Monday, 14 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 5: Song to the Lamb

This is the fourth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 4, John before the throne of God. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading. 

I'm reading one of the Harry Potter books to my son at bedtime at the moment (so far his dreams are free from Dementors, and I hope it continues), so in that spirit I'm beginning to feel a little like Hermione Granger in reading some of these chapters from Revelation. I have this urge to read and understand everything before I can possibly say a thing. But: I'm reading a chapter (or two) per day, and have plenty of other things to do with my time; and the commentaries I've found are either very complex or rather strange; and besides, the texts demand more of an emotional reaction than a scholarly one. That said, I did read the Oxford Bible Commentary on the chapter, and the text in an interlineal Greek-English version, and I've said previously that understanding the symbolism is important with this book.

Nonetheless, I'm more inclined tonight, reading chapter 5, to go with an emotional reaction. And here it is: song. We have two songs in this chapter and it happens that I've sung both of them. A bit of context of the story. John is still in the throne room, and sees the hand of God holding a scroll (subject not mentioned) which is sealed with seven seals. Nobody is worthy to open the scroll, John is distraught, until one of the 24 elders who says that the Lion of Judah has conquered and can open the scroll. And John sees not a lion but a lamb who had been slaughtered, and now has seven horns (of power) and seven eyes (of wisdom). The lamb takes the scroll and the four living creatures and the elders bow down before it.

The lamb hasn't been mentioned previously in the book. However it's used as a symbol of Jesus once in the gospels, "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" and a few times in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters. It's a reference to the Passover sacrifice of a lamb, and the idea of Jesus' death as a sacrifice. Here these things are present, but in the background, except that we're reminded three times in the chapter that the lamb was slaughtered.

And so to the first song. In the NRSV this begins "You are worthy to take the scroll". In the King James Version of the Bible it begins "Thou art worthy to take the book". In that form I remember it well as the culminating song of the musical Bind Us Together, a series of praise songs which is largely forgotten as a collection although some of the songs are still sung. In my memory this song is slow and sonorous, as befits a song to be sung by a group of elders.

The second song is better known, and is described as being sung by "thousands of thousands" of angels. The text begins "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain" and it forms the culmination of Handel's magnificent Messiah, where the text "blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto him" is a majestic fugue. It's a wonderful ending to a wonderful piece (and it gives the lie to the idea that the piece belongs just to Christmas time).

And lastly the song comes from every creature on earth and heaven: "to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever". I don't know of a setting of that one, but we can say amen to those words!

We'll find out more about that scroll, but here the emphasis is on the lamb, and the song sung to the lamb. This is a message deep in Christological ideas of sacrifice and glory, following on from the praise given to God, and sitting within the throne room. Within the throne room, praise to God happens for ever; but now something has changed, something new is happening. The lamb is here, the lamb was slain, and the lamb receives song. 

Next reading: ch 6. six seals and four horsemen

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