Last week, I received an email from my mother. The subject of the email is one she has been contemplating in her 85th year of life. The subject line of the email: “My Funeral”. The message reads as follows: “Hi, Nance, Am sending you the service info. Let me know if you have suggestions. I might make some changes as time goes by. But this is good enough if I croak in the next week! Love & Thanks, Mom”
The entire Book of Revelation, the last book in the Christian New Testament, the most difficult book (because it addresses a most difficult subject), was written for people like my mother … People like Bishop Tom Shaw (whose funeral was yesterday, people like our former Mayor, Tom Menino (whose funeral is tomorrow).
The Book of Revelation was written for mortals contemplating their own dying … their own expiring. People hard up against the ordeal of mortality … of loss and impermanence.
It is written for those who will soon be taken from their loved ones. Who already grieve the loss of their child’s hug: bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh. It is written for those who will never again taste raspberry sherbet on their tongues … or bite into a crisp, juicy apple… or hear again the sound of their grandchild’s giggling, squealing laughter.
We are mortal. We will expire. We cannot escape it. Someday the life will go out of us. Someday the life will go out of you. Your breath will cease. Your beating heart will cease its pulsing. Your time on earth will come to an end. You will disappear to us … will be taken from us.
There’s no denying this. As much as our culture wants us to deny our dying for as long as we possibly can … As much as our culture hides death from us … whisks it away as soon as it happens, cleans up after it and hides the evidence of death behind curtains, behind closed doors… As much as ours is a death-denying culture, there is no denying death … yours and mine. We shall not escape it.
The Book of Revelation concedes this: concedes that we do die… and, what’s more, concedes the pain and suffering, the grief and terror of death. Concedes that these are almost unbearable… almost enough to undo us altogether …
The Book of Revelation was written for and to the dying ones, written for those in the throes of death’s suffering and pain … It was written to console and to inform, to encourage and inspire the dying ones.
The Book of Revelation is the product of religious imagination … religious vision.
Death, by contrast, has no imagination. No vision. Death is banal, prosaic, and predictable. Death is cold, still, and vacant. We have lots of words and phrases to describe death: Croak (my mother’s word of choice), die, decease, perish, finish, go, exit, expire, depart, pass, pass away, drop dead, pop off, terminate, choke, snuff it, go to sleep … And, if we are trying to be off-hand about it, there are these: kick the bucket, cash in one's chips, buy the farm, conk out, give-up the ghost.
The Book of Revelation counters and overpowers such hollow words with dazzling sights and aromatic smells, with the sound of a mighty chorus thundering praises, with the texture of feathered wings, and the rustle of gowns … with the sight of angels prostrate and this: a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and all peoples and all languages.
This multitude, whom no one could count, has been through the worst: the agony and ordeal of suffering and dying. From the perspective of the earth, they died … they lost ... suffered, bled and expired. They are done. Gone. Over.
But John sees beyond death. He sees past the grave, past the suffering. He see that for these robed ones, the ordeal is past, they have prevailed, they have triumphed …
From the perspective of earth, their mortal bodies are done, over, kaput … their breath extinguished.
But in heaven: they are resplendent … they have won. They are home in the heart of God.
There is more: This multitude, who hail from every nation, from all tribes and all peoples and all languages: they are not fighting, they are not killing one another. They are not fighting over that which is no more for them … things like land or oil or minerals, or holy sites. They do not fight over which language to sing their praises … or which national flag claims their allegiance. In heaven there is no American Exceptionalism. No democracy. Neither communism nor capitalism.
They are not separated like we are today: the rich from the poor – the black from the white, the Protestant form the Catholic, the immigrant from the citizen … the ignorant from the educated, the imprisoned from the free, the East from the West, the Iraqi from the American, the head-scarved from the bare-headed.
What John sees is a great multitude from every nation, from all tribes and all peoples and all languages … and, they are singing … they are worshipping, they are together.
My friends: this is what John sees and aches for you to see. He aches for you to see among those saints, resplendent in their robes, adorned with palm branches of victory... he wants you to see what he sees: that your grandparents are there among these robed and singing ones, these resplendent ones … That it is your deceased sisters’ eyes from whom God gently, tenderly wipes away the tears …John wants you to see there, at the throne, dazzling, your friend who died untimely and in pain … John aches for you to see what he sees: up into what Mayor Menino and Bishop Shaw have been swept.
John wants you to see gathered at the throne, among the elders, a dazzling Doris Winchenbaugh and Gertrude Allen.
He wants you to see Don Wetmore and Timothy Hough and Chris Mahoney and Joan Christenson … how they shine, how they dazzle, how they sing their hearts out.
John wants you to see Jer’s Martha and Judy’s Shirley, and Marcia’s’ Charles, and Harry’s friend Calvin. He wants you to see them mixing it up with angels and elders, with saints from long ago and those just freshly minted … just through their ordeal.
Let me tell you a true thing: Death is pitiless and hollow-hearted. Death has no imagination. No vision. Death is banal, prosaic, predictable. Death is cold and still and vacant.
The Book of Revelation overwhelms, overpowers, overthrows the banality of death with dazzling sights and aromatic smells, with the sound of a mighty chorus thundering praises, with the texture of wings and the rustle of robes … with the sight of angels prostrate, with the image of the dead raised, and a grand multitude, a triumphant multitude, a resplendent multitude from every nation, from all tribes and all peoples and all languages …
And this, do not forget this … do not forget what John tells us he sees: in the midst of it … at the heart of it, the magnet to which all good is irresistibly drawn … by which all death is transformed and resurrected: there is God, God herself, bending low to the newly arrived … and gently, ever so tenderly, one by one by one, wiping the tears from their eyes.