“Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him” (Rev. 1:7).
The Book of Revelation gets its name from its “revelation” of what God was soon to do; its uncovering of secret things delivered as a series of visions given by an angel to St. John. It was a time of persecution for the Church, and as a result of the persecutions John had been exiled to Patmos, an island in the Aegean Sea between modern day Greece and Turkey. The visions he received contained specific messages for seven nearby churches, but a more general testimony as well.
“Surely I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:20), it says in the last chapter of Revelation; and it is this vision which opens the first chapter, our reading today. “Surely I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:20). This is the testimony of what God is soon to do: “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him” (Rev. 1:7). It’s a striking word picture, of the advent of the One whose first coming had been in lowliness and humility, now returning with the clouds that signify the glory and majesty of God. These are the clouds of God’s “revelation” or “uncovering” of himself on Mount Sinai, as well as on another mountain later when Christ ascends into heaven. As it says in the Nicene Creed, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
It’s popular to take the “revelation” or “uncovering” of the vision given to John in two distinct ways. The first is as a “secret code” that reveals our future, with events in the present approximated to the different elements of the vision. By connecting the events of our present day to the visions of Revelation we will be able to peer into the future and know what’s ahead. The second interpretative tool is to see the vision as a commentary on contemporary events in John’s own day, in the first century, now safely enshrined in our twenty-first century past.
The problem with both approaches is that what is “uncovered” by the vision is neutralized. Either it’s in the distant past, a historical relic; or it exists as the “answer sheet” to the riddle of the future. In either case, the immediacy of “Surely I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:20) disappears, and what is uncovered by the shock and awe of “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him” (Rev. 1:7) turns out to be neither shocking nor surprising.
The vision of Revelation certainly uncovers the glory of God, in time and history, but it’s also meant to uncover something within us, to surprise us and to stop us in our tracks. What does the coming of Christ reveal to us? If our eye sees him, what will be the result? Put another way, what do we uncover within ourselves in this vision of the One who has been pierced?
Our reading today says that “on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail” (Rev. 1:7). I thought for a long time that the folks who were wailing were those who were terrified by the return of Christ in glory. After all, he comes again to establish his rule and his righteousness, and to declare judgment. But now I think that those who are wailing are in fact lamenting the wounds of Christ, the deeds that have been done to the Lord of time and history. It’s a moment of self-realization as they recognize the One who’s coming. Their lament is not a sign of terror but a sign of repentance.
I also thought that the ones who were wailing were other people, but what the Revelation of John uncovers is that “all the tribes of the earth” (Rev. 1:7) are implicated. We have all wrought the wounds. In the vision we’re not spectators but rather participants ourselves in the final judgment.
The coming of Christ, however, is an occasion for hope. “Every eye will see him” (Rev. 1:7). It reveals to us that God’s purpose in creation is secured, not overturned, by the return of Christ in glory. What is uncovered within us is the capacity for repentance, for the reflective lament that comes when we know what we have done and know at the same time that God is merciful and gracious. “Every eye will see him” (Rev. 1:7): that’s the promise of the Gospel, not the threat. We have within us the capacity for new life, if we will open our eyes and see.
- The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee