Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Theologians and biblical scholars struggle with the timing of Revelations. Rather like Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” they wonder, “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of the things that May be only?” Others might add, “Or are they shadows of things that have already been?” Some biblical interpreters would like to say that Revelation is chronological story with an ultimate beginning and an end. At times, however, the story doesn’t seem to flow from one stage one to another. Instead, John chooses to layer one vision on top of another. That certainly seems to be evident in our passage today of the virgin and dragon.
In the previous readings, the Lamb who was slain has methodically broken the seven seals of the scroll of life unleashing pain and torment upon this earth leading to a great, final judgement day. This was followed in the next chapters by the sounding of seven trumpets bringing about the six plagues. These scenes are all reminiscent of the 10 plagues of Moses when neither the Israelites and Egyptians were spared suffering. The final judgment scene is consistently interrupted by two divine witnesses who proclaim the good news and offer yet another possibility of turning around. We don’t know who these two witnesses are. Moses, Elijah, Enoch, John the Baptist? Still the arrogant and stiff- necked unrepentant souls of the earth, like the Pharaoh in Egypt, refuse to bend and repent. With the final trumpet sound, the angelic voices proclaim that kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of the Lord and his Messiah. Suddenly, however, it feels as if we are stepping back again to an earlier time. This is where the Mestizo artist Miquel Cabrera working in the Spanish Vice Regal court in Mexico City’s painting of The Virgin of the Apocalypse begins.
The image of the woman diagonally and artistically cutting across the canvas dramatically chronicles the role of women of faith and the actions they make for their loved ones. John of Patmos is seen on the right side recording the vision. As the angelic war in the Book of Revelation’s unfolds against the forces of evil embodied in the seven headed, red dragon, the image of the woman, clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars, takes the central role. The woman stands as representative of the ancient enmity between humanity and serpent which goes back to Eve. She was tempted and tricked by the serpent in the Garden. Now, the woman has her foot on the serpent’s head. Whether one imagines the woman to be Eve, the nation of Israel or the Virgin Mary or all of them together, the Child who is born spells doom for the dragon. The woman strikes, as it were, the head of the beast, holding—perhaps, protecting—the child as the belligerent dragon falls. Such an image of the dragon should stir emotions of fear and dread and possible survival strategies in its viewers. Is the woman shielding her son from the gruesome scene happening underfoot? Or, better yet, is the child anticipating the flight away from the battle, for which purpose the two wings were given to his mother? Surprisingly, Cabrera offers yet another thought. Please note, neither the woman nor the child express fear. Instead, the child gazes longingly at his Father. The woman smiles knowingly. There is no doubt about the outcome of the battle. The angels are all seen with palm branches of victory. All will be well with God. Still, faithful people question, but how can that be?
The theme of Cabrera’s painting is subtly political, which is true of the book of Revelation itself. As Charles Dickens penned. “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of the things that May be only?” Up to this point in the Book of Revelation, John has chosen not to identify nor name the oppressor or the source of persecution against the Christian community, but this will soon change. The early Christians in the Seven Cities of Asia Minor, who were primarily Jewish, however, already understood. From afar, they had witnessed 20 years earlier the Roman Empire’s destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem and it’s fabled majestic Temple. Resilient, the Jewish people found a way to survive. Fearfully now, the Empire had set its gaze on the movement they sought to destroy- the Christian church. That jeopardy, which the woman child faced, would be extended to every member of the church, even to you and me. Would the church remain faithful or not, John wondered.
My friends, our world is filled with wars – national, political, personal – but we are never to forget that this battle in Revelation is the war behind all other wars. As awful as today’s enemies are, we live with the assurance that the outcome is certain. Jesus has crushed the devil and Michael and his angelic armies continue to defend us so that even in this world of struggles and war, we have nothing to fear – because in Christ we have salvation, victory and peace. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.