From the Parabola
Welcome. We shall be voyaging to Patmos on the sea of possibility from which life emerged. It is a time of profound cultural change, and at this moment we are mindful of the Spirit of God, which in the beginning moved upon the face of the waters and which continues to move.
We have been brought together by a memory. Nineteen hundred years ago on the island of Patmos, Saint John received the Revelation which forms the final book of the New Testament. This is not intended, however, to be a simple anniversary or an academic conference about an ancient text. Revelation begins and ends with the good news of the Parousia, the coming of Christ. At the climax of the New Testament, there is no full stop, but an opening of the work of the Holy Spirit in the future and the promise of a new creation. A new Heaven and a new Earth; a new community in a holy city; a river of life and a tree with leaves for the healing of nations. It seemed appropriate to celebrate this anniversary with a conference about our common home. Saint John’s vision is of a united human family – every nation and kindred singing a new song.
Much of the Bible is addressed to those with ears to hear, but the Revelation to John is also to those with eyes to see. The story is told in symbols and archetypes.
The root of the English word “symbol” is in the Greek idea of bringing together fragments of truth to achieve a more profound understanding than would otherwise be available by analysis. Symbols help us to comprehend the relations between our sometimes fragmentary and fugitive perceptions of reality.
The great symbols are not devised to illustrate some thesis we wish to advance. They arise rather from some deep level of consciousness and are disclosed to our reason. They have the power to communicate in a way that generates energy. Two such symbols have been entrusted to our generation – the Cloud and the Globe.
In this year of anniversaries, we are all deeply aware of the mushroom cloud which on the Sacred Feast of Transfiguration, August 6, 1945, opened a radically new chapter in human history. The cloud is a symbol known to the Bible, and although the mushroom is reflective of man’s transmutation, it should not be understood in an entirely negative way. For the first time in history, by unraveling some of the forces which lie at the heart of creation, we have acquired the power to destroy all human life on the planet. By the same act, the world community is under a threat. The work which lies ahead for all those who love life is to translate this world community, which exists as an object under threat, more and more into a subject of promise and hope.
“Love all God’s creation,” urged Dostoevsky, “the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf and every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything you will perceive the divine mystery in things.”
It is a life-creating tradition, which beckons all to become a new creation in Christ, but being born of “water and spirit,” so that all matter, all life becomes sanctified. For sanctification, theosis, to become real, there must be a metanoia, a changing of the mind, reflective of the sanctity of tears.
It is not a mere poetic coincidence that a contemporary Christian poet describes the rivers, seas, and oceans as “a gathering of tears” bearing witness to man’s adventure and struggling journey. So too, the Fathers of the desert considered “the baptism of tears” as a lofty blessing empowering all men and women who seek “to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Therefore, instead of asking for wisdom and strength and holiness, the angels of the desert asked for tears of repentance in their sojourn and struggle for salvation.
The ascetic tradition also offers a celebratory use of the resources of creation in a spirit of enkratia and liberation from the passions. Within this tradition, many human beings have experienced the joy of contemplation which contrasts with the necessarily fleeting and illusory pleasure of relating to the world as an object for consumption.
The Orthodox Church is particularly well represented in parts of the world where “the Earth has been hurt,” to use a phrase from Revelation. In a perversion of science, would-be God slayers have laid waste great tracts of territory. In these countries the experience of the martyrs which Saint John describes is also very contemporary. We pray that the energy which comes from giving up life for the sake of God and his church will flow into a life-giving stream for the benefit of the entire community of mankind.
Another symbol has been given to us which points in this hopeful direction. Although more recent, it has sunk more profoundly in human consciousness. The Earth-rise photograph taken in 1969 from the Apollo spacecraft shows the entire planet sapphire blue and beautiful as no human being since the dawn of history had seen it. This angelic view is foreshadowed and enlarged in the Book of Revelation when John is shown the heavens opened and he sees a great multitude out of every nation, rejoicing before the throne of God.
It may be that the choice between life and death always being put to us by the spirit is in our day being translated into a choice between one world or none. Theology and science ought to be partners in this work. We ought not divide the one reality and seek – as one theologian has expressed it – “peaceful coexistence at the price of mutual irrelevance.”
We recognize, however, that many have doubts about the possibility of traffic between the world view expressed in modern science and the visionary material in Revelation. How can Revelation’s vision of hope, sustained in the midst of passages portraying terrible destruction, be distinguished from a rather unconvincing whistling in the dark to keep the spirits up in a time of danger and change?
One approach is to consider the various ways in which our many languages enable us to contemplate the future. We must distinguish between the future which is entirely constructed out of past and present, and which will itself become past, and the future which, beyond our control, will come upon us. In Greek, ta mellonta is what will be and parousia, which is frequently used in the New Testament, suggests a future coming. There is a similar distinction in languages derived from Latin between futurus and adventus.
“Futurus” suggests a future entirely constructed out of past and present and, as such, it is a stimulus to planning. Futurologists are those who rely on extrapolations from present trends. Often, of course, the conjunctions between trends make exact predictions possible, but there is another problem with this approach to the future. Prolonging and projecting the present usually endorses present patterns of power and ownership and suppresses the alternative possibilities which the future holds.
Parousia alerts us to what is on its way to the present. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus Christ is hailed as “the one who is and who was and who is to come.” The series might logically have been expected to be completed by “him who will be,” but that is not the same thing. A sense of the future as Parousia stimulates the anticipation by which we attune ourselves to something ahead, whether through fear or hope. Foretastes, symbolic sketches, and attunements are part of every perception of the unknown which we explore by reference to ultimate criteria such as happiness or unhappiness, life or death.
The climax of these celebrations will be the Holy Liturgy of Patmos. The liturgy is a work which binds human beings together in the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ and liberates them to hope and work for his future coming in the world. Not everyone in this symposium shares the Christian faith, but we all here around a common table like the Symposiasts of ancient times, because we all know that we are on the threshold of a new day.
Conscious of the threat of nuclear destruction and environmental pollution, we shall move forward toward one world or none. We trust that we are assembled here as those who are weary of defining their own tradition principally by excluding others. For many generations the Patriarch of Constantinople has occupied what is known as the Ecumenical throne. There is in that title a reaching forward to the End-Time of the healing of nations, when there will be communion between God and human beings in a new Heaven and a new Earth.