The Cosmic Christmas of John’s Apocalypse

Christmas is a time to draw close together in the dark and to enjoy the lighting of candles as we remember the birth of a baby to parents who were far from their own home. Somewhat in tension with this, I’ve often told my family with a smirk that chapter 12 of John’s Revelation is my favorite version of the Christmas story. I do love returning to it although the scope of John’s account is cosmic and does not fit well within the domestic scene that we associate with Christmas.

Part of our problem these days is that we’ve wandered far away from any capacity to recognize this world as our home. We don’t associate “cosmic” and “cosy” as G. K. Chesterton says that we should (in his beautiful chapter entitled “The Ethics of Elfland” from his book Orthodoxy). Chesterton insists that it is perfectly reasonable of him to say: “I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number of stars and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see.”

With this turn of phrase, Chesterton almost turns the cosmos into a cow shed filled with sheep and a weary donkey. Similar ideas show up in a very different form within “The Starlight Night” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. His ecstatic recounting of a vision into the starry heavens explodes at first with multiple images but calls forth, in the end, “Prayer, patience, alms, vows.” More quieted, he concludes that the heavens “are indeed the barn; withindoors house / The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse / Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.” The firmament is like a barn wall filled with knot holes that let out points of light from the bright domestic gathering inside—the warm fellowship of “Christ and his mother and all his hallows.” There is a sense that, even in the glory of God’s eternal throne room, Christ and his mother still inhabit a place filled with livestock and the grain from a great harvest.

This idea of a cosmic home is difficult for modern people to appreciate, but it is the right setting for the baby who is born in John’s Apocalypse. “A great sign was seen in the heaven, a woman arrayed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” (Young’s Literal Translation, used throughout with some adaptations of archaic language). In John’s vision of this woman giving birth, a great red dragon waits just before her in the sky to devour her child as soon as he appears. He has seven heads, ten horns and seven crowns, and his tail lashes stars from the sky as he waits for the child to appear. At the moment of his birth, however, the baby is caught away to God and to His throne.

As her child is carried to safety, the woman flees and hides in “a place made ready from God” while Michael and his angels do battle with the dragon. We now learn that the dragon is “the old serpent, who is called Devil and the Adversary, who is leading astray the whole world.” Michael casts this dragon to the earth along with all of the dragon’s rebellious angels. The heavens are told to rejoice at this removal of the dragon from their midst, while the earth and the sea are told to beware at his wrath as he has been thrown down among them. More angry than ever, the dragon is said to have “pursued the woman who did bring forth the male.” Happily, “there were given to the woman two wings of the great eagle, that she may fly to the wilderness, to her place, where she is nourished a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.”

The dragon then attempts to drown the woman in a flood of water that he pours forth out of his mouth, but the land helps the woman and swallows up the torrent of water. Denied his victim for the second time, the dragon “went away to make war with the rest of her seed, those keeping the commands of God, and having the testimony of Jesus Christ.”

Bamberg Apocalypse, Folio 31

John’s next vision features a beast coming out of the sea to worship the dragon and to receive authority from the dragon before spreading terrible lies throughout the earth and initiating a massive apostasy from God. It is tempting to follow the story through to the end, as we meet our beast again in chapter 17. With seven heads and ten horns, this is clearly our same red dragon but this time carrying “a woman arrayed with purple and scarlet-colour, and gilded with gold, and precious stone, and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and uncleanness of her whoredom.” John “saw the woman drunken from the blood of the saints and from the blood of the witnesses of Jesus,” and he “wondered, having seen her, with great wonder.” It is a vivid and terrible story.

In chapter 19, another woman appears briefly as “we rejoice and exult, and give the glory to Him, because” we have finally arrived at “the marriage of the Lamb and his wife who has made herself ready.” Our delight is brief, however. The dragon still rampages and is confronted again in chapter 20 when John sees “a messenger coming down out of the heaven, having the key of the abyss, and a great chain over his hand.” This angel “laid hold on the dragon, the old serpent, who is Devil and Adversary, and did bind him a thousand years, and he cast him to the abyss, and did shut him up, and put a seal upon him, that he may not lead astray the nations any more, till the thousand years may be finished; and after these it behoveth him to be loosed a little time.”

As the tumult truly subsides, in chapter 21, John finally hears: “Come, I will show you the bride of the Lamb—the wife.” Then, says John, the angel “carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed to me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, coming down out of the heaven from God, having the glory of God, and her light like a stone most precious.”

With all these visions of John’s—each one rising up after another in a fearsome march toward the glorious end—we get the sense that they unfold a longer story while at the same time, perhaps, circling back on themselves and retelling parts of the same story more than once. Amid this swirling sequence of visions, it is not wise to grow too confident. However, this image of a mother with a child followed by images of the harlot and the bride may all hold together. If so, we can connect the righteous lady with the radiant Jerusalem that descends from heaven in the end and have this bride contrasted with the harlot who is named for the great earthly power of Babylon.

While a grand concept of the mother in Revelation 12 as a collective figure standing for “all the people of God” makes sense, it does not need to conflict with a more intimate association directly with Mary. In the Gospel of Luke, early Christians all realized that Luke was parallelling the story of Mary’s pregnancy in the first two chapters very closely with the ark of the Old Covenant in 2 Samuel 6. Luke is a careful scholar of the Old Testament as an educated Greek proselyte to the Jewish faith, and he is clearly portraying Mary as the ark of the New Covenant carrying the Word of God inscribed in flesh (instead of the stone tablets of the law from the Old Testament ark), the body of Jesus Christ as the bread from heaven (instead of the urn filled with manna from the wilderness), and the actual and eternal High Priest (instead of the rod of Aaron that budded to prove and defend the true high priest of the Old Covenant).

As we move from John’s vision in chapter 11 to the new scene in 12, the woman giving birth is directly juxtaposed with the ark of the New Covenant. The last verse of chapter 11 declares “and opened was the sanctuary of God in the heaven, and there was seen the ark of His covenant in His sanctuary,” which gives way in the next verse (at the start of chapter 12) where “a great sign was seen in the heaven, a woman arrayed with the sun.”

It makes sense to see this woman giving birth as Mary, the ark of the New Covenant who carries the bread of life. This does not conflict with her as also the chief representative of all God’s people, as the church and as the faithful bride who descends from heaven in the last vision. God’s people are described repeatedly as the intended bride of God within the Old Testament, and we have the image of the church as the bride of Christ prominent within the rest of the New Testament. Mary should also bring to mind that other great mother of the human race, Eve. Although a daughter of Eve, Mary completes the work left undone by Eve and gives birth to the child who will finally destroy the serpent of old and allow a new creation to take place. (See the fantasy novel Lilith by George MacDonald for a moving account of all these women in one story.)

Bamberg Apocalypse

As mentioned near the start, trying to read chapter 12 as a cosmic Christmas story, we might feel that the baby plays too small a part in the account. He is simply carried up to heaven in the same moment that he appears. The woman flees alone into the wilderness and Michael comes forth with his angelic army to wage war. The child is nowhere to be found. What about the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

Several considerations tumble out together in response. First, there may be more of an overlap than we realize between the angels singing in the gospel account of Christ’s birth and angels waging war in this apocalyptic version of the story. Our prayers and songs of praise are described as great outpourings of judgement upon God’s enemies throughout John’s Revelation, and there may be little difference between an angelic choir and an angelic army from a devil’s perspective. As for the disappearing baby, where was Christ when every mother in Bethlehem had her baby slaughtered? Was he not kept safe by God in the far-off land of Egypt? From the perspective of eternity in heaven, Christ’s life on earth was a brief interlude amid the course of His endless reign as Son of God and then, as the firstfruits of the human race, the King seated upon the throne of David that will never fall. Moreover, as our King, Christ clearly puts a high value on the sufferings of his earthly people. He told His disciples that they would do greater things than he did because he is going to the Father while they would remain behind (John 14:12). Inspired by Christ, Paul also says that “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24, ESV).

Christ appears a few times in the rest of Revelation as a mighty warrior and judge, but his primary presence is as a lamb, offered up as spiritual food for God’s people. This image of the child-like priest and king—humble as a lamb and feeding his people with himself as the bread of life—is an image that shows up in the primary Christian icon associated with this Revelation 12 passage. In this icon, the mighty Angel Michael fills the center of the image, riding a red winged war horse while destroying Satan amid a glow of fiery colors. Far from the turmoil, Christ sits as a young child at an altar in heaven, ministering our heavenly food with quiet humility. It is true that the altar holds His cross and His body broken for us. Christ is fully present with us in our sufferings, and our sufferings are only made true when united to His own earthly life and death. However, Christ is alive and He is undisturbed by our sufferings. He has already overcome them and another mighty one does battle with an enemy whose defeat is already assured.

Icon of Saint Michael Horseman (Russia, 19th c., priv. coll.)
Russian, 18th century

We are invited to seek help before the manger, the tomb and the altar as Michael battles Satan upon our doorstep, but perhaps this cosmic story still does not yet have the familiarity of home. It can help to approach this all from the opposite direction: to consider that the whole fury and majesty of the cosmos is contained within our homes and our hearts. G. K. Chesterton takes this approach when he describes our private life as a greater work than our public life: “For anyone who makes himself responsible for one small baby, as a whole, will soon find that he is wrestling with gigantic angels and demons” (“Turning Inside Out” in Fancies vs. Fads, 1923).

A passage attributed to Saint Macarius the Great places the cosmos within our heart itself:

Within the heart are unfathomable depths. …It is but a small vessel: and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.

The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, 15.32

If you struggle to recognize this vast universe as your private home, try to recognize the vast universe that is at home in you. Within that universe, a child is born for whom angels both ride forth to war and stand to sing. Good news.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s