Tears and singing
The Book of Revelation contains “as many mysteries as it does words.” That was the description of Saint Jerome of the fourth century, and never since have we had a better description of that book. He was expressing what many of us, many scholars and laypeople alike, have determined as we seek to delve into the strange and cryptic pages of this last book of the Bible. As many mysteries as words. And if you’re curious, that’s 11,952 words.
This one small passage that Richard shared with us earlier as our Call to Worship from Revelation 7 contains its own share of mysteries:
The lamb is also a shepherd.
The Lamb who’s a shepherd is beside the throne, but also on the throne.
And just who are those four living creatures?
So much cryptic language. Hidden meanings. Symbology. mystery.
And yet in this particular passage there are two descriptions that are not mysterious at all, but plain as day; windows back into our own familiar world.
The first is this: God will wipe away all tears from their eyes. The text in Greek is very clear: pan dakruon, all tears. That word “pan,” we’ll recognize, it finds its way into many English words: Pan-American; pan oceanic; Panorama. Pandemic. All tears.
With these words at the end of that passage from Revelation 7, we’re given a remarkably tender image of the divine—one who wipes the tears from our eyes. We never forget, do we, that one who in our moment of deepest hurt has listened us into speech, until the words catch in our throat and tears take over; and those tears are accepted, too; even understood. Where sorrow meets compassion, there is holy ground. Where sorrow meets compassion, there may God be found.
In this passage it is those persecuted for their faith—those who speak up for their right, and goodness, and truth, and pay the price—who are comforted by God’s touch. And yet, there are many other ways tears come to our eyes. Including, of course, by way of losing a loved one in death. For every person who dies, there is another, or a family, a community who is left behind who feels the loss, the ache, the vacancy. For each one of these 19 sisters and brothers in our church family that we’ve lost this year; for the 227,000 in our nation’s family who have succumbed to a virus, and the million more in the global human family who have died from that same illness. There are lives left diminished, bereft, made vulnerable in many ways by these deaths.
In Bill Keane’s comic strip, Family Circus, the grandmother, who has just lost her husband, is approached by a sympathetic neighbor who says, “I’m so sorry you’ve lost your husband.” She replies, “Oh, thank you. But he’s not lost, really”—as an image of heaven comes into her mind’s eye. “He’s not lost, really. I know exactly where he is. I’m the one who’s lost.” God who understands our lostness meets our tears with tenderness.
The other picture in this cryptic text that is not at all mysterious is the singing. Singing and more singing. Revelation is the Bible’s second songbook—right behind the psalms. When we discover that God is not only victorious over death, but also gentle, kind, and good, what else would we do but sing? This is what we do every Sunday, and this is why.
So this is plain as day: their singing. And the other image is plain as day: they weep, and God comforts them. But then, as suddenly as the mystery clears, it returns, deeper than before; when we realize that the same ones who weep are also those who sing. As the Lamb becomes the shepherd; the bereft become the blessed; the grieving ones become the grateful ones. How can that be?
There’s an old camp meeting song that draws from Psalm 126, and from John 4:36. It also, we could imagine, it takes a page out of the Revelation songbook, too:
The tears of the sower and the songs of the reaper shall mingle together in joy by and by.
I’m not altogether sure what those words mean. The tears of the sower and the songs of the reaper shall mingle together in joy by and by. Could it be that the sower and the reaper turn out to be, as in this passage we share here today, one and the same, that the mingling together in joy is the still point of grace when, in thinking of our lost loved ones, our hearts turn not only to what’s been lost but also, more and more, to all that’s been given, while they lived, and even beyond their passing? And friends, in this year like no other, and as we approach a week like no other, we find this day of remembrance, these gifts from those who’ve gone before us, to be so very timely, so very wise.
They’ve given us a certain strength and sturdiness and suppleness of heart, so that we may be even more brave and kind, more fully open to the world of need and hope around us. They’ve given us a certain height and vision, so when at times the world is swayed to carry praise or blame too far, we may take a longer view, and hold the steady course.
As we hear these nineteen cherished names read today, and light the candle and toll the bell, and call to mind still others, we will be saddened. But may we also be heartened, even gladdened, reflecting on the treasure these bestowed to us while they lived, and even—perhaps all the more, since they’ve died.
Are you the sower today, bringing your tears; or the reaper, offering your quiet song of gratitude? In Revelation, by some strange and remarkable mystery we can only call grace, those two are one and the same. May today, this mingling into joy, become true for us as well.