Homily for Sunday, May 26, 2019
We are a well-read bunch; I wonder if we might be able to identify the genre and maybe the playwright—and for bonus points maybe even the play—from which the following quotes are taken. And to help us along (because this is a challenging one), I will give us a hint: it takes place on an island.
A noise, the kind a man makes clenching his teeth in agony, over here, now over there. It sounds just like an animal crawling on all fours. There, I hear it clearly again, a body in pain, a man in great distress, reduced to howling.
Poor man, I pity him: isolated and alone, no one to nurse him, he talks to himself, sharing his body with a brutal disease… The gods work well when men suffer endlessly and die.
How far could a man walk on a foot that is sick from the Fury… The man’s only got one good foot. Surely we can take him together.
[The opening lines…] Be a good boy. Go find a cave with two mouths, where in winter the sun shines at both ends, and during summer a cool breeze carries sleep. You might find a stream running downhill, if it’s still there.
“What is so special about his strength?” “It’s the arrows. They never miss.”
These are quotes from Sophocles’ tragedy Philoctetes (about which I’ll say more in just a moment).
Though in ancient Greece the theatre was many things—literary competition, religious rite, a place to explore pressing social and political concerns—ancient Greek theatre was also—according to translator and director Bryan Doerries—an opportunity for catharsis. Noting that Sophocles was a high-ranking officer in the Athenian army and that the audience would have been comprised of many veterans, Doerries writes:
[Philoctetes] was written nearly twenty-five hundred years ago by a Greek general and was performed in the center of Athens for thousands of citizen-soldiers during a century in which the Athenians saw nearly 80 years of war… By presenting the truth of war to combat veterans, he sought to give voice to their… struggles and to convey to them that they were not alone…. Sophocles wrote these tragedies [Philoctetes and also Ajax] to restore humanity to individuals who for whatever reason felt they had lost it… Sophocles wrote these plays to help us heal.
And so, for example, when Philoctetes, a famed archer, makes his entrance on stage groaning, even (depending on the director) howling in pain, having been abandoned and left all alone on the uninhabited island of Lemnos for ten years with a snakebite wound that wouldn’t heal and that stank (the cause for his being abandoned by Odysseus and his crew en route to Troy); or when in Ajax the warrior Ajax mourns his friend Achilles, wants to kill his commanding officers, muses about suicide and in a blind rage kills a flock of sheep, Sophocles gives voice to what he knows his men are going through. Sophocles is trying to “convey to them that they are not alone.” He is trying to restore to them their humanity; he is trying to help them heal.
I wonder if we might be able to identify the book of the Bible from which the following quotes are taken. Hint: it takes place on an island.
You have a name for being alive, but you are dead. (3:1b)
Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains… (6:15)
“Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe…” (14:18b)
And in that day people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them. (9:6)
I, John… was on an island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches.” (1:9–11a)
Though the book of Revelation is clearly different than Philoctetes—Revelation is a different genre and from a different culture and from a different time and was written for an audience that faced different circumstances—yet Philoctetes provides a helpful lens with which to introduce Revelation because Revelation and Philoctetes share in common not only that each occurs on an island, but that they both use words—words meant to be shared aloud with others—to convey to those who are suffering that they are not alone, to try to bring healing. If Sophocles wrote Philoctetes at least in part to help Athens’ veterans find healing, so did John write Revelation, at least in part, to help Christian communities find healing during a time of intense and bitter persecution.
John seeks to convey healing to his flock in much the same ways as did Sophocles to his men. As Sophocles was a soldier who had endured what his men had endured, so does John let his audience know that he has endured (or is enduring) what they are enduring: “I, John… share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance” (1:9). As Sophocles cared for his soldiers, so does John express care for his flock: “Grace to you and peace,” he writes, tenderly, in his opening address, “[Grace to you and peace] from him… who loves us and freed us from our sins” (1:4–5). And—perhaps most importantly—as Sophocles sought to convey to his men that they were not alone, John conveys to his churches that they are not alone:
- “John, to the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4). (“There is not one but seven of you!”).
- “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count…” (7:9). (“You are part of a great multitude!”)
- “If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God… [in] the new Jerusalem” (3:12). (“You are not being left alone, as on an island—I am placing you in a city!”)
If it’s true, as Bessel van der Kolk says, that “The essence of trauma is feeling godforsaken, cut off from the human race” (The Body Keeps the Score), then perhaps the most healing words we can speak, the most healing actions we can do for those who are experiencing great suffering, is to somehow and to the best of our ability convey to them that, “You are not alone.” Both John the Divine—who was exiled to the island of Patmos and likely forced to work as a slave in the mines—[both John the Divine] and Sophocles know what it’s like to feel “godforsaken” and “cut off from the human race.” And so not only does John remind his listeners that they are surrounded by “a great multitude”; not only does John speak of them as being part of a heavenly city; not only does John remind them that there are seven churches; but John fills Revelation with images of people being together, of activities we do together.
- There is a “great multitude that no one could count” “standing before the Lamb and before the throne”—standing together! (7:9)
- They are all “robed in white”—together! (7:9)
- They hold palm branches—together!
- They “worship [the Lamb] day and night within his temple”—together! (7:15)
- “Every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea” sings to him—together! (5:13)
- The four living creatures and all the elders sing and “cast their crowns before the throne”—together! (4:!0).
- They all bow down—together! (5:14)
The vision that John the Divine sees in Revelation is the opposite of exile—the opposite of being abandoned, or dwelling on an uninhabited island, or living with an incurable wound; the opposite of being exiled, or of toiling as a slave in the mines. The vision that John sees in Revelation is a vision of civitas, a Latin word meaning the body of citizens that make up the state. Knowing that his fellow Christians must be wondering if God has forsaken them, knowing that they must be feeling as though they have been cut off from the human race, John shares with them visions of civitas—God’s civitas. It is a vision of a “King of king and Lord of lords,” “seated on the throne”; of the city’s “elders” gathered round; of its inhabitants by the thousands; of its “armies” of angels. John even tells of the city’s patriotic stories, symbols and songs, and of its famous battles in which the civitas has triumphed (“Michael and his angels fought against the dragon” (12:7); “Babylon the great… is fallen, fallen!” (18:2)).
In short… in much the same way as Sophocles in his tragedies told his men, John in Revelation tells his flock: “I am one of you. I’ve been there (I am there). I know what it’s like to suffer; I know what it’s like to feel godforsaken. Know that you are not alone. Know that we have a civitas, a heavenly civitas, to which we belong. And, if we are open to it and as we are faithful, in this civitas we will find the healing we seek.”
Revelation ends very differently from Philoctetes. (Very!) Sophocles poignantly and perhaps intentionally ends Philoctetes with a hint of yet further war. The god Heracles tells Philoctetes that, were he to go back to Troy and back to war, the Greeks will conquer and Philoctetes be healed. Which is in a nutshell the false promise of “healing” that many veterans so often seek: going back to war in order to feel alive.
But Revelation ends with something new: not with war, not on an island, not in isolation, but with God’s civitas descending upon our world.
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband…
As simple as it may seem, when we gather each Sunday around “the Lamb who was slain”—when we stand—together!; when we sing—together!; when we bow and pray, confess and keep silence and “cast our crowns before the throne”—together!… as simple as it may seem when we gather around Word and Sacrament, we proclaim ourselves not godforsaken or cut off or alone, but civis of this new civitas. A civitas that reminds us that we are not alone, but gathered around the Lamb; a civitas that reminds us that we are not abandoned, but surrounded by a great multitude; that reminds us that we are not our own, but have been bought with a price; that reminds us that even though we may be afflicted, yet we are not crushed; that though we may be perplexed, yet we are not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. As simple as it may seem, when we gather to do these things we become that “civitas on a hill” to be a light in this world’s darkness. We become a beacon of the One who “gives water as a gift from the spring of the water of life”; who wants to make his home among mortals, who wants to dwell with us and make us his peoples, who wants to wipe away every tear from every eye. So that someday this world—this very world—will be a place not of exile, not of abandonment, not of an incurable wound, not an island, but a civitas where “death will be no more, and mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it,” John writes. And “through the middle of the street of the city… bright as crystal” will be a river, John says. And “on either side of the river” will be a tree, the leaves of which will be for “the healing of the nations.” And about this healing I suspect I am not alone in saying, as does John: “Come.” “Come!” “Amen, Come, Lord Jesus!”