for the 3d Sunday of Easter
April 18, 2010
Rev 5: 11-14
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle
Bruges claims to be the most beautiful city in Belgium and perhaps in all of northern Europe, and it is indeed a beautiful and charming city with its canals (it calls itself “the Venice of the North”), medieval churches and monasteries, museums, public squares, and windmills. But Ghent could lay an equal claim to beauty and charm. It may not have any more working windmills, but it does have the 11th/12th-century Gravensteen, the castle of the counts of Flanders. Every bit as much worth a tourist’s visit as the castle or a ride thru Ghent’s canals is the artistic treasure of St. Bavo’s Cathedral, a multi-panel altarpiece painted in the 15th century by Jan van Eyck.
Titled The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, it’s a magnificent medieval rendition of the scene described in our 2d reading today, transposed to the Flemish countryside, with the Lamb standing on an altar, blood pouring from a wound in its chest, surrounded by angels, prophets, martyrs, priests, and burgers—a fair reading of Eyck’s contemporary society included among the whole of humanity, biblical and otherwise, paying their worshipful tribute to the Lamb of God. Right now I wish I had one of the handsome post cards they sell in the cathedral gift shop!
Our little tour of the Book of Revelation in this Easter season is necessarily an abbreviated one; we have 6 Sundays to get thru 22 chapters. Your homiletic tour will be even shorter since, like Jesus, I am going away (cf. John 13:33,36)—next Sunday to Willow Towers, and the following weekend with the Scouts—and I will come back to you (whenever next assigned to you).
In ch. 1 John saw “one like a son of man” dressed in the garb of a royal priest, standing amid the golden lampstands representing the churches of Asia. The 4 verses of ch. 5 that we just heard laid before us a vision of the heavenly liturgy, in which John sees Christ as the Lamb that has been slain yet lives, enthroned next to God the Father and receiving the tribute of all creation: “To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever” (5:13).
John’s vision links past and present by bringing together 24 elders (4:4, 5:8), who represent the patriarchs of the 12 tribes and the 12 apostles, the old Israel and the new Israel, all adoring the living God and the redeemer of humanity. The living creatures of John’s vision evoke the prophecy of Ezekiel (ch. 1), and these creatures with their faces resembling a lion, a calf, a man, and an eagle (Rev 4:6-7) suggest to us, if not to John and his hearers, the testimony of the 4 evangelists.
It has been suggested that this vision resembles the Christian liturgy of John’s time, at least in the hymns being sung and the presence of elders (presbyters), in the 1st ranks of the worshipers. Some also think that the hymns resemble the cult of the Roman emperors, which would weigh mightily on the consciousness of John’s communities because the rejection of that cult was cause for exile and martyrdom. Instead, these communities are bringing their “blessing and honor, glory and might,” their “riches, wisdom, and strength” (5:12) to the Father and to the Son, co-equals in the heavenly kingdom. This entire Book of Revelation is an extended encouragement to these communities to persevere in their faithfulness to Jesus in the face of the hostility of the Roman state.
Not only the heavenly kingdom adores the Enthroned One and the Lamb. “Every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe” (5:13) adores God. The Christian Church in its earthly liturgy speaks for the whole of creation and shares already in the heavenly liturgy. That link reminds me inevitably of the well known (and probably legendary) story of Prince Vladimir of Kiev’s search at the end of the 10th century for the most satisfactory religion for his people. He sent ambassadors to Islamic lands, to Jewish populations, and to Constantinople. Those who returned from the Byzantine capital asserted that when they witnessed the Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia they seemed to be transported to heaven itself. And so Vladimir and the people of Rus adopted Orthodox Christianity.
Unfortunately our liturgy, whether the Eucharist or the Hours or any of the sacraments, scarcely seems so to transport us. At least it usually doesn’t in any psychological, emotional, or mystical sense. It’s hardly unheard of for some parishioner—or even an Ursuline—to glance at her watch in the middle of a homily! But does the liturgy not transport us to that reality we call the supernatural life? When we celebrate the sacred mysteries, don’t we really take part in the eternal worship of the Mystic Lamb, with all the angels and saints? The beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer always assures us that we do: “We praise you, Lord, with all the angels and saints”; “The joy of the resurrection renews the whole world, while the choirs of heaven sing forever to your glory”; “We join the hosts of heaven in their triumphant song”; “United with the countless hosts of angels who look upon your splendor night and day, and in the name of every creature under heaven, we too praise your glory”; etc. And then we launch into the “Holy, Holy,” the hymn of the seraphim, according to Isaiah (6:2-3). We are indeed part of that “countless number” (Rev 5:11) whom John the Visionary saw. Our celebration here, always led by an elder—a presbyter—or by one of the successors of the 12 apostles anticipates our celebration for all the days of eternity, blessing and glorifying with heartfelt joy the Lamb who was slain for us but lives forever, and “the one who sits on the throne.”