Monday, April 4, 2016

The Third Sunday of Easter: 2016

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain.

One of the least pleasant episodes in my seminary education was doing my required field work at the Austin State Hospital, 400 hours worth. Mental hospitals are grim, at least they were in those days. I envied my fellow seminarians who got their rotation in a regular medical facility. Folks there either got better and left the hospital or they died. In any case their pastoral care had a beginning and an end. But at the State Hospital the population was mostly chronic: they never seemed to get better and the only way out of the place was death.

On top of that the chaplains who ran the program at the State Hospital never went to see any patients, which was probably for the best, since they had nothing to offer the suffering.   Anyway they were too busy trying to talk seminarians out of anything and everything  remotely Christian. We had talks from atheists like Madeline Murray O’Hare and we were encouraged to go to topless bars to cure us of old fashioned ideas of sin.

I managed to get the job of helping the Roman priest with the Sunday Mass. He was very popular with the patients because  unlike the chaplains he did not come offering some new psychological theory or new drug; he came offering  Jesus.   They sensed the difference a priest makes by what he is, not what he says.    I remember saying to him jokingly that it might be a good idea to cut the Book of Revelation out of the Bibles at the hospital because it seemed to encourage the patient’s delusions. He wisely replied that they would have to ban the whole Bible, something which they have probably gotten around to by now.

For many modern folks  Revelation is just a bunch of mythological nonsense. Some Christians read it with the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other. Revelation to them is above all else a prophecy of impending doom, which we have to decipher, if we are to avoid it.  But for Catholic theology, especially in the 20th century, Revelation is about worship, the liturgy of heaven and the liturgy here and now. The Second Vatican Council, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Scott Hahan in particular have advocated this view. But it was an Anglican, Austin Farrer, who pioneered this perspective: “the pattern of the book" he wrote "is not one of earthly history, but of celestial liturgy performed by Christ and the angels.”

The Book of Revelation is called in Greek, 'Apocalypse, meaning not a disaster but literally an ‘unveiling.’ It was intended not so much as a prediction of future events at the end of history, but as a commentary on the Divine Liturgy. It is a vision of a heavenly liturgy, in the midst of which stands the Lamb who was sacrificed. It presents the essential contents of the Eucharistic Sacrament in an elaborate form that sets a standard for every earthly liturgy, every local liturgy. Above all the essential matter of all Eucharistic liturgy is its participation in the heavenly liturgy; it is from this that the Mass necessarily derives its unity, its catholicity, and its universality 'with angels and archangels.'

Scott Hahn says that it was recognizing the Mass in the Book of Revelation, which converted  him to Catholicism: "for most of the early Christians it was a given: the Book of Revelation was incomprehensible apart from the liturgy. … It was only when I began attending Mass that the many parts of this puzzling book suddenly began to fall into place. Before long, I could see the sense in Revelation’s altar, its robed clergymen, candles, incense, manna, chalices , Sunday worship, the prominence it gives to the Blessed Virgin and to God."
You may think that the reason we use chant, incense, vestments, bells, solemn liturgical actions, and so forth is just because we like that sort of thing. In fact we do it because the Bible tells us to, more precisely the Apocalypse tells us to. Casual, informal, haphazard liturgy is the opposite of what Scripture envisions Christian worship to be:  the taking and unsealing of a book, the offering of incense, the blowing of trumpets; the opening of a heavenly temple, revealing the Ark of the Covenant  and the pouring of libations from angelic bowls and even more is what Biblical worship looks like.

The portion of Revelation we hear today bears this out: "worthy is the the Lamb slain.” The English word 'worship' means 'giving to the worthy praise' -- the Latin is Dignus es. 'Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power. The Lamb has a dignity which requires that we worship Him and worship Him extravagantly: "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!"

The question that the Apocalypse answers is not ‘when will the world end?’ but ‘what is right worship?’ Worship is either true,  directed to God and the Lamb or idolatrous,  directed to Babylon, the beast, the whore, etc.  And the central metaphor is  Marriage. You are either united as “one flesh” with the Lamb, washed clean in His blood and feasting at His table, or you are consorting with the enemies of God.  The two cities are contrasted: the old, unfaithful Jerusalem and the virgin bride, the new Jerusalem, the Church. Worship, liturgy is apocalyptic in the sense that it  unveils and reveals the mystery of faith, as the oldest Eucharistic Prayer tells us: "This is the Chalice of my Blood of the New and Eternal Testament: the mystery of faith."  At the time Revelation was written, the term 'apocalypse' was used to describe, among other things, the unveiling of the virgin bride as part of the wedding festivities. "Behold the Lamb of God: blessed are those called to the Marriage Feast of the Lamb."

The Bible ends with the Book of Revelation because worship is the end, the goal of the whole history of our salvation, the conclusion, which leads us to something even greater than Scripture: the living worship of the living Body of Christ. Revelation ends the Bible because it depicts and invites us to the Eucharistic banquet of the Lamb, which is where the things spoken about in Scripture are really present, in their fullest intensity. The written signs lead us to the reality signified; the Bread of the Word leads to the Bread of Life. As Cardinal Newman had inscribed on his tomb: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem: ‘from shadows and images into the truth.' 

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain.

1 comment:

LSP said...

I love Rebirth of Images. How does that one bit go, something like, "On the sixth day of the week, and at the sixth hour... the kingdoms of Christ and Antichrist looked one another in the face in Pilate's court, and the adherents of the False Prophet Caiaphas wrote on their foreheads the mark of the Beast, when they said, 'We have no king but Caesar."

Shortly afterwards they beheld the Lamb that was slain...