John’s apocalypse is mostly read as a book of destruction – and for the first part this is not wrong. But then its vision changes. It presents us with wonderful images of a golden city: of a coming world that is pure light, whose distinguishing feature is overwhelming beauty. The Bible opens with a garden, that is, with human flourishing in nature, but it closes with a city, with human flourishing in culture. Nature is the story’s starting point, culture its goal. And that God is seen surrounded by symbols of perfect, captivating beauty – this is the comfort toward which we are journeying.
The powerful text that appears shortly before the end of the Book of Revelation, in chapters 21 and 22, is like the closing chord of the entire Bible – its finale, toward which everything hurries. More even: everything else in scripture is bathed in the light of this vision, starting from the beginning of the world. Here the two building blocks are named around which all else is brought together and which together carry the whole edifice. These two elements are the New Jerusalem and Christ, and they come together here in a meeting that has the character of a wedding, of a culminating and final future.
Let us reflect on the first of these two elements: the descent of the city – that is, the bride – accompanied by symbols of penetrating beauty. The image of the bride comes after images of the desolation of the old world, a desolation resulting not from mere abandonment but rather from a willed act of punishment. But once this purification has been completed, the splendor begins. Here we encounter a beauty filled with the power and shimmer of the unimaginable: this city is a perfect cube whose only building blocks are pearls, gold, gemstones, and light. But these are more than just materials: they are emanations of the glory of that light which is the Lamb. Nothing is only itself; everything is splendor of splendor, a bursting forth of life even from inanimate matter. Here is an outbreak of that same vitality that before had wrought death, shattering all semblances and drowning them in a sea of fire. But now we find nuptial images of life at its zenith, life that awakens no-longer-lifeless matter to an existence full of relationships. For the city (which is simultaneously the bride) is unfurled before our eyes with river and tree, streets and measurable dimensions. Here matter is perfected into light; it becomes transparent. Matter becomes the dwelling place of the bride-church, the place where, at long last, the bridegroom appears.
Poets have taken Revelation’s images of perfection and developed them further, seeking to express the inexpressible. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the gemstones of the city become a flower, the shining rose of heaven. Here, too, a woman comes into play – Beatrice, who meets Dante at the top of the difficult and steep path through Purgatory and guides him into lightness and brightness. In the words of Romano Guardini: “From the top of the mountain of Purgatory, one floats, or rather, is taken up, in a movement that more and more openly bears the character of being raptured. But what raptures is the smile of [Dante’s] guide, Beatrice, she who is wholly beautiful and effortless, the symbol of grace.”1 In Dante’s poem, Beatrice represents what we encounter in the Book of Revelation in the symbol of the bride-church. The enchantingly beautiful and effortless way that she guides Dante is summed up by Guardini as follows: “The figure of Beatrice expresses that perfect power does not lie in the greatness of achievement but rather in pure gift, in the smile of the beloved, blessed woman.”2
Guardini’s words allude not only to Mary as symbol of the church, but also play on a deep understanding of the divine. For the terms he uses – grace, pure gift, effortlessness – all have to do with divine attributes. “Grace” here may seem a theological term, but like the Latin word gratia from which it derives, it evokes something more: beauty. Beauty is among the most glorious and ultimate of God’s attributes. As Guardini puts it: “Beauty is the way in which being acquires a face for the heart and learns to speak. In it, being becomes prodigiously loving, and by touching the heart and blood it touches the spirit. That is why beauty is so strong. It sits enthroned and reigns, effortless and staggering.”3 To be sure, the beauty of fallen creation can betray us, twisting the reflection of the divine into evil, so that its expression of perfection has the power to drag us downward – a seduction all the stronger because it still carries the trace of God within itself. One might say that evil has to use beauty to camouflage itself.
Nevertheless, whatever is beautiful still points back to its origin, and Revelation speaks effusively of the eschatological beauty of the redeemed world. Together with this image of the splendor of the bride, John’s book calls up one last image to accompany it: that of the bridegroom, the Lamb.
The Lamb That Was Slain
How will the Bridegroom be portrayed? The word “lamb” invites us to listen closely – can’t you already hear the connotation of slaughter? To keep the splendor from becoming unbearable, even unbelievable, we turn to look at another scene: night in the afternoon, an earthquake, soldiers, and women and other onlookers at an ancient execution. The man crucified in the center has undergone torture and dies more quickly than the other two. He is marked not only by blood but also by wounds to the head; later descriptions of him will draw on Psalm 22’s language of a “worm,” of contempt and disgust. It is this executed man who shines in the consummate city, and he emerges from a horrifying story marked by the pallid light of death and the stench of decay.
By means of this story, the executed man has pulled the world out from the abyss – even if much that is evil and depraved will still come to pass. But he has carried out this rescue at a high price; the Lamb must pay dearly to take on the guilt of the world. For water that washes others will itself become sullied. And this is the drama of Jesus: the utter eradication of the ugly makes God himself ugly. As Paul summarizes this inconceivable process: “He was made sin for our sake” (2 Cor. 5:21). The Lamb himself becomes one of the goats; he allows himself to be steeped in what is hateful and abominable. He becomes not a sinner, but something much more: sin itself. He is unable to seal himself off from his foul-smelling burden; indeed, he becomes indistinguishable from it.
The crucifixion of Jesus is the price paid for our rubbish-ridden and depraved world. Such a world needs more than just a quick external wash. Instead, the Lamb must take on our devouring leprosy. The cleansing he carries out is accomplished with blood and ends in death. Evidently, impurity cannot be overcome in any other way. Impurity is not vanquished from without, but rather taken over from within, in a final show of solidarity. The sacrificial animal hauls itself through the streets of Jerusalem to the place of the rejected, to die there with its burden.
But this act took place once and for all, and, through it, all the filth that we could ever pile up has been taken away. All of it, without exception. There will still be tears, inner aches and inhibitions, and lingering pangs of conscience, but through them the knowledge shimmers: the old has passed away. And far more than that: under the husks of guilt that continue to cling to us, we have become new and different creatures. In the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar, “I have overcome not only death, and not only sin, but sin’s disgrace no less, its scarlet infamy, the bitter dregs of your guilt and your remorse and your bad conscience. Look: all this has vanished, leaving less trace than does the snow when it melts under the Easter sun.”4
Eagerness for the Future
How do we live for such a future? It’s helpful to consider two different ways that the future can be understood. In Latin, time that runs automatically onward from today to tomorrow is called futurum. But time that runs in the other direction, from tomorrow to today – time that comes toward me, that shapes me already now – is called adventus. This is where we get the word “adventure,” true adventure, the adventure of life.
According to the apostle Paul, the Lord will come “like a thief” (1 Thess. 5:1–6). The announcement of this coming forces existence into a posture of stretching itself out – out toward the coming light, “keeping watch” (1 Thess. 5:6). Such watching and waiting is not dependent on a particular date, but rather is the way a Christian is to live: always already in Advent, always already in the “adventure,” doing everything in the present light of the future. What will come tomorrow is already here today. Already today we are redeemed, as will be revealed tomorrow. In this way, the future frees the present from the clutches of the here and now; no longer is the present marked by dull resignation or subjected to fear, no longer is it merely a postponement of the inevitable.
Unlike many other religions, Christian anticipation knows no cycle of rebirth understood as the inescapable, indifferent, and unending primal narrative of downfall and rise, struggle and failure, guilt and dissolution in an eternally repeating, exhausting sequence. Rather, Christian anticipation stands in a history that is urging purposefully forward toward consummation, toward weal or woe. Time is the thought-form characteristic of Christianity: time that sets in motion and keeps in motion. Time is understood as bringing salvation, in a double sense: as kairos (the wonderful moment) and pleroma (the fullness of time). Within time, what is on offer again and again is new decision: time to be redeemed, time offering itself with an invitation – my time.
It is in time and in the flesh that history is realized, pushing forward in the bright flash of decision, not stoically accepted as fate or blind destiny. History is the place in which we are challenged to come face to face with the forces of reality and to endure them. Christianity understands time as the opportunity to be addressed by God and to freely respond to him – with yes, with no, or with evasiveness.
Listening, in the sense of obeying, and refusing to listen, which amounts to becoming deaf, are the two main ways we can respond to the divine claim that confronts us each day. Of course, even when we fail, we may be granted another opportunity, “as long as it is still day” (John 9:4). What’s more, any victories we do win must again and again be shored up; to that extent, the back-and-forth of human willing and doing is a state of suspense that ends only at death. The perfection of the golden city is a victory that can be won only by giving our complete dedication, mind, and will. We must taste the bitterness of the flesh’s mortality to the dregs, dying a single and unrepeatable death without any prospect of escape through rebirth, as the wages of sin. Within time, we must fight the battles that will leave us either sanctified or depraved, and must strain under the labor of our yoke, be it the yoke of the Lord or – God forbid – of his adversary. “In hope shall the plowman plow and the thresher thresh” (1 Cor. 9:10).
Fear – or Joy?
What does revelation claim about us? What does it say to us?
Apocalypse does not mean simply fear. Rather, it means fear that turns to joy. The old world bursts apart and burns up (today’s astrophysics suggests something similar), but then greatness arrives, and no one will mourn the old. It is joy when the old world of sorrow and death is overthrown. For Christianity, this way of escape lies on the horizon of the present transient world. Other religions imagine an endlessly repeating cycle (and endlessly repeating misery). But Christianity waits in confidence for history to culminate in a mighty goal. In earlier times, for the first Christians, this waiting was like a torch in the night.
Israel also waited – for the promised Son of Man, ben-’adam. The first time he came helplessly as a child, noticed only by a few. The second time he promises to come openly in power. Power might seem something threatening, but here it announces “summer,” just like the young shoots of the fig tree: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates” (Mark 13:28–29). This summer is the summer of a righteous, upright, and rightened existence. For the meaning of judgment is that things will be set right.
Have we “allowed the flame to die down in our sleepless hearts,” in the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin? “How many of us are genuinely moved in the depths of our hearts in the wild hope that our earth will be recast? Who is there who sets a course in the midst of our darkness towards the first glimmer of a real dawn?”5
It’s pointless arguing when and how the goal will be reached: Tomorrow? Or far in the future, in the lives of much later generations? One way or the other, the task and comfort of each generation is to remember the ultimate goal, especially in times of fear. In the face of fear, nothing helps so much as the flame of longing for the true Lord of history, for the “heart-bursting delight”6 of his coming.
The Psalmist looks ahead toward a morning on the far side of death: “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness” (Ps. 17:15). In another translation: “When I awake I shall be sated with your beauty.”7 This is the comfort toward which we are journeying.
Translated from German by Cameron Coombe and Peter Mommsen.
- Romano Guardini, Vision und Dichtung: Der Charakter von Dantes Göttlicher Komödie (Wunderlich, 1940), 29.
- Ibid., 47.
- Romano Guardini, Religiöse Gestalten in Dostojewskijs Werk (Kösel, 1947), 256.
- Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Heart of the World, trans. Erasmo S. Leiva (Ignatius, 1979), 162.
- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu (Harper & Row, 1960), 152.
- Thomas Mann, Joseph und seine Brüder (S. Fischer, 1964), 1083.
- Translated directly from the German. In English, a similar approach has been taken by The Psalms Project. —Trans.