Isaiah 66, Ezekiel 44-48, Revelation 12, Revelation 21-22
This is the week for shining, the week to be bright. It is one of the few times during the year that Orthodox are forbidden to fast, for there is an action to match every season. Indeed, during Pascha we heard that wonderful hymn to the Theotokos that addresses all of us, for in her we see a picture of our own inheritance:
The Angel cried to the Lady full of grace:
Rejoice, O Pure Virgin!
Again I say: Rejoice!
Your Son is risen from His three days in the tomb.
With Himself He has raised all the dead.
Rejoice, all ye people!
Shine, shine, O New Jerusalem,
The glory of the Lord has shone on you.
Exult now and be glad, O Zion,
Be radiant, O Pure Theotokos,
In the Resurrection of your Son!
Gabriel’s greeting, “Rejoice!” was fulfilled in Christ’s resurrection for his blessed Mother, though her heart had been cruelly pierced by his death. In the same way, the whole of God’s people are called to rejoice, with a joy that transforms them. “Rejoice, all ye people! Shine, shine, O New Jerusalem!” We are God’s people, called to be the New Jerusalem—and the resurrection of our LORD is God’s tangible sign that this is, in fact, what we will become.
The Old Testament offers us a few hints, in the prophetic books, about the renewal of Jerusalem, that city which was repeatedly threatened, oppressed and over-run by world powers beginning with the Assyrians, continuing with the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans. In the book of Isaiah, we hear, against all odds, the promise of a renewed Jerusalem, which will become the center of the entire world, claiming homage from the very Gentiles who took Jerusalem’s leaders away in the exile:
Hark, an uproar from the city! A voice from the temple! The voice of the LORD, rendering recompense to his enemies! “Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she was delivered of a son.”
Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment? For as soon as Zion was in labor she brought forth her sons….Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her; that you may suck and be satisfied with her consoling breasts; that you may drink deeply with delight from the abundance of her glory. For thus says the LORD: “Behold, I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall suck, you shall be carried upon her hip, and dandled upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice… I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Put, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands afar off, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brethren from all the nations as an offering to the LORD, upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem… And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites,” says the LORD. “For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before me,” says the LORD, “so shall your descendants and your name remain.” (Isa 66:6-22)
That is a spectacular vision, isn’t it? The very nations who oppressed and captured the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem, carting them off to foreign places, are gathered by the Lord so that they can see his glory, so that they tell of his glory to others, so that they can serve the Lord. They will be incorporated with the Jewish believers in a radiant city on the holy mountain, as part of a new heavens and a new earth, with a posterity that will last forever! Here Jerusalem is pictured both as a dwelling place and as a mother—a mother who gives birth with no pain, and who immediately delivers her children by the intervention of God. Then, in the prophet Ezekiel, we get that luminous promise that God will “restore the fortunes of Zion,” and that spectacular vision of the holy city on the mountain, stretching for miles and miles in splendor and glory, filled with the glory of the LORD, streaming radiance and healing water into the whole earth, and renamed, “The LORD is There” (Ezekiel 48:35). In Isaiah, the symbolism centers around a glorious and fertile mother, and points to a new heaven and earth; in Ezekiel, the imagery concerns the architectural details of a breathtaking but still mundane metropolis, indwelled by the LORD. But the visionary John, in the Apocalypse, sees these things put together, and even more!
How sad it is that in our own context the book of Revelation has been abused, and made into a mere roadmap for speculators about the sequence of future events. How sad it is that both prying and pedestrian minds, past and present, have rendered this glorious book a danger rather than a joy. Even the word “apocalypse” has come, in our day, to refer to a cataclysmic destruction of the world, rather than to the “revealing,” the “shining” of the LORD upon us. Of course, when God comes, his enemies will be scattered and will flee before His face. As Isaiah begins his vision of glory, “The voice of the Lord,” “brings recompense upon his enemies.” When the sun rises, there is no room for darkness! But the visions of St. John are primarily about God’s victory, not about doom. In the very center of the book of Revelation, in chapter 12, the heavenly voice declares:
Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Rejoice then, O heaven and you that dwell therein!” (Rev 12:10-12 RSV)
This declaration of victory and call for joy comes at the point when a strange and glorious queenly mother has given birth to a Son, the Messiah, even though she is being pursued by the enemy of God. She herself is not immediately transported to God’s glorious presence in heaven, but is made to dwell in the desert, her place of preparation, as her children are pursued by God’s adversary, who has been cast out of heaven: the devil is doomed, and determined to bring down as many as he can with him! But John’s vision does not end here, with the woman sidelined in the desert, and her children under attack. Indeed, even in the declaration, there is the suggestion that martyrdom and suffering are themselves bound up with God’s victory. How could it be otherwise when our Lord himself trampled down death by death?
So we should not be surprised when this woman, along with her children, re-appear in the finale of John’s visions: she comes from heaven, adorned as a bride for her husband; we come down from heaven, prepared by God for His dwelling with us. The woman who bore the Messiah, the Theotokos, and we, who bear witness to Him, sometimes with our lives, are finally made into what God has always had in mind—we are the New Jerusalem, shining with the glory of the Father and the Son, nurtured by the Spirit’s water of life, and animated by that same Spirit who give us the voice to cry, “Yes, come, Lord Jesus!” Here are just a few passages that describe that wonderful life with our Triune God:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment. He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son….
And in the Spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal….. And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates shall never be shut by day — and there shall be no night there….
Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever…. The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come, let the one who desires take the water of life without price. (Rev 22:17 RSV)
And so, we understand why our hymn brings together our Lady the Theotokos with the New Jerusalem—they are bound up one with the other. From the holy Virgin, who believed the angel’s word, came our LORD among us. She was there with the women at the cross, and with the women on Pascha morning. Now He emerged again from the dark, from hades and the tomb rather than the womb, bringing into our world the new creation! She and the disciples saw His exaltation to heaven, as He took our human nature with Him, a foresight of the glory that God will bring to us when we finally reap all that his victory has accomplished. She and the disciples waited for God to act at Pentecost, and received the Holy Spirit as an effective sign of that glory for which we still wait. Pascha, and this paschal hymn, not only celebrate the victory of Christ over sin and death, but point forward to God’s fulfillment of all things—for resurrection is an eschatological event, an event of the new age, brought by the risen Christ ahead into our own time. And, in the dormition and translation of the Theotokos, we have clear confirmation that this resurrection and shining are for all of God’s children—for at her departure she did not see corruption either, but was taken body and soul into God’s presence.
And so, even now, we are refreshed and nurtured by that water, that Spirit, who flows from the throne of God, and comes to us because of what our Christ, the Lamb has done, And, we know, we will be resurrected with the Theotokos, and all the faithful, in the New Jerusalem on the final day, we are told. On that day, God will act, and many children will be born into glory. And so even today, we shine with the reflected glory of Christ and his great victory! We shine as the New Jerusalem, our faces turned in gratitude back to the mighty acts of God, and forward to the promise of that city where there will be no sighing or pain or curse, and where we will be made ready to see the very face of God. Shine, O New Jerusalem, the glory of the LORD has shone on you!