When the time came, a few years ago, for the Cathedral to commission new stained glass windows for the entryway, we chose for these windows the theme Tree of Life. So whenever I hear the reference to it from Revelation 21, this evening’s second reading from the second last chapter of Revelation, I remember that process of commissioning an artist to interpret this passage and I’ll say more about that later.
Amongst the books of the Bible, Revelation is perhaps the weirdest, closely followed, in my list books by Ezekiel. Revelation is a complicated text difficult (for me anyway) to follow if I simply try to read it beginning to end. It’s filled with exotic and bizarre imagery. Over the centuries, interpreters have jumped on various passages to predict future political and social events, or to justify their views about the end times and who finally gets saved. It’s been used to support views ranging from anti Catholicism to anti Semitism and also used to strike the fear of God into the hearts of innocent believers. So it’s not surprising that progressively inclined clergy tend to shy away from preaching from it.
But if you dig into this ancient text, you will find actually a radical view of the cosmos, hidden within a particularly subversive analysis of the conflict between the lure of Empire and the call of the Christian community. What makes this text difficult is that it was written in a sophisticated coded language that would have been easy for its original audience to understand, but its references are largely lost on post-modern readers. So let’s explore it a little bit, picking up the verses that have been appointed for this 6th Sunday of Easter.
It begins with a vision, “And in the spirit, an angel carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” The holy city—this is the first image we encounter in tonight’s reading. The holy city is a way to describe the opposite of the unholy city, the centre of empire, Rome. The book of Revelation was written as a way to support the resistance of followers of Jesus to the lures of the Roman Empire, which, at the time of the writing of this book, was antagonistic towards the followers of Jesus.
Rome, with its panoply of gods, demanded nothing less that full submission to the authority of its rulers. Like all tyrannical rulers, Caesar after Caesar would use the full extent of their powers to keep their subjects loyal and submissive. Crucifixion and other forms of torture were then as prominent as billboards and digital advertising are today.
The message was clear: submit to the empire, or die. Followers of Jesus were particularly vulnerable, with their commitment to communal living, mutual love and care, and with their allegiance not to the state but the true and living God that they had encountered in the life, and teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And so the vision of a descending Holy City inspired these early Christians with hope: there is an alternate future to the dystopian urban horror that was Rome.
“I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” Not only is this the vision of an alternate urban reality to Rome, it was also an alternate urban reality to Jerusalem with its system of temple sacrifices. And here, in the holy city, rather than the lion of Judah, at the heart of it is the lamb. Not a lion, but a lamb: a lamb, like those slaughtered to atone for sins; the Lamb is the image of Jesus, the innocent victim now exalted and spreading light like a lamp.
There is no need, in this holy city, for specific architecture to remind people of God because God lives in the city generating light to all—and the vision continues, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there. … Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.”
Everyone is welcome in this holy city, every nation, all people, stream into it, there are no boundaries, no gates, and clear and clean and bright flows a river, water flowing out of God, available freely to all. The writer continues, “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
There it is. The tree of life—growing over the river, bearing fruit, feeding all people and its leaves are for the healing of the nations, healing all the violence, all the conflict, all the hate, all the discrimination, all that divides and enslaves human beings the world over: this tree of life heals all who enter into the holy city.
What a vision it is, an urban eschatological vision of the human community healed and fed and nurtured: clean water, the whole world being the temple of God, Christ giving light, food enough for all for every month of the year.
So back to the window: when we chose this theme, appropriate for a Cathedral in the heart of a city, we invited stained glass artists from across British Columbia to submit proposals about how they would approach it. And many did send in submissions, all of them beautiful.
But it was the vision of Musqueam artist, the renowned Susan Point that captured our hearts. As I think about it now, of course, for an indigenous person, this text from Revelation would not seem at all coded, but would have described the world that her ancestors remembered and cherished.
For the indigenous folks of this land remember a time when the claims of colonial empire were not present, where there was no need for temple because Mother Earth and the Great Spirit were cherished in the midst of the community. They remembered a time when water ran clear and clean through the lakes and rivers and the seas. They remember that there was always enough food for twelve months from the trees and forests and the animals that were already here. And they sought healing of their nations with other nations, being human ones of course there was conflict, but there was also a deep communion amongst all those who have cherished this land from time immemorial.
In conversation with Susan, after commissioning her with this project, those of us involved learned so much. Let me in closing tell you just two stories.
First, in her original drawing of the window, she had drawn fish both in the sea and in the trees. I said to Susan, “Can you get rid of the fish in the trees? It doesn’t quite make sense to our culture.” Graciously she said, “Of course. You have to understand that in our culture everything is connected with everything else.” So the fish in the trees were taken out. About 6 months after that conversation, we were up in BC’s interior around Kamloops, and went to the Adams River for one of the big salmon runs in the autumn. We walked through the woods towards the river: the river was filled with salmon and eagles were flying high over head, swooping down and picking up salmon to eat. I looked up to see them and up at the top of the trees I saw salmon carcasses dropped by the eagles. There were fish in the trees. Susan was right.
Second story: the donor of the window, the late Jean MacMillan Southam was the daughter of the forestry giant H.R. MacMillan. She was a woman of great wealth, a generous philanthropist in Vancouver, following the example of her father who, amongst many other things, funded the library of Vancouver School of Theology and founded the Vancouver Foundation—two institutions that play a big role here at the Cathedral—VST being a place where many clergy and laity are educated, and the Vancouver Foundation being a major funder of the Maundy Café. Jean’s family wanted to have a bit of whimsy in the window; she was fond of British bulldogs, and so there is, in the corner of the window a Susan Point rendering of her dog, Mister. Of course this has led to endless jokes about the dog at the tree. For a number of years I felt badly that in this beautiful coast Salish styled window there was British Bull Dog, but I’ve come to love it, because it represents, to me anyway, an inversion of the power dynamic—the dominant image of the window is a world of interconnection and beauty, the tree of life with its leaves for healing styled in west coast colours with mountains and sea and sky all intersecting: whimsically integrated into it is this colonial image of a bulldog, not dominant, like colonial powers were and are, but in a corner, fit in, through the grace of the artist.
In tonight’s gospel, Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” God’s peace, the Peace of Christ, not the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome—not the peace of Empire: what we celebrate here is a Pax Christi—the peace that passes all understanding, a peace that unites differences and heals our wounds. It is the peace of the Lamb of God, the one who suffered and returned without a word of revenge but gave to his followers the ministry of forgiveness.
It is a peace that transcends the differences of gender and race, that hold a vision of unity. It is a peace that is expressed through food and safe water for all, a peace we long for, a peace we work for, a peace that begins in our hearts and flows out like water, shines out like light.
So whenever you feel the tug of empire’s imperial claims, whenever the colonizing world seems overwhelming and irresistible, remember the vision of the holy city, God’s great gift of harmony and peace. And as we gather around the holy table in this holy place in the midst of this secular city on this, in this season of Easter, let us pray that God will continue to give us the vision of the wholeness and interconnectedness of all life. For in Christ Jesus we are one—and called to care for each other and to be part of creating anew the city of God.