We all have a canon within the canon, a subset of books or passages in the Bible that we privilege over others, even allowing our favourites to ‘correct’ or override the books and passages we find obsolete or unpalatable. Of all the biblical books outside my personal canon within the canon, the Book of Revelation has to be the most outside of the outside. Along with Luther, I am tempted to say that ‘my spirit cannot accommodate this book’ and to reject it as ‘neither apostolic nor prophetic.’
The problem is, if I do this – if I chuck Revelation out of the canon and into the fire – I am doing the very thing that makes my spirit balk at this book: I am seeking to eliminate something I identify as incorrigibly bad in order to purify and preserve a good remnant. This seems to me to be the root of all evil: the desire to root out all evil.
My chief complaint against Revelation is this: it holds up as possible and desirable, and as God’s ultimate plan, the making of a perfect world in which there is no ‘evil’: no sin, suffering, or death. This vision – the hope of eternal bliss – inevitably turns God into the kind of judge who sorts the world into two great categories – absolute good and absolute evil – and wages an all-out war of annihilation against the latter. And this vision tempts the would-be good to believe that they are God’s instruments in this sorting and this warfare. The will to eradicate evil proliferates it instead.
Of course, Revelation is not the only biblical source of this dualistic thinking. Arguably, the author of Revelation is only working out the logical consequences of the idea that, in the beginning, Creation was free of suffering and death, which entered in and corrupted everything only because of human sin. Or, put another way, Revelation is about how Creation is incomplete until this alien invader is isolated and destroyed, once and for all. That is certainly the view upheld by Ruth Valerio in the Archbishop’s Lent book, Saying Yes to Life.
But what if there never was an alien invader? In my canon within the canon, the creation account in Job 38-41 has come to ‘correct’ the classic Pauline reading of Genesis 3. In Job there is no ‘Fall’. The cosmos God reveals to Job is amoral, and nature is cruel; the gates of death are intrinsic to it, as is the predator-prey relationship. And I have come to see this cosmos as good, not in the sense of benign, but in the sense of fitting, ‘meet, right, and salutary’, Godly even. In such a cosmos, it makes no sense to try to excise the Book of Revelation from my piety; I have to recognize that it defines my struggle to be a Christian as much as if I embraced it with all the eschatological preoccupations of a Seventh-day Adventist.
What, then, can Holy Week be about? What can the death of Jesus be about, if it is not about the death of Death in any absolute sense? I can only iterate what Joy said yesterday: ‘Holy Week is a school for learning how to die’ – the most arresting and helpful thought I’ve encountered in a long time. It is about walking, like Jesus, with the shadow of death as constant companion, recognizing that it defines our lives as much as if we embraced it as a beloved twin. It is learning how to accommodate our spirits to death so that we may live better.
This Holy Week, especially, the darkening days ahead seem to close in on us. Death is all around us, and our own death seems palpably present, imminently possible. The thoughts, I might die of this, I could be dead in two weeks, It could be me in that CCU bed, cross our minds as we watch the news. Really, there is no such thing as Death in the abstract, only the intimate death of each living thing, born with it and waiting to meet it at its end. Jesus’ journey to the Cross is what it looks like when we no longer deny this nor let it annihilate us, but live with it, letting our own death-shadow shape how we treat every equally death-shadowed thing. We will always have death with us, but we will not always have each other.