The liturgy of the nations


Fra Angelico, “The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” (c. 1423-4)

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:9-12)

Here is what Anglican theologian Joseph Mangina writes about this “polyglot, cosmopolitan crowd” that worships God in heaven:

In Rev. 4-5, we saw the heavenly worship around the divine throne continually expanding, from the cherubim and elders to countless angels to “every creature” in the cosmos (5:13). If that is the cosmic liturgy, the present scene is the liturgy of the nations, the Internationale of redeemed humankind. Although the crowd is multilingual, it is nonetheless able to cry aloud with one voice to God and the Lamb (7:10). Unity and difference, the one and the many, are here depicted as being mutually reinforcing rather than competitive. It is now the nations’ turn to lead the worship of God, and when they sing their hymn the cherubim, elders, and angels respond with a doxology of their own: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen” (7:12). 

Creaturely reality in the Bible is ek-centric: to find one’s center in God is, paradoxically, to be freed to be uniquely and oddly one’s self. Gathered around the divine throne, the tongues of all creatures are loosed to find their own peculiar parts in the cosmic song

Is death God’s enemy or servant?

Four Horseman.jpg

Albrecht Dürer, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (ca. 1497-98)

When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!”And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth. (Revelation 6:7-8)

Joseph L. Mangina offers brilliant commentary on the last horseman of the Apocalypse:

Finally, the fourth rider represents pestilence, a common meaning of the Greek word thanatos (“death”). Viewed from this perspective, the actions of the last three horsemen are the fruit of the first. It is the lust for empire that brings all these terrors in its wake. This reading tends to stress the role of human agency: war is a human activity, engaging the energies and imaginations of whole populations in a combined effort to defeat the enemy.

Yet there is more going on here than simply a Johannine critique of Roman imperialism. We can also read the sequence backward, from the perspective of the fourth rider: “And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him.” This fourth, climactic horsemen seems to sum up the other three: he is permitted “to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence.” But this means that the real power at work in all three terrors is death itself, the power who has been signaled as early as 1:18 as God’s final enemy. This reading emphasizes not human agency but suprahuman powers that inflict ultimate harm on creation. If God is the maker, then death is the great unmaker. Here death assumes the role of a character, an “I”—cosmic evil personified. There are different ways to picture this. Thus Dürer depicts the fourth rider as a skeletal old man, while William Blake, in his 1800 painting Death on a Pale Horse, shows him as a surprisingly robust and attractive figure. Death seems strangely alive—but then Blake is a romantic, and romanticism is always tempted in the direction of valorizing death. If Blake’s image captures death’s power, Dürer’s image is more faithful to the biblical horror in the face of death. 

So is death God’s enemy or servant? He is both . . . Ultimately death is the enemy: at the end of Revelation he will be cast into the lake of fire (20:14). Penultimately, however, this very enemy is God’s servant, the executor of judgment, a key instrument in God’s providential rule over history. That is why both he and the other riders are said to be “given authority.” In a fallen world, death has the function of setting a limit on the human project. Perhaps this explains the odd inclusion of “wild beasts of the earth” among the four horseman’s instruments of terror (6:8). These beasts are a reminder that there are powers in this world other than humans. They prefigure the demonic beasts who will haunt the later chapters of Revelation. 


William Blake, “Death on a Pale Horse” (1800)


The circle of the Tao

Vitruvian man.jpg

Leonardo da Vinci, “Vitruvian Man” (c. 1492)

Louis Markos is a professor of English at Houston Baptist University. In his book Restoring Beauty: The Good, The True, and The Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. Lewis, he gives the reader a helpful picture of the relationship between man and the Tao—a Chinese term that C. S. Lewis used in The Abolition of Man to describe “Natural Law or Traditional Morality.” Lewis said the Tao is “the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”

Picture, if you will, the figure of a man with his arms and legs spread outward in two large Vs (rather like the famous “Vitruvian man” of Leonardo). Now imagine that man inscribed completely within a circle that presses down on him from all sides, even as he presses outward with his hands and feet. The forces that press down on him from the outside are the forces of fate, of duty, of honor, of responsibility: in short, all those “oughts” and “musts” that fix his identity and limit his actions and desires. The forces that flow outward from the man are the forces of free will, of choice, of self-assertion and personal autonomy: in short, all those individual passions and volitions that make each of us so radically unique. At times the external forces seem ready to crush the trapped figure inside; at times the internal forces seem ready to shatter the circle. But always the man holds up under the weight, and always the circle maintains its shape and integrity. The apostle Paul expresses it this way: “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).

Each of us lives out our lives within that circle, now succumbing to its weight, now resisting it with all our willpower. The struggle is a hard one, and there are times when we are all tempted to step outside the circle. But this is the one thing we cannot do. For the circle is what defines us as human beings, what supplies us with our meaning and purpose, what keeps us centered, focused, and safe. Were we ever to find a way to step outside the circle, we would find that we had gained our freedom at the expense of our humanity. If we wanted to give that circle a name, we might call it, simply, the “Tao.” Or, if we wanted to give it a more specifically biblical name, we might call it the “fear of the Lord.”

In canto 3 of the Inferno, Dante and Virgil watch with horror and fascination as the souls of the damned gather round the boat of Charon, eager to be ferried across the river into hell. Dante asks who these souls are and how they came to this terrible place, and Virgil replies that all souls congregate here who in life lost the fear of God. The Old Testament tell us (many times) that the fear (or reverential awe) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. It is that which keep us on track, which allows us to discern between the good and the bad, the virtuous and the vicious. When we lose that fear, we go off course, and our discernment grows dark and dull. Yes, we do, in one sense, become free, but it is a freedom that is finally self-destructive and dehumanizing. For the most we cut ourselves loose from the oughts and the imperatives of God (and the Tao), we become enslaved to our own base, animal instincts.

Such is the fate of a man who steps outside the circle.

Such will be the fate of a society that attempts to do the same.

The last two-and-a-half centuries have witnessed numerous attempts by whole societies to step outside the circle: attempts to build a new, man-made utopia free from the oppressive weight of the Tao. In most cases, these would-be utopias ultimately metamorphosed into dystopias that bound rather than freed the dreams of their builders and reduced rather than expanded the human potential of those trapped within them. Indeed, I would argue, and I think that Lewis would agree, that all dystopic, totalitarian states (from Stalinist Russia to fascist Germany to Maoist China to Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and France under Robespierre) are built and led by rulers who have put themselves outside the Tao and have seduced their people to do the same. This moving of an entire state or culture outside the Tao is generally accomplished in one of two ways: either one part of the Tao is sacrificed in order to fulfill another part, or the Tao is rejected altogether and replaced by a new morality.

Whichever path is chosen on this dual road to dystopia, the end is always the same: death, despair, and dehumanization.  

Three American stories of hope

In The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, literary critic Andrew Delbanco writes:

Human beings need to organize the inchoate sensations amid which we pass our days—pain, desire, pleasure, fear—into a story. When that story leads somewhere and thereby helps us navigate through life to its inevitable terminus in death, it gives us hope. And if such a sustaining narrative establishes itself over time in the minds of a substantial number of people, we call it culture. Without some such symbolic structure by which hope is expressed, one would be, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz has put it, “a kind of formless monster with neither sense of direction nor power of self-control, a chaos of spasmodic impulses and vague emotions.” We must imagine some end to life that transcends our own tiny allotment of days and hours if we are to keep at bay the “dim, back-of-the-mind suspicion that one may be adrift in an absurd world.” 

When I teach American literature, I owe a significant debt to Delbanco’s perspicacious schema of our national history into three sequential stories of hope:

images.jpegA fundamental question of our literature has always been how to find release from this feeling of living without propulsion and without aim; and every writer drawn to the theme has concluded, with the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott, that hope depends on finding some “end to be pursued more extensive than a merely instant desire”

In the first phase of our civilization, hope was chiefly expressed through a Christian story that gave meaning to suffering and pleasure alike and promised deliverance from death. This story held the imagination largely without challenge for nearly two hundred years. In the second phase, as Christianity came under pressure from Enlightenment rationality, the promise of self-realization was transformed into the idea of citizenship in a sacred union. This process, which began before the Revolution and did not run its course until the 1960s, has been efficiently described by Conor Cruise O’Brien, who makes clear that it was by no means unique to the United States: “The Enlightenment removes a personal God . . . delegitimizes kingship, by desacralizing it,” and substitutes “the people—a particular people in a particular land . . . the idea of a deified nation.” Finally, in the third phase—our own—the idea of transcendence has detached itself from any coherent symbology. It continues to be pursued through New Age spirituality, apocalyptic environmentalism, and the “multicultural” search for ancestral roots; but our most conspicuous symbols (to use a word considerably degraded since it appeared at the opening of the Gospel according to John) are the logos of corporate advertising—the golden arches and the Nike swoosh. Though vivid and ubiquitous, such symbols will never deliver the indispensable feeling that the world does not end at the borders of the self.

This is our contemporary dilemma: we live with undiminished need, but without adequate means, for attaining what William James called the feeling of “elation and freedom” that comes only “when the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down.”    

Purging fantasies about God


Christ Pantokrator mosaic in Byzantine style from the Cefalu Cathedral, Sicily

Here is an astute observation by Anglican theologian Joseph L. Mangina in his commentary on Revelation:

Revelation is disconcertingly unsentimental in its portrayal of God and evil. Indeed, much of the therapeutic force of the Apocalypse may well be to purge us of some of our fantasies concerning God. Rowan Williams writes that if one such fantasy is that of God as the classic Freudian father, “an authority figure who could sort out all our problems, who is always there on hand to help us out of situations where we would otherwise have to take responsibility,” the opposite danger might be that of “projecting on to God the characteristics of an idealized mother, always accepting and soothing.” On the one hand, God the ultimate daddy, endowed with magical power to make everything right; on the other hand, God the great mommy, accepting us “just the way we are.” It should be evident that both fantasies are grounded in a mixture of fear, self-love, and the seemingly infinite human capacity for self-deception. 

The genius of Revelation, we might say, is that it helps to purge us of those and other such fantasies concerning God. God is not whatever we would like him to be. God is God. He is the Creator and Pantokrator glimpsed in the heavenly worship – power indeed, but not power at human disposal and control – and he is also the Lamb, the slaughtered victim-as-victor. If the image of the all-powerful Creator frees us of our sentimentalism concerning God, the image of the Lamb of God should free us of our fear. If there is a hermeneutic for interpreting the violent passages in Revelation it can be only the cross. “How could it be said more clearly,” writes Jacques Ellul with penetrating insight, “that all that is read afterward [i.e., in the judgments of the seals, trumpets, and bowls], all these abominable things, are under the cover, under the signification, under the embrace of the love of the Lamb. And nowhere else. That all is situated in the cross of Jesus Christ, that these texts must not be read in themselves but only by relation to that love which sacrifices itself for those who hate it.” 

Affectional knowledge of the good

In his sermon “A Divine and Supernatural Light” (1734), American theologian and minister Jonathan Edwards makes a vital distinction between speculative knowledge of the good and affectional knowledge of the good; only the saint possesses the latter kind of knowledge “for God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in [his] heart, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Edwards argues:

There is a twofold understanding or knowledge of good, that God has made the mind of man capable of. The first, that which is merely speculative or notional: as when a person only speculatively judges, that anything is, which by the agreement of mankind, is called good or excellent, viz. that which is most to general advantage, and between which and a reward there is a suitableness; and the like. And the other is that which consists in the sense of the heart: as when there is a sense of the beauty, amiableness, or sweetness of a thing; so that the heart is sensible of pleasure and delight in the presence of the idea of it. In the former is exercised merely the speculative faculty, or the understanding strictly so called, or as spoken of in distinction from the will or disposition of the soul. In the latter the will, or inclination, or heart, are mainly concern’d.

Thus there is a difference between having an opinion that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former, that knows not how honey tastes; but a man can’t have the latter, unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind. So there is a difference between believing that a person is beautiful, and having a sense of his beauty. The former may be obtain’d by hearsay, but the latter only by seeing the countenance. There is a wide difference between mere speculative, rational judging anything to be excellent, and having a sense of its sweetness, and beauty. The former rests only in the head, speculation only is concern’d in it; but the heart is concern’d in the latter. When the heart is sensible of the beauty and amiableness of a thing, it necessarily feels pleasure in the apprehension. It is implied in a person’s being heartily sensible of the loveliness of a thing, that the idea of it is sweet and pleasant to his soul; which is a far different thing from having a rational opinion that it is excellent.

The Lamb rules the cosmos

Adoration of the Lamb.jpg

Jan van Eyck, “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” (1432)

In the throne room of heaven, John weeps because “no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it” (Revelation 5:4). Theologian Joseph L. Mangina writes: “John’s tears hold out the profoundly Jewish hope for a Messiah who will right wrongs, execute justice for the oppressed, and overcome the slaughterhouse that is human history.” These tears are answered with the most stupendous and paradoxical image for the Messiah, “who is both victorious Lion and self-offering Lamb.”

And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. (Rev. 5:5-7)

Here are excerpts from Magina’s commentary on the above verses:

What John hears is a Lion, what he sees is a Lamb. What he hears is strength, what he sees is weakness. What he hears is a conqueror, what he sees is the quintessential victim—the Lamb. This Lamb is not just destined for sacrifice, moreover, but has actually been slaughtered (the participle esphagmenon is in the perfect tense, suggesting an act completed in the past). If what John hears is life, what he sees is death. And yet not so, because the Lamb is standing, so that the slaughter is the mark of his victory; he has passed through death and now stands somehow beyond it. 

* * *

The scene is a kind of diptych, in which each of the two panels interprets the other, but where the priority belongs to the second panel. Christ really is and never ceases to be the Lion of the tribe of Judah. He is indeed a figure of power, but his power is realized precisely in the self-giving love he displays on the cross. In favor of this view is the Apocalypse’s consistent description of Christ as victor while at the same using “lamb” as the dominant christological image; the word arnion appears twenty-nine times in Revelation, twenty-eight times in reference to Jesus Christ (at 13:11 it refers to the beast who mimics Christ’s appearance). . .

It is well stated by Vernard Eller: “The Lamb’s very defenselessness is his lion-like strength; his suffering death is his victory; his modus operandi . . . always is that of the Lamb, but the consequences, the results, always are a victory that belongs to the character of the Lion.” The Lamb embodies the triumph of life; he is slaughtered, but stands and lives: “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore” (1:18). 

 * * *

So if we now ask “who rules the cosmos?” the correct answer can only be “the Lamb rules the cosmos,” that is, “the crucified rules it.” This spells the end of any rationalist or materialist conception in which creation is a closed system tending toward death, in which flesh corrupts and decays, and in which history consists in a never-ending struggle for dominance and power. In the world as we know it, it is empirically the case that lions win and lambs lose—and given these alternatives, who would not rather be a lion? But what the Apocalypse “apocalypses” to us is that the world is not so constituted by loss. As the Creator gives himself to his creatures out of overflowing fullness, so the Lamb gives himself to his people out of his victorious life, death, and resurrection—and these two movements of grace are one. It is the same God who pours himself out for the life of the world in creation, redemption, and consummation. In the contest between life and death, life—or rather the living one—wins.