It was granted to him [the beast] to make war with the saints and to overcome them. And authority was given him over every tribe, tongue, and nation. All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. If anyone has an ear, let him hear.
These are strange verses from the Revelation of St. John (chapter 13), but like many things in Scripture they reveal an understanding that we do not immediately consider. When discussing questions such as the Atonement, everything focuses on Good Friday (at least) and theories of sacrifice abound. At their worst the theories become quite literal and fixed and nearly mechanical in their forensic certainty.
But here we have just the sort of verse that throws everything into a new light. Here, the Lamb is slain “from the foundation of the world.” The death of Christ is placed in a cosmic (literally the word used here is “kosmos”) context. History has not yet begun, and yet the Lamb is already slain. So much for literalism.
But, for me, the greater meditation is that Pascha is itself not simply an event of 2,000 years ago, but is and always was at the very center of things. Pascha is not only God’s rescue of His people, it is also revelatory of Who God Is. Before ever the world was, there is Pascha.
Of course, it is possible to minimize this and say it is merely God’s Providence, His provision for what He knew would be required by the foreknown fall of man. But I think this is just that – a minimalization. The God Who has Made Himself Known to Us is not known by us as anyone other than the God Who Is Known in Pascha. We do not know Him apart from Pascha. And if the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world, we never could have known Him otherwise.
For myself, I believe it is another way of saying, “God is Love.” For the love we know of God is never love that is not laying down its life. There is no other love.
I recognize that the Book of Revelation does not play a large role in Orthodox liturgical usage (we never read from it) – but it is itself an Orthodox liturgy, envisioned in its most cosmic setting. We read of Pascha and the Lamb as seen from heaven. And are we not in heaven? Is not this the Pascha that we keep? Is this not the Lamb who was slain? At Pascha we stand both before the world began and at the end of all things.
Behold, the Bridegroom comes.
Thank you for this post, Father. And for the beautiful statement “For the love we know of God is never love that is not laying down its life. There is no other love.” It’s beautiful but so challenging. For if that is the only love, then nothing less than that is true love for God or our neighbor. Anything short of a love that lays down its life is not love at all. A hard but wonderful thought to ponder during Holy Week.
Yes. I can’t find another definition for love in Scripture.
And where does “tough love” fit in? I one day read the context of St. (Blessed) Augustine’s oft-quoted maxim, “Love, and do what you will”:
Thank you for taking the time to share your — what often prove to be very profound — thoughts on this blog.
You might be interested to know that the Coptic Orthodox Church reads the book of Revelation in its entirety during an all night vigil the morning of Holy Saturday (called Bright Saturday in the Coptic Church), followed by a liturgical service around 3am or so. By carrying out such a service I believe that we focus on what you have rightly observed to be the consummation of all things in God’s Pascha — in its most cosmic sense — as seen from both ends of time.
Thanks again for these wonderful insights.
Thank you for a piece of information I had not heard. It makes sense – there is such a cosmic drama to Pascha – only Revelation does as much as the liturgy itself does (since it is a vision of a “liturgical” event). Thanks!
And yet you do read from Revelation, yes?
HOLY HOLY HOLY.
Orthodox Christians read Revelation and treat it as Scripture, but in the Eastern Orthodox Church there is no service in which it is appointed to be read. That’s an interesting liturgical point, and does say something about the history of the relationship between the Churches in the East and the Revelation of John, but yes we read it.
The Holy, Holy, Holy, which does occur in Revelation is first in Isaiah. The form as it occurs in the liturgy comes from Isaiah.
But it is a marvelous book and I’m very interested to know that it is used in the Oriental Orthodox in the manner Nikolai described. Many things in both the Coptic and the Ethiopian Churches are extremely old, even somewhat “pre-Byzantine.”
Ah yes, the cosmic dimension. Fr. Alexander Schmemann (of blessed memory) called all of us to enter into the escatalogical dimension of the faith.
This is the only place large enough to overcome the pride of humanity. Only in this cosmic place is man’s pride crucified and left as nothin in the face of an awesome (an overused word in today’s culture) God and His unspeakable love for us.
How will we ever be fit to stand in His undiluted Presence without the wise path of Holy Week to illumine our way?
Yes, in deed, the Bridegroom comes. Do I have oil? Is my wick trimmed? Is my garment a wedding garment? O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. I am caught unprepared. I am undone and lost. Lord, as you showed mercy to the harlot who bathed Your feet with her tears, so also have mercy on me though I have offered you no tears of repentance. Grant me tears of repentance before You arrive, so I will not be cast out of Your Wedding Feast where tears of remorse will be all I have.
Some of the oldest icons are in Ethiopia. I have a wonderful book that contains reproductions of some of them. One shows a beast being slay by what looks like a slave.
Speaking of cosmic drama, beware, Judas approaches.
I am an Oriental Orthodox Christian from India, and have been a long time reader since your time on Fr Kimel’s. I am sure you didn’t know you had admirers in India. Such is the internet.
Much like in the Byzantine Orthodox Churches, the OO in Syria and India do not use the Revelation to St John , in the liturgical services.
Perhaps because the Syriac Pesshito did not include this particular book.
Many things in both the Coptic and the Ethiopian Churches are extremely old, even somewhat “pre-Byzantine.”
Some things in the Ethiopian Church are pre-Christian! It is a very Jewish church – and pre-Rabbinical Judaism, at that. I was once acquainted with an Ethiopian Orthodox priest, whose strange pronouncements often amazed me.
Thanks for your addition, Suraj. I think and pray for the Christians in India often.
Indeed, Suraj, greet our brothers and sisters for me on this Great and Holy Day!
Roland, imagine, Jewish elements in a Christian Church! It always seemed to me that it would be most appropriate to find such. Even the Byzantine elements have not overwhelmed some of the Jewish aspects of Orthodox worship. But I understand that Ethiopia’s unique history would make this even stronger.
Wonderful article Father. Thanks!
great article padre
I would highly recommend Fr. John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ. I can think of little that is better.
i pastor a church in the ‘evangelical’ tradition, but i’m finding so much of what we lack addressed in the theology of the east and the early church fathers. i lack some of the vocabulary that would allow me to study these things better. one of the ideas i find frightening is that many evangelicals consider the cross to be a sort-of plan b.
could you point me to some work that would engage with this further? i prefer the patristics, but would be quite satisfied with any resources.
Fr Stephen, thank you for a beautiful meditation.
I’ve been reading about how the word order in Greek (and related “foundation of the world” passages in other places in scripture) provides support for some translators to have “from the foundation of the world” modify the time when the names were written into the lamb’s book of life, rather than “the lamb slain.” See the RSV for example.
What is your opinion about that? And moreover, how do you approach doing “creative” theology based on passages where the meaning has enough ambiguity to support such different translations?
Also, I can’t find a book by Fr John Behr called The Cross of Christ. Did you mean The Mystery of Christ?
In such cases, you work from within the Tradition. There’s a reason, for example, that the King James rendered it in the manner that it did – it was following what had been a traditional understanding of the verse. I find that to be a trustworthy way to proceed.
I’m sure the John Behr work is The Mystery of Christ.
My natal tradition is Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox). (My husband is Greek Orthodox and we were married in the Greek Orthodox church.) Armenian Orthodox do not read Revelation either as part of the regular lectionary. But the liturgy, as well as other aspects of tradition, is still filled with references clearly informed by Revelation. One of the best Bible studies I have ever attended was by a Deacon in the Church who focused on this topic. Also, timely for now, the Armenian Orthodox never separated the celebration of Theophany from Nativity, hence “Armenian Christmas” is January 6th. This is not an old calendar issue; it is simply that both are still celebrated on the same day as was done in the very ancient Church.
Not sure about the RSV story – but it’s a very awkward way to render the passage (to my mind).