23 September 2011

New beginnings in … the Book of Revelation

‘Now the light falls ... I said to my soul, be still, and wait ...’ autumn sunsets turn to winter at Skerries Harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

Reading: Revelation 21: 1-7, 22: 20-21.

The end of the New Testament, like the beginning of the corpus of Johannine writings, offers new beginnings with the promise of a new heaven and the new earth.

Thomas Russell, “The man from God knows where” was a Belfast revolutionary from the United Irishmen of 1798, who combined his revolutionary politics with a strong visionary brand of millenarianism and pious sacramentalism. His knowledge of the Bible was so exact that he could argue with professional theologians on interpretations from both Hebrew and Greek.

He was arrested before the 1798 Rising began, and his writings in Newgate Prison in Dublin exhibit a deep self-examination coupled with a strong personal faith:

O Lord God … it is not from thy justice
Before which I stand condemned
That I expect salvation,
But from thy mercy that I expect pardon and forgiveness,
My Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Russell was deported to Scotland in 1799. When he was eventually executed in 1803, it was after he had spent his last hours translating from his Greek New Testament verses from the Book of Revelation that summarised his politically beatific and visionary millenarianism: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away” (Revelation 21: 1).

But that promise of a New Heaven and a New Earth are not only for the revolutionary or for millenarian visionaries.

The promise of a new heaven and a new earth, the promise of a new beginning, is offered to each one of us. It is our beginning and our end.

As we approach the season of Advent we are approaching not the end of the year but the beginning of the Christian New Year. And we prepare not so much for the cultural comforts that surround the Christ Child in the Christmas crib, but for the coming of Christ the King in triumph.

Those who use liturgical colours often think of the Purple of Advent and Lent is a penitential colour. But it is not. It is a royal colour.

In human colour psychology, purple is associated with royalty and nobility – an association that dates back to classical antiquity, when purple dye from Tyre could be afforded only by the ruling and social elites. Purple (πορφύρα, porphura), was a Tyrian purple dye manufactured in classical antiquity from a mucus secreted by the spiny dye-murex snail, a molusc found only on the shores of Tyre.

It was so rare and so expensive that the Syro-Phoenician woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon and Lydia the seller of purple may have been wealthy women of independent means.

In the Byzantine Empire, only a child born into the imperial family had the right to wear this unique colour, and was thus “born to the purple.” In the Byzantine Empire, empresses retreated to give birth in chambers lined in porphyry, so that their children were “born to the purple” This fact, too may have contributed to the origin of this expression.

For those interested in the particularities of colour, purple is a non-spectral colour, unlike violet and indigo, which are spectral colours. Purple is beyond our abilities to define, and because of the differences between individuals when it comes to retinal sensitivity and particularly sensitivity to red and blue light, most of us actually disagree about what is true purple.

What a beautiful conundrum for the colour that should invite us think beyond the limitations of time and space.

Advent and Lent, the seasons of purple, invite us to think of our beginnings and our ends. For Advent and Lent are the times we prepare for the coming of Christ as king, and the ushering in of the Kingdom of God.

In our beginning is our end, in our end is our beginning.

A terrace of almshouses in East Coker ... the village that inspired TS Eliot was his ancestral home and his ashes are buried at the parish church ... “In my beginning is my end”

TS Eliot’s East Coker, the second of his Four Quartets, is set in late November, as we move towards Advent, and ends: “In my end is my beginning.”

But it opens:

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation …

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane …

Wait for the early owl.

And once again, I call to mind TS Eliot in East Coker:

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God …

And yet, in this apocalyptic visionary, poem, Eliot is neither all doom nor all gloom. In East Coker he offers a solution, he offers hope:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

In The Dry Salvages, the third of the Four Quartets, Eliot strives to contain opposites:

... the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled.

Little Gidding is the last and the most anthologised of the Four Quartets. In Little Gidding, Eliot ends the Four Quartets with the well-known affirmation by Julian of Norwich:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

In Little Gidding, Eliot is exposes the expression of the Catholic faith as set out particularly by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), who is commemorated in Anglican calendars on 25 September. He was one of the key translators of the Authorised Version of the Bible, whose 400th anniversary we have been marking this year, and was the first among the group of Anglican theologians we know as the Caroline Divines.

The Orthodox theologian and biographer of Lancelot Andrewes, Professor Nicholas Lossky has described Andrewes as “a Bridge betwwen Orthodoxy and the Wesley Brothers in the Realm of Prayer.” Incidentally, the last member of this group, William Ken (1637-1711), had a profound and deep influence on the spirituality of John Wesley.

‘To make an end is to make a beginning’ ... tangled bicycles abandoned in the snow in Temple Bar, Dublin, last winter (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

In Little Gidding, Eliot echoes Lancelot Andrewes in paradoxical lines that crystallise the significance of the Incarnation:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

… A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.

The community at Little Gidding, formed in the 17th century by Nicholas Ferrar, maintained 24 hours of prayer, including long hours of night vigils. Little Gidding was a place “where prayer has been valid” and where “prayer is more/than an order of words”:

… You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

The Four Quartets are best understood within the framework of Christian thinking, tradition, and history. Eliot draws upon the theology, art, symbolism and language of such figures as Dante, and mystics, such as Saint John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich. The “deeper communion” sought in East Coker, the “hints and whispers of children, the sickness that must grow worse in order to find healing,” and the exploration that inevitably leads us home all point to the pilgrim’s path along the road to sanctification.

You are here today for new beginnings, but they point to our end.

And yet the end is our beginning.

And so, in the words of the Advent Collect, let us pray:

Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast off the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
so that when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This address the third of three addresses at “I Make all Things New,” a quiet day for the beginning of the academic year, in Edgehill Theological College, Belfast, on 23 September 2011.

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