I saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband.
— Revelation 21:2, NEB
A theology professor used to ask his seminary students to tell the story of the whole Bible, from Genesis through Revelation, in one sentence. None of them ever could. But once he did it, they probably never forgot. Here is that sentence, the whole story of the Bible in one sweep: Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy searches and finds girl again; they marry and live happily ever after. Creation; sin; redemption; and today’s second reading.
Despite — or perhaps because of – the suffering in the churches for which he is responsible, the writer of Revelation cares deeply about beauty and enchantment as a pathway to God. One might think that, while art and beauty might be very nice as “extras,” they don’t get to the heart of discipleship — especially under persecution. The real issue, some would argue, is what God does and does not command; what sorts of acts are pleasing or displeasing to God; what leads to salvation and what to loss. And clarity about these things, one might think, can only be had through careful teaching of doctrine and rigorous enforcement of morality; young people need to know what’s true, and what they must do and avoid…some would argue.
But while clarity may impress and fear motivate, no one can be made to care deeply (or at all) through abstract truth or enforced morality. (Mathematicians can verify proofs, but dislike ones that aren’t what they call “elegant”; and brain-researchers know of certain sorts of brain damage that leave thinking intact but destroy the emotions. People suffering such damage are able to solve puzzles, but don’t want to be bothered…) We move toward Truth and toward Goodness (and thus toward God) only when we find Truth or Goodness inviting — when we’re enchanted, when we fall in love with them. To think that beauty and enchantment are too tenuous to rely on for handing on the heritage of faith, or even for securing ourselves in our discipleship, is to misunderstand both human nature and the power of beauty. In last week’s words, a “yes” to Christ has to be the first step; we need first to desire Christ if we are to follow Christ. And for that we have to find Christ desirable.
Is God attractive? (Is that even a question your religious formation posed to you?) Is the way of life Christ lived and taught inviting? If the answer to these questions is No, then discipleship will be at best dutiful and probably perfunctory. If the church — its buildings and its life in common — isn’t attractive, why should we expect that people will be attracted to it?
When people are in love, they look to surround themselves with beauty: sunsets, charming restaurants (even if inexpensive), music… This is the impulse that Revelation calls on in today’s reading: Christian discipleship is, as a retreat-preacher put it some years ago, “a love affair with the Living God.” Discipleship may be hard; love is sometimes like that. But at root, it’s enchanting. Until next week, Peace.
Quiz for next week: Why does Revelation describe the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem as “pearls”? Why not, say, diamonds? (The text is Rev. 21: 10-21.)