I, John, had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation… Then one of the Elders said to me, “These are the ones who have … washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. … God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Rev. 7:9-17, today’s Second Reading
In today’s passage John turns away from his diagnosis of current events (namely, the idolatrous nature of the claims the Roman Empire was making on its inhabitants, including the early Christians) toward the result of faithful discipleship: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Remember that these tears are not limited to the sadness that accompanies the ordinary losses of every life: John writes to encourage people who have lost jobs to discrimination; possessions to confiscation; family members to imprisonment, torture, and exile; perhaps even their own lives for refusing to assent to the claims Rome was making for their fealty. Discipleship, for John, is first of all a yes — to the Risen Christ, Lamb who died and now dies no more; followed by a no — to every other claim to ultimate obedience; and then another yes — to whatever hardship comes as a result of that yes and no.
I’m convinced that one of the reasons our Church is weak is that we’ve focused on the first “yes” — to faith in Christ — without an equal focus on the “no” — the analysis of our current situation and its fallen state, including the subtle but powerful threats to true discipleship that inhere in our situation. We’re comfortable with the language of personal holiness, but not with the language of social analysis and critique. As the Brazilian bishop Dom Helder Camara (1909-1999) used to say, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.” To ask “why the poor have no food” is rarely taught in faith formation as a question equally important with “why we go to Mass on Sunday.” Revelation celebrates the people who have learned to ask such questions and to answer them — sometimes at the cost of their lives. “These are the one who have…washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
This is why we need to reread Revelation: To be reminded what clear-sighted discipleship looks like. To be reminded that every generation of disciples is tempted to idolatry by the Powers of its age: For John’s churches it was the pinch of incense offered in the Roman temples (insignificant standing alone, but symbolically a mark of fealty to Rome’s claim to be the ultimate ruler of all things). For us often it’s letting our lives be shaped by our culture’s visions of success, of “the good life,” of “the way things work,” of the necessity and acceptability of violence sometimes (the death penalty, abortion, wars of choice), of what it’s worth investing our time and attention in (“reality” tv?; social media gossip? “shopping therapy”?), of the inevitability of the gap between rich and poor (not just in our nation but around the world). We — mercifully — do not face the sort of violent persecution that it is estimated 100 million Christians do today. Instead we — at our peril — face subversion from within, through inattention and blindness to the misleading messages we are surrounded with. It may even be more difficult for us than it was for John’s first hearers. Being led to the altar by a Roman soldier and told “Offer the incense or suffer the consequences” had at least the merit of being a clear and unmistakable moment of decision. The choices we face are more subtle and ambiguous. Having never been taught how to see clearly what we must say a “no” to, our discipleship is hobbled.
The voices that teach us a disciples’ “no” are often celebrated when they are safely in the past, but condemned or ignored by contemporaries: We admire St. Francis of Assisi for giving away his possessions, but resist calls to give more ourselves so that the poor of the world can be fed. Few Catholic Americans listened to Pope John Paul II when he called the invasion of Iraq immoral, preferring to believe the messages of “realistic” pundits and politicians. Even to discover those voices, so as to hear and judge what they have to say, can be difficult since they hardly get wide notice in secular media except to be mocked as unrealistic or irrational. (Think of the coverage of anti-abortion or anti-death-penalty activists, or of the priests, sisters, and lay people who practice civil disobedience to call attention to the activities of the School of the Americas.) We need John’s reminder that discipleship rests on a “yes” and on a “no”; and that acceptance of the suffering that this “no” often involves will be met with a “welcome” from the Lamb, who will wipe every tear from our eyes. Until next week, peace.