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As Christians, we affirm that Jesus the Christ came as the revelation of God and never left. At Pentecost, we celebrate the presence of God in our midst as the Holy Spirit infinitely close, immanent and present in our world, our lives and our relationships. But in this selection from Revelation, Christ is presented as transcendent and distant, an all-powerful king returning on the clouds at the head of his army to reclaim his kingdom. How do we understand these contrasting and competing vision of God’s presence, or parousia, in our world?
Parousia (from the Greek: παρουσία) is an ancient Greek word meaning presence, arrival, or official visit. Used many times, it’s traditionally understood to refer to the second coming of Christ in Christian theology. More than an epiphany (or appearing); or an apocalypse (revelation disclosing disclose what is invisible), theologian Karl Barth suggested that the parousia includes Resurrection Sunday and Pentecost. It’s not limited to Christ’s final return. The presence of Christ then changes everything. It makes all things new. It gives us a new song to sing.
Revelation 17-19 present the epic finale to the Hollywood-like-cosmic-battle between the forces of God and those of chaos/death. It uses evocative symbolic language of myth, Biblical literature, the dominant world-view of the ancient world and Roman socio-political culture. (Remember that myth doesn’t mean the opposite of true or fact, but rather, a traditional story or image, which explains some natural or social phenomenon, a collective identity, or a shared hope.) The enemies of God’s people (among them Egypt, Tyre, Sidon, Canaan, Babylon and finally Rome) were spoken of as unfaithful women, wives, or prostitutes. While not easy to process in our #metoo age, it’s symbolic language consistently used in the ancient (undoubtedly misogynistic) world. The Beast of the chaotic seas (Leviathan) and his land-based monster-partner are the mythical images of the cosmic forces resisting and seeking to undo the will, purpose and creation of God. John concludes his formulation of a letter of pastoral encouragement to those facing persecution and the challenge of faithfully walking in the Way of Jesus while also being subjects of the Roman Empire by speaking of this battle. It’s the means for him to explain there is actually good – the power and word of God – at work in the world even if it’s hard to see.
John subverts, twists and transforms this mythical image, even adding new content. Jesus comes as a victorious, horse-riding warrior-king at the head of his army. But there is no battle. His sword is the Word of God. He is the sword ( John 1:1). The adversaries of God turn upon themselves. They self-destruct. The blood in which the warrior-king is bathed is not those of the enemies he slaughtered, but his own, from his crucifixion. In the center of this swirl of images, metaphors and parodies, the only way to see what is truly happening is to be “carried by the Spirit into the wilderness”: the place of prophetic and spiritual discernment (17:3) John uses evocative symbolic language, not to provide speculative information about the future, but to involve our imaginations in the discernment of how we are tempted to follow a perversion of the Word of God; to challenge us to faithful living.
Questions for the practice of Examen & Contemplation