the poor, to the nobodies and you will find the children of God.

assumption-siena-di-sanoHere we turn to our Blessed Mother Mary, who we celebrate today. The Gospels tell us very little about Mary – but what they do make clear, as Mary herself says, is that Christ chose the lowliest of people as his mother.  When God takes on flesh he eschews the royal palaces and centres of imperial power and chooses Nazareth – that town about which the Roman world made jokes, ‘can anything good come from Nazareth?’. And when he’s seeking out a mother, he doesn’t choose a comfortable, married mother who’s had three children and knows what she’s doing. He chooses the least of women – a poor, unmarried girl from a backwater town in a backwater province of the Roman Empire.

‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?

This is the beauty and the poetry of the Christian faith – this is the mystery we celebrate every time we look to Mary and honour her as Mother of God. The power that fashioned the cosmos, that strung an infinite number of stars, the one who brought forth all life chooses to be born of Mary – he becomes one with us, and reveals his power in the weakness of a human life. Just imagine… that foetus, which grew silently in the womb of Mary; that newborn baby, nursed at her breast; that child who grew and learnt in her house – that child, completely dependent on his mother, is God. In the incarnation, we see that our God does not identify with the elites of the world but with the lowly – the power of God is known in self-emptying love; his is a power willing to become weak for the sake of others.

In Mary, God confirms his decision to be with the misfits and ne’er do wells of the world! God chooses to be in the midst of our ordinary, sinful, messy lives. Just as, from all the nations of the world, God chose the slave nation of the Hebrews, so now he chooses to be one with the human race in all its suffering, vulnerability and pain. The world tells us to stay away from the poor, the homeless, the convicts and the refugees – but it is God’s subversive activity to tell us to stand with them. God always stands on the side of the poor and asks us to do the same.

Yet, the Church not only celebrates today the unlikely choice of Mary as the Mother of God but also her final destiny – her being taken up into heaven to reign as Queen of the saints. Mary says, ‘from now on all generations will call me blessed’ – not just because she was involved in chapter one of the Gospel but because she faithfully follows Christ through all his ministry. She ponders the truth of the Gospel in her heart and can therefore be called the first and Mother of all Christians. She stands at the foot of the Cross and shares in the anguish of her Son as he brings the work of salvation to its climax – how could she forget Simeon’s haunting prophecy, ‘a sword will pierce your own heart also’. She remained faithful after the Crucifixion and, although the Gospels fail to give us any detail, was reunited with her Son on the Day of Resurrection and remained in prayer with the Apostles and received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Today is the Easter of the Summer – the day we rejoice that Mary, who remained faithful to her Son throughout his ministry, has shared in the fullness of the resurrection. In Our Lady, we see the destiny of our human nature! We will be like Christ, with Mary, in glory, crowned with grace – this is the final destination of the pilgrim people of God and the assumption is proof that Jesus is faithful to his promise that he prepares a dwelling place for the human family in his Father’s house.

So, today, on this great solemnity of the Church – we have a twofold reason to rejoice! We rejoice because God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong; what is poor in the world to shame the rich – that God always stands on our side, in all our vulnerability and sin.  And we rejoice because God has in store for us more than we can ask or imagine – a room in the Father’s mansion, a crown of glory – a heavenly country where we will be swept up with Our Lady into the life of the eternal Trinity.

Mary, assumed into heaven, Queen of the Saints, pray for the pilgrim Church on earth!

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The Basilica of the Assumption on Mount Zion

‘Like Living Stones’ | The Priesthood of all Believers

‘Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ – 1 Peter 2.4f.

The New Testament and the classical tradition of theology has emphasised that every baptised person is a priest. Of course, the ordained or ministerial priesthood has its own particular charism as ‘a walking sacrament’, to quote Farrer, but all believers share together in the holy priesthood of Christ. This is a big claim. Priests are those who mediate between God and human beings – as 1 Peter says, they offer spiritual sacrifices of praise and thus draw humanity up to the Creator. Priests are a pontifex – a bridge between the Trinity and the human heart. Every Christian person is, in this sense, a priest – a builder of bridges.

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‘The Priesthood of All Believers’ by Janet Pfeiffer

The background of our understanding of priesthood comes from the Old Testament. The Old Covenant is full of priests! Moses, Abraham and Noah all offered sacrifice to God and acted as priests but perhaps Aaron is the greatest. Aaron is the founding father of the long line of temple priests, who sustained the worship of Israel until the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. The Jerusalem priests became very interesting figures: they wear special vestments, preside over the complex liturgies of the temple and offer prayer and sacrifice on behalf of the people. In short, these priests were essential to the religious life and imagination of ancient Israel.

Some commentators have attempted to say that Jesus does away with all this priesthood and cult, that he entirely sweeps away this central pillar of the life of the old covenant. I think there’s some real problems with this interpretation. Of course, Jesus was not a temple priest – he was a Rabbi, a teacher of the faith. However, he was clearly temple-centric: the gospels tells us that Jesus often went up to Jerusalem to participate in the sacrificial cult and he often preached in the temple precinct. Then, of course, there is the climax of his public life – the event which probably led to his arrest – when he enters the temple and shocks the foundations of the religious establishment. He enters the temple, turns over the temples of the money changers and pronounces divine judgement: ‘I will destroy this temple and in three days raise it up’. This is a serious judgement, but it comes from his deep love for the temple. Many prophets of Israel, especially Isaiah and Ezekiel, have pronounced judgement on the corruption of the temple – Ezekiel famously saying that the very spirit of God had abandoned the temple in Jerusalem. However, they do this because they love the priesthood and the sacrifices. Jesus too loved the temple – he wanted to cleanse, reform and rebuild it!

When he pronounces judgement, he claims that ‘in three days’ he will raise up the temple but, as the evangelist tells us, ‘he was speaking of the temple of his body.’ Jesus doesn’t hate the temple, but he reorientates it – it would be in his body that God would be properly worshipped. The creeds affirm that in Jesus humanity and divinity come together – he is, in the very structure of his being, a priest and a temple. This is how he interprets his own death – the ultimate temple sacrifice, the great high priestly act. When we hear the words of the Last Supper: ‘take, eat; this is my body which is given for you’ – this is the language of sacrifice – this is the work of a priest! In this, Jesus makes his own body a sacrifice. Then, taking the cup of wine, he says ‘this is the blood of the new covenant’ – again, the language of the temple! Just as the blood of the slaughtered animal was a sign of atonement and reparation for sin; so his blood will be poured out for the sins of all humanity. Jesus is performing the final sacrifice because he is the final perfect priest. Jesus says that he will be in his own dying the temple.

Then we come to verses I quoted above from 1 Peter. The Apostle tells us that we will become ‘like living stones.. built into a spiritual house’ – the language is strange but this would have been entirely comprehensible to Jews who knew the temple! Jesus is the new temple and we are to be living stones within it. This means, as people who belong to the priesthood of all believers, we must be stones in the temple of the Lord’s body. This is the mission of the believer: to be so configured to Christ that your whole life is an offering of praise; that you become a true priest, a bridge between the divine and human. If your life is centred around your identity as a living stone, then your whole life will become an offering of praise and you will radiate the love of Christ to those around you. That’s what it means to be configured to Christ.

If we don’t live out our Christian faith, if we don’t speak about Christ to others, or allow the love of God to radiate out of ourselves then we will fail our mission. We are priests, without our being configured to Christ, no-one will experience the love of God and the temple will crumble! This is summed up in John 14, Jesus’ discourse at the Last Supper, where he is presented as the perfect priest. Philip says to Jesus, ‘Lord, show us the Father’ and Jesus responds ‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’ That is Jesus’ priesthood, he is the icon of the invisible God – the great bridge between humanity and divinity. Similarly in this chapter, the apostles ask Jesus to ‘show us the way’ and he tells them that he is ‘the way and the truth and the life’! Just as the priest offering sacrifice was offering a path to connect Israel to God, so Jesus is saying, I am myself the High Priest, the perfect sacrifice and the temple! If you want to know God, says Jesus, you need to me.

Wonderfully, this is true, by analogy, of all the baptised. You and I must be the way, the bridge and the means of access to God! By God’s grace, we are to so radiate the divine life that we reconcile humanity and God and draw people to share with us in the temple of the living God.

So be it.

Understanding the Book of Revelation: ‘The Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered’ (Rev. 5.6)

A more academic-style article, exploring the Christology (understanding of Christ) of the Book of Revelation. 

Introduction

The Revelation of John is an apocalyptic text rich in imagery and symbolism, with a particular Christological focus – indeed, it is described in 1.1 as ‘the revelation of Jesus Christ’ and concerns itself with the revelation of Jesus by Jesus, through the angel, to John the seer.  Therefore, it is through how Jesus is presented that we can gain a ‘way in’ to the study of this most complex text of the New Testament. However, having said that, the life and teaching of Jesus are largely ignored, and the focus is on the heavenly exalted Jesus post-resurrection. The book follows a three-stage kemaxresdefaultnotic Christological model with the midd
le act, Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, largely ignored with the focus on the preexistent and post-resurrection Christ. Before beginning, to explore the book of Revelation, we must note that the apocalyptic idiom of the book was probably necessitated by the situation of the Christians in Asia. In the midst of persecution at the hands of the Romans and conflicting claims to power, meant there was a need for a strong stance: if you confess God to have asserted his rule over the world, then you cannot put your trust in any other earthly power or authority.

The most important Christological descriptions we will explore are: Christ as universal saviour and judge who shares in divine authority; as the slaughtered Lamb; the eternal ‘alpha and omega’; and the one worthy of worship alongside ‘the One who sits on the throne’. Finding in chapters 4 and 5 the climax and interpretive key to the text, we will argue that the most significant depiction of Christ is as the Lamb, and we will discuss the implications of this striking image.

Christ: Sovereign Lord

The sovereign and eschatological Lordship of Christ is a central image in the Book of Revelation. Against the backdrop of persecution, it is natural to focus on the sovereignty of Christ, Christ’s judgement on the wicked and the vindication of saints and martyrs. The role of Christ is to turn the kingdoms of the world into the kingdom of the Lord (e.g. 11.15), which is why the concepts of salvation and judgement are so inextricably linked. Because Christ ‘shares the one eternal being of God, what Christ is said to do, in salvation and judgement, is no less truly and directly divine’ than what is said to be done by ‘the One who sits on the throne’. Salvation, the formation of this eschatological kingdom, belongs both to God and to the Lamb (7.10) and they are related together in the New Jerusalem (22.3), which will be the final consummation of Christ’s victory. In this, Christ and God are so closely connected, with language and speech often inseparable, demonstrating a clear sense in which they are seen as, in some way, one in their reign over all creation.

It is this unity in sovereignty which means that ultimate victory is assured and both God and ‘the Lamb’ can occupy the divine throne together (5.6-13). There are political overtones to this understanding of Christ, he is described as ’Ruler of the kings of the earth’ (1.5); ‘the one who is about to shepherd all the nations’ (12.5); ‘Lord’ (11.8; 14.13; 22.20); ‘lord of lords and kings of kings’ (17.14; 19.16), in contrast to the imagery of two beasts (ch. 13), which is an assault on the imperial cult. Clearly then, the image of Christ as ‘lord of lords and king of kings’ is very Christologically significant. It has a twofold purpose: it demonstrates the close identification of Christ and God; and the finality of Christ’s victory over Satan and thus, his lordship over creation. However, this politically charged and powerful language is subverted by the central image which John uses; the ‘Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered’ (5.6).

The Lord of Creation: The Slaughtered Lamb

In the cosmic imagery of the Book of Revelation, the slaughtered Lamb is at the centre of the divine throne and, in a literary sense, at the heart of Revelation. The sacrificial death of Christ is the governing image of how God rules the world and accomplishes salvation – the love-that-suffers-even-to-dying is the messianic conquest and the focus of the book (Boring, ‘The Theology of Revelation’). This image is so significant as it provides the lynch-pin to the book’s central claim: the death and resurrection of Christ has won a decisive victory for God (ch. 5) and the world only awaits the revelation of the already fully consummated victory of God. The Scroll, which governs the narrative of Revelation from chapter 5 onwards, is also closely related to this. Christ is the only one ‘worthy’ to open the scroll, which contains the secret purposes of God for establishing his kingdom (5.1). There is then a deliberate juxtaposition of the language of ‘the lion of Judah’ (5.5), with its militaristic overtones, and the image of the slaughtered lamb (5.6).

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‘Behold the Lamb of God’

It is the opening of the scroll which is the climax of chapter 5, and John’s decision to subvert the traditionally powerful and militaristic image of the lion with a slaughtered lamb is very significant – God from his throne conquers the world by being a slain lamb and not a devouring lion, this is the shocking irony of Revelation. This reversal of power could be compared to the Johannine theology of the Cross, which subverts the traditional expectations of the glory and kingship of God. The strength, which allows the Lamb to open the scrolls, is deeply unconventional; it lies in the consistent and non-violent resistance to evil which is the witness of Jesus, a resistance which led to his execution. The slaughtered Lamb is rightly described by Boring as, ‘one of the most mind-wrenching and theologically pregnant transformations of imagery in literature.’ The lion, referenced in Proverbs (30.30), 1 Maccabees (3.4) and other Second Temple literature as a symbol of strength and military might is deliberately contrasted with the symbol of a sacrificial death and the meaning of kingship, conquest, strength and power is subverted and redefined.

The Lamb, as we have discussed it, is undoubtedly a significant image for John in Revelation, indeed, I would argue it can be considered the most significant. It is the most significant because it provides the interpretive key through which God can be understood; as the sacrificial-victim in the centre of God’s throne, he is worshipped alongside God, and provides the definitive expression of God’s activity of salvation and judgement. The centrality of chapters 4 and 5 to the book also confirms the importance of this image, which subverts the worldly understandings of power prevalent at the time, and also provides the means of understandings of Christ’s lordship as ‘king of kings’.

The Alpha and the Omega

However, before drawing to a conclusion, we must explore the image of Christ as ‘the alpha and the omega’. This concept is used both of God and Christ (God, 1.17, 22.13 – Christ 21.6 etc.), reflecting the remarkable extent to which Revelation identifies Jesus Christ with God, which prepares the ground for later Christological debate and discussion. The centrality of this designation is underlined by its use seven times, the number of completeness (see also the seven beatitudes scattered through the text). John, in this symbolic use of numbering, shows the significance of this idea and writes the theological detail of his work into the meticulous composition of Revelation. This Christological statement expresses John’s belief that Jesus belongs to the fullness of God’s eternal being. In contrast to adoptionist Christologies, which understand Jesus as only being exalted after his resurrection (although the resurrection is significant in Christ’s participation in God’s Lordship (c.f. 2.28; 3.21)) Jesus in Revelation shares in God’s eternal being from the beginning. This idea has its roots in Isaiah (c.f. 44.6 etc.) and in YHWH’s claim to exclusive monotheism – God and Christ are creator and the bringer of eschatological fulfilment; in other words, the origin and goal of all history. As well as its roots in Isaiah, this idea borrows from the Greek philosophical tradition, it is used in this sense by Josephus in Ant. 8.280 and Philo, as an explication the divine name. However, this is not a static designation of Christ, he is described as ‘to come’, placing the emphasis on the coming salvation and fulfilment of his reign. This is not an ontological expression of self-existence in himself, but a promise of faithfulness and commitment to his people in history.

The designation of ‘the alpha and the omega’ is one way in which Christ is closely identified with the God the Father, which leads us to our final significant way in which Christ is depicted: he is depicted as receiving worship. Worship is a central concept of Revelation, as it indicates that which is due to the One Creator and none else. John undertakes a deliberate treatment of the question of true or false worship: there is the division between those who worship and the dragon and the beast (13.4, 8, 12, 15; 14.9, 11 etc.) and those who worship the one true God (7.15; 14.3; 15.3-4 etc.); there is also the double rejection of worship by the angel who gives John the revelation (19.10, 22.8-9). The worship of Christ is therefore not done from neglect, as the book’s stringent claim to monotheism in the sphere of worship precludes this possibility.

John implies that Jesus is somehow included in the monotheistic being of God. For example, the worship of the Lamb (5.8) parallels that which is offered to God (4.11) and the ultimate aim of the worship of the Lamb (5.8-13) is that it leads to the whole creation worshipping God and the Lamb together (5.13). This is not bitheism, but a functional identification of God and Jesus, in such a way that he can be included in monotheistic worship – particularly interesting is the use of singular verbs (11.15) and pronouns (6.17; 22.3-4) when God and Christ have been spoken about. While this may not be a deliberate allusion, it certainly points to John’s reluctance to talk about God and Christ in the plural. Christ is depicted amongst the candlesticks, which represent the Church, showing his centrality ‘to the life and activities of the churches on earth’, alongside the angels proclamation of ‘the eternal gospel’ which includes the call to worship the Creator (14.7, c.f. 13.8) points to Jesus’ worthiness to receive worship.

Conclusion

To conclude, there are several significant ways in which Christ is depicted in Revelation: his depiction as Lord and ‘king of kings’; as the Lamb who stands slaughtered; as origin and source of all history; and as worthy of worship alongside God. Each of these depictions mutually interpret and inform the others: the Lordship of Christ is informed by his inclusion in the divine identity; his Messianic victory is subverted and reinterpreted in the light of his depiction as the sacrificial victim and the power, worthiness and authority of God are located firmly in the readiness of the Lamb to die. It is therefore, the image of the Lamb which is the most significant of the Christological depictions in Revelation, as it informs the others and, in its central place in the pivotal moment of the text, contains the most profound teaching of the Book; at the centre of the throne of God, which has conquered all creation, is a sacrificial Lamb who governs the way God’s will is manifest in history. It is this Christology which influences the rest of this highly Christocentric and theological vision of creation.

Adapted from an essay submitted for supervision in New Testament Christologies (C3) as part of my Third Year Theology Tripos
at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.