the end and the beginning
I had to preach last Saturday, the last day of the liturgical year. I find it sort of ironic in a calendar year such as this one that right after Thanksgiving and Black Friday, when the world sort of encourages gluttony and greed, that we get led up to the end of the church year with all these sober warnings to be alert and watchful, and not to engage in drunkenness and carousing. It’s kind of like Mardi Gras! Actually, if we hadn’t started singing different songs and antiphons that evening and changed the color of our vestments the next day, you would hardly have noticed us ending one liturgical year and beginning a new one with a new season, because we started Advent right where we left off––talking about sobriety and the end times. I’ve been attracted to the idea that we’re not really talking about the end of the world; we’re just talking about the end of time, or perhaps even more accurately, the fullness of time. “World without end, Amen!” we pray; our proper end, as I keep being fascinated with, is a new heaven and a new earth. The Holy Father spoke about this the other day in a way that corroborated this way of thinking. Yes, he said, the Earth is deformed by sin and this world shall pass away. “However, God promised a new dwelling place and a new Earth is being prepared,” as a matter of fact, a new heaven and a new earth! Then he quoted Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium: “In this new world, justice will abide and God shall answer and quench humans’ longing for peace. And so this end of the world is not actually a destruction of the world but rather a transformation to a new truthful and beautiful universe… not an annihilation of the universe and all that surrounds us, rather it brings everything to its fullness of being, truth and beauty.” Not destruction but transformation; not annihilation but fullness, fulfillment! That’s quite a vision filled with hope, and I think the Christian mystical vision at its most refined.
Especially in the first lines of the section we heard from the Book of Revelation––even just in two sentences about the river of life and the tree of life––we should hear all kinds of resonances, conjuring up images from the Hebrew Scriptures that the gospels pick up as well. Psalm 46: The water of a river give joy to God’s city, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within it cannot be shaken.[i] Then we should be remembering Genesis, too, immediately after the stories of creation when we hear about the river that flows out of Eden to water the garden and the stream that rises from the earth and waters the whole face of the ground, and of course the tree of life in the midst of the garden, as well as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.[ii] We should especially be remembering the water flowing from the right side of the temple in the Book of Ezekiel; as a matter of fact John seems to have lifted a line right out of Ezekiel when he writes about the tree whose leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail because of the water that flows from the sanctuary, and whose leaves are for healing.[iii] But we should also remember how else John used that image from Ezekiel in his gospel, that Jesus own’ body has become the new temple out of which flowed blood and water on the cross; and also how Jesus promised that that same water would flow out of the believer’s heart like a stream of life giving water, that water of course being an image of the Holy Spirit: the water of the river that flows through the city, is the same water the flows from the side of Christ, and the same water that is meant to flowing from out of the believer’s heart. The same stream not only in me, but also through the city, through the new earth. It reminded me of this poem Tagore’s famous poem cycle Gitanjali: “The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day / runs through the world and dances in rhythmical measures.” And vice versa: “The same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth” flows through me, and “I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life / and my pride is from the life throb of ages dancing in my blood.”
But Jesus in the gospel takes it out of the realm of mythic iconographic language, and keeps it very simple. “Be alert and pray at all times.” (I always want to add to that something like, “Be alert and pray at all times… and be nice,” or “Be alert and pray at all times… and try to be kind” or “have compassion” or “do the loving thing,” but I guess we take that for granted, that if it’s really apatheia it will resolve itself in agape; that if our prayer is authentic it will always resolve itself in charity. Most of other moral admonitions are about that, but this is perhaps a time to attend to the inner workings.) “Be alert and pray at all times.” That’s what will lead us to the stream of life giving water that is meant to flow from out of our hearts in charity and creativity, in building the new Jerusalem. And I couldn’t think of better advice for a monk. “Be alert and pray at all times.” That’s exactly why the original monks fled into the desert, so as to be able to stay alert and pray constantly. Don’t worry about the future; it’s about now. As a friend of mine who is a scripture professor says, “If not now, then not then.” “Be alert and pray all the time.” There are those who think that those two things are the same thing, like Simone Weil who thought that to be totally attentive to anything was pure prayer. But I don’t think so. I think there is an intentionality about prayer, a relationship about prayer, a motivation about prayer. At some point they can become the same thing, but prayer is not just a still mind, which we could do ourselves. Prayer is a relationship; it’s our union with God, our becoming one spirit with God, our being open to the grace of God. Prayer is the marriage of the Spirit and the Bride, as the Book of Revelation ends.
We are actually right at the end of the Book of Revelation here. Pretty much all that remains in the rest of this chapter and the end of the book are those same words which we will sing all throughout Advent: The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come!’ Then let all who are thirsty come––another allusion to the Hebrew Scriptures and the prophet Isaiah––: all who want it may have the water of life, and have it free. And then those Advent words, which John Main thought was the greatest mantra of all for meditation: Marana-tha! Come, Lord Jesus! So we end the old year and begin the new one with that same prayer/mantra: Marana-tha! Come, Lord Jesus! May your Spirit flow from out of our hearts like a stream of life-giving water, we who are your dwelling place and like living stones let us be built up into your temple.