“And the angel carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me that great city, the New Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God.
“And her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like unto a jasper, clear as crystal. It has a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the fates twelve angels; and names were written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of Israel: on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the west three gates and on the south three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations: and on them were written the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”
- Revelation 21:10-14
Last Wednesday, August 24th, marks the feast of the Apostle Bartholomew, called Nathaniel. Scripture makes little mention, but there are a number of apocryphal writings attributed to him, and tradition tells us that he went (like his comrade Thomas) to India, and later returning from India and evangelized there. Like Thomas, he fell afoul of the king of Armenia after persuading his wife to embrace celibacy, and he was martyred there by being flayed alive. Flaying consists in removal of the skin while the subject is still alive, and was the method by which Mani, the founder of Manichaeanism, would be put to death by Shah Behram of Persia some two centuries later.
The first reading for St. Bartholomew’s Day consists of this excerpt from St. John’s vision of the City of God. It’s not totally clear to me why this reading was chosen, but I would assume it’s related to Jesus’ promise to Bartholomew when he first meets him: “Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou me? Thou shalt see greater things than these. Verily, verily I say unto you, hereafter ye shall see the heavens opened, and angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 2:50-51).
St. John’s vision of the City of God, which is excerpted here, goes on for quite a while, and sets forth a number of features of heaven. People sometimes deplore John’s Apocalypse for being too grim and dark, but that’s profoundly silly for a number of reasons. Not merely because life itself is tragic, and often dark and horrific, but also because the John’s Apocalypse actually talks rather little about hell (compared to the other Apocalypses that didn’t make it into the canon of scripture, hell gets dashed off in a few sentences) and it talks a lot more about heaven. Many have noted in the past that St. John talks about heaven, though, almost entirely in terms of negation: he states a feature of the current world we know, and then tells us that it won’t exist in heaven. For example, rather than telling us “There will be delicious fruits to eat in heaven”, he says, ‘There will be no hunger,” (Revelation 7:16) and rather than saying, “The light of heaven is brighter than you can imagine,” he says, “There will be no night there,” and again, rather than saying “We will all experience personal interaction with God,” he says, “I saw no temple there, for its temple is the Lamb” (Revelation 22:22).
We can only comprehend heaven by considering its opposite, just as we can infer the existence of light from considering shadows: for just as the light of the sun is too bright for us to look at directly, heaven is too great for us to comprehend directly, and we can understand it only indirectly, through inferring perfection by considering the imperfect. That’s part of the reason that heaven has traditionally been so difficult to describe- for apocalyptic visionaries, for preachers, and for utopian idealists alike. How can the imperfect comprehend perfection? There is something deeply Platonic, of course, about St. John’s whole approach to heaven, and this is what we should expect from the one who used Platonic terminology to understand Christ as the Eternal Word, who ‘was with God, and was God’ (John 1:1).
The passage goes on to describe the architectural detail of the City of God, and at this point a parallel will immediately strike the reader who is familiar at any level with the Old Testament. The parallel is with the last few chapters of the Book of Ezekiel, in which Ezekiel describes the architectural details of the new Temple that will be built to the glory of God. Now, of course, Christians read Ezekiel on several different levels. One one level, the book is a prophecy of the temple that will be built when the Jews return from Persian captivity: but on another and deeper level, Ezekiel’s vision is a prophecy of the Incarnation, in which God will be made man and dwell among us, just as he temporarily was believed, by Jews in ancient times, to be present in the inner sanctum of the Temple. Thus Ezekiel says, of the Temple, “This gate shall be closed; it shall not be opened and no man shall enter by it, for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered therein: it shall remain forever shut” (Ezekiel 44:2). One one level, this is a description of the temple, and what holiness requires in terms of setting one gate aside for God alone. But on another and deeper level, Christians read this verse as a typological prophecy of the Perpetual Virginity of Our Lady. When Christians began to debate the perpetual virginity of Mary, almost immediately the defenders of this doctrine turned to this verse and saw in it a confirmation of the traditions that the church had always held, and which was made doctrine by the Fifth Ecumenical Council.
It is impossible to read Ezekiel on its own, in other words: it can only be understood in light of the Incarnation, just as in general the Old Testament can only be read and understood (for Christians) in the light of the New. The Gospel story is a key that unlocks the mysteries of the Old Testament. St. John, in the passage above, makes a connection between the twelve tribes of Israel, and the twelve Apostles: the first were a figure for the second, and the mythological twelve tribes of Israel, outlined in the stories of Genesis, become literal historical fact in the person of the Twelve Apostles, just as the three angels that spoke to Abraham are a type and figure of the Holy Trinity. For this reason do we read the Song of Solomon as a paean to romantic love, but we also see it as a figure of the sinless and all-holy Mary; we see the Mosaic law as a set of rules given to the Jewish people, but we also see it a deeper, figurative meaning.
Thus, Barnabas, the associate of St. Paul, speaks in his Epistle of the commandment not to eat pork, that the true meaning here is that we are not to be like the pig. “Thou shalt not cleave, saith he, to such men who are like unto swine; that is, when they are in luxury they forget the Lord, but when they are in want they recognize the Lord, just as the swine when it eateth knoweth not his lord, but when it is hungry it crieth out, and when it has received food again it is silent” (Barnabas 10:3). For the pig is stubborn and wayward when full, but becomes docile and squeals for its master when it is hungry; in the same way, says Barnabas, we are not to forget God when we comfortable and then call on him in prayer when we need something. He quotes the law of Moses as saying “thou shalt not eat the hyaena”, and that this is in a deeper sense a warning against the confusion and blurring of gender roles, for the female hyaena is highly ‘masculinized’ (Barnabas claimed that the hyaena changes sex, which is not true, but it is a zoological fact that the female hyaena is highly masculinised). The law of Moses forbids eating the weasel: and this, says Barnabas, is a warning against being like the weasel, which routinely performs oral sex.
N.B. This is actually not true of the weasel- Barnabas was a Church Father, not a zoologist- and I don’t necessarily share the flat condemnation of oral sex which Barnabas gives us, for I take no opinion on the intrinsic morality of the practice. But I certainly do think the widespread normalization of the practice in modern America has contributed to the increasingly casual and meaningless approach we take to sexuality: no one can read of the ‘rainbow party’ epidemic sweeping our high schools, or the sad story of the Children of Rockdale County that the good Rod Dreher used to talk a lot about, without feeling that the widespread and uncontroversial acceptance of the oral sex nowadays, as something no more meaningful or consequential then shaking hands, has not been good for America. I know a girl once who ‘hooked up’ with ten different men in a single night, and I find that a troubling and saddening reflection on our culture. I fear that the widespread Bill Clinton had something to do with this, I suspect, by his contribution to the impression many have that ‘it isn’t really sex’, and that his misbehaviour with Miss Monica Lewinski did not constitute adultery. In a world in which high school girls feel oblidged to perform sexual acts on the boys in the stairwell between classes, as Rod Dreher once colorfully described it, I have a hard time thinking that Barnabas was totally wrong, for our increasing fondness for oral sex has, I believe, degraded and denatured the fullness of what sexuality is intended to be.
But enough of oral sex for the moment, let’s get back to theology. In a similar vein, the story of Jonah is not merely a tall tale about a fellow who got swallowed by a ‘big fish’: it is, in a deeper sense, an allegory about the One who descended into hell for three days just as Jonah descended into the belly of the whale, and who gave his life as a ransom for many, in the same way that Jonah offered himself to be put overboard that the storm might be quelled, and that the sailors might be saved. Christians hold, in other words, that the New Testament is the key to understanding the Old, and that if any man believes the Old Testament can be fully understood on its own, they are mistaken. (The Jewish understanding, of course, is very different, but I’m concerned with the Christian understanding here.)
But if that’s the case, then what if something yet deeper and more profound is the case as well? If the Old Testament cannot be fully understood on its own, then how do we know that the New Testament can be? What if the New Testament itself points to something higher, to some yet better and greater revelation, in the same way that the Old Testament points to the New? Many have held this, of course: Mani, Montanus and Muhammed all claimed to be the bringers of an new revelation that would exceed the New Testament as the New Testament had exceeded the Old. In the thirteenth century, a Cistercian monk called Joachim of Flora became a sensation all across Europe, admired and feared, loved and venerated, when he claimed that the New Testament was not the final and definitive revelation of God. As the Jewish age had been the Age of the Father, and the Christian age the Age of the Son, so too there would be an Age of the Holy Ghost, with a corresponding Eternal Gospel that would supplant the earthly gospels as the earthly gospels had supplanted the Law. In this Joachim was much influenced by the verse from the Apocalypse “And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the Eternal Gospel to preach unto them that well on the earth…” (Revelation 14:6). In this age there would be no need for churches, no need for laws, no need for enforcement of rules and regulations: for the Holy Ghost would dwell within the hearts of men, and they could not desire anything that was not good. The laws and church rules would be replaced by boundless and perfected love. All property would be shared, and people would compete with each other not in terms of what they could acquire, but in terms of the good that they could do. Before the new Age of the Holy Ghost was to dawn, the forces of wickedness would gather for a last assault on the forces of good, of cosmic and monumental scale; Joachim appears to have seen a foretaste of this in the Crusades, and in the Muslims’ attacks upon the Christian holy places. But when the final war was over, the Age of the Holy Ghost would dawn, and from henceforth men would effortlessly and joyfully love one another.
One need not accept all Joachim’s thoughts and speculations, and few modern people would, to think he may have been onto something, and that his questions were good ones. The City of God describes a real city, of course, and without doubt St. John saw what he claimed to have seen. But it’s possible, too, that on yet another level he refers to something we haven’t seen, and have no ability to imagine. Just as the author of Jonah could not have understood the full nature of the Passion, yet had some dim vision of it; just as Isaiah in his song of the Suffering Servant foresaw some of the details of the Passion, yet did not know quite what those details would mean; just as Ezekiel foresaw the rebuilt temple but did not know he was also foretelling the Incarnation; so too, it’s possible that what we see in the New Testament, at least in some of the murkier and more difficult Pauline letters and in the Apocalypse, are hints of a future revelation which will make everything clear. Perhaps what we see through them is a light veiled in clouds, and only whe n the clouds pass will the light be made clear. Perhaps the Lord reveals the truth to us in bits and pieces, and that what we were not ready to receive in the past, we may be ready to receive in future; for the author of the Letter to the Hebrews distinguishes between those who are ready for milk, and those who are ready for solid food (Hebrews 5:12). Perhaps, in short, we should be humble about our ability to know the definitive truth, for it’s possible that we only have been given part of it, and when we receive the whole, we may come to know just how wrong we were in the conclusions we drew.
It’s a mistake to believe that Christ merely gave us a dispensation from the Mosaic law, or said that it need not apply to Gentiles. We must not underestimate the magnitude of the break that He made with the law of Moses, or with the way he overrode it and utterly nullified it. The law of Moses said that the leper was to be shunned and set apart, but Christ touched the lepers and healed them by a miracle. As the rock in Daniel’s vision, the stone uncut by human hands which rolled over and shattered all the previous kingdoms, which ‘became a great mountain and filled the whole earth’ (Daniel 2:35), so Christ is that very Rock, who breaks the nations as shards from the potter’s wheel, and who utterly overwhelms and overrides all previous systems of law. The Age of the Son succeeds the Age of the Father, and the era of grace replaces the era of law. But if that is the case, then is it not possible that the laws of Paul, too (who wasn’t divine any more than Moses was divine) may also be replaced? Perhaps we make a mistake by thinking that Paul’s thoughts (about the leadership of women, for example, or about homosexuals) are the last word, any more than Moses’ commandments (except insofar as they embody eternal principles of the natural law, or the words of God Himself) are the last word.
For it’s John himself, the eyewitness and best friend of the Lord, who reminds us in the words of the Lord himself, “Thou shalt see greater things than these.” As beautiful and as compelling, as well researched and as morally inspired as the words of any preacher, patriarch, or interpreter may be, we must not take them as the last word on our faith, for again, we live under the promise, “Thou shalt see greater things than these.”
Glory be to the Root and Branch of David, to the Bright and Morning Star.