for the 4th Sunday of Easter
April 25, 2010
Rev 7: 9, 14-17
Willow Towers, New Rochelle
“I, John, had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue” (Rev 7: 9).
During the weeks after Easter this year, Year C in the cycle of lectionary readings, we’re reading from the Book of Revelation—not a whole lot, since obviously you can’t cover much out of 22 chapters (that’s how long the book is) in 6 short selections.
You may remember that last week John, the visionary who has recorded what he saw in this book, spoke of a heavenly liturgy, with a numberless crowd of angels and with elders (in Greek, that would be “presbyters,” from which we get our English word priest) gathered around the throne of God and of the Lamb, worshiping (Rev 5:11-14).
"Love has sacrificed himself"; stained glass in the chapel of the Don Bosco Retreat Center, Haverstraw, N.Y. (orignally in the Salesian novitiate at Newton, N.J.)
This week the vision expands. In the 1st verses of ch. 7 (1-8), which we didn’t read, he speaks of 144,000 marked with God’s seal, marked for salvation: 12,000 from each of the tribes of Israel. That is to say, a great and perfect number saved from God’s people of the Old Covenant. In that connection, note that the elders who were mentioned earlier are 24 in number (4:4, 5:8), symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles—thus the peoples of both the Old and the New Covenant.
The verses that we read tonite take up from the 144,000 to speak of “a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” This speaks of the vast crowd whom Christ has saved who aren’t from the tribes of Israel but from everywhere, from everyone. It suggests that these are the new children of Abraham, whose descendants God promised would be as numberless as the stars of the sky or the sands of the seashore. It also suggests the very real world in which John the Prophet lived, the world of Asia Minor (what is now the western coast of Turkey), where the seaports and the marketplaces were a crossroads of the Greco-Roman world, where scores of languages were spoken, where merchants and sailors from everywhere crossed paths and exchanged goods. God has called all these people, all the world, to be saved in Christ Jesus.
And, John continues, “they stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands” (7:14). They wear the white robes of innocence, the white robes of those who have been baptized as followers of Jesus and have been faithful to their baptism. They have been washed and made clean by Christ’s death and resurrection: “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). The white vestment that all liturgical ministers wear—the alb—suggests this baptismal robe of innocence, of worthiness to come into God’s presence. It’s true that in the ancient world the gods could be approached only by someone wearing clean garments; with reference just to Judaism, there are many references in the Old Testament to this. And I guess that’s why so many people, except in our de-civilized Western world, take pride in wearing their “Sunday best” to church.
Christianity is a religion of strange paradoxes, isn’t it? How can something be cleaned by being washed in blood? But it’s true: we are made clean of sin by the blood of the Lamb of God. The cross, that horrible instrument of torture, is the instrument of our salus (the Latin word, or salute in Italian), of our health, of our safety, of our salvation. We are saved by death, by the death of God’s Son.
That white robe of baptismal innocence, of fidelity to Christ, recalls one of Jesus’ parables, the parable of the wedding guests. You remember that the king came into the banquet hall and found that one of his guests didn’t have a wedding gown on. And he ordered the man to be thrown into the outer darkness, to wail and gnash his teeth. No one enters the kingdom of God without being cleansed of sin by the grace of Jesus Christ, and keeping himself clean by walking in Jesus’ way.
Those who have been so washed “hold palm branches in their hands.” The palm is a symbol of victory: athletic victory, military victory, victory in the great combat of good vs. evil. Those who are with Christ triumph with him over the devil, over sin, and finally over death. They’re the ones who assemble around the throne of the Lamb to praise God’s goodness and mercy forever, who “stand before God’s throne and worship day and night in his temple” in heaven (7:15).
John the Visionary’s time was a very difficult time for Christians, with harassment and persecution, with hundreds of martyrs. He alludes to that by speaking of “the time of great distress” (7:14), which seems to be the end of the world. Christians at the end of the 1st century were horribly persecuted, and so have Christians been all thru the 2 millennia since Christ himself was horribly persecuted. Christians still suffer and die today to be faithful to Jesus and win the palm of victory.
But we who aren’t being persecuted unto death, we also need encouragement, don’t we? Why should be work so hard to keep our robes white when there’s so much dirt around us, when so many people seem to be having a grand time living as if there were no God, as if there are no moral standards?
Other people ask quite a different question, and maybe you’ve asked it yourself. How can we follow a God who allows so much suffering in the world? It’s one disaster after another: earthquakes, tornados, volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts. So many people suffer undeservedly from illness, from the sins of others. Where’s God?
And some people ask why they should be Christians, or why they should be Catholics in particular, when so many Christians, so many Catholics, priests even, do some terrible things. People have stopped going to church on account of the abuse of children, just as in earlier times people stopped going to church because some priest spoke harshly to them or treated them unfairly or abused their trust.
So even in our time, even in the U.S., it requires a lot to be faithful to Jesus, to keep our robes white, to strive for victory. Our fidelity isn’t toward Father So-and-So but to Jesus—a Jesus who suffered unjustly, as so many people do, but a Jesus who rose on the 3d day because God is ultimately faithful and good and life-giving. That’s why we stay with Jesus. He’s the evidence that God loves us, that God will have a palm of victory for us too.