A Dark Nativity

A Dark Nativity

rev-12Revelation 12

by Daniel Harrell

With Black Friday shopping slipping due to Thanksgiving getting, and Halloween’s Christmas decorations already turning stale, some may worry well-worn Nativity scenes will soon wear out. Allow the book of Revelation to spice things up. Here you have a mother giving birth to a child destined to rule the nations. There’s a heavenly host of angels, plenty of stars and an evil adversary who seeks to devour a threat to his power. There’s even a flight into the desert—all familiar parts of the Nativity story. Only in this version, there is no silent night, nothing is calm and not much is bright. The angels, rather than proclaiming peace on earth, wage war in heaven. The stars get wiped from the sky. The flight to the desert is a literal flight as the mother is transported not on a mule’s back but on eagle’s wings. And the evil adversary is not some small-time tyrant, but a dragon, the very devil of hell. Talk about breathing fire into Christmas. It does give me an idea, though. I’m thinking that at this year’s Family Christmas Eve service, as the holy family strolls down the aisle to Silent Night, let’s launch a dragon from the balcony and freak everybody out. And then, when parents yell at us for displacing visions of dancing sugar plums with terrifying nightmares of a seven-headed monster, we can tell them to take it up with the Bible.

OK, I’ll admit, for those who first heard this vision from John, images of mothers and babies and dragons waiting to eat them wouldn’t have sounded much like Christmas either. But neither would have it been particularly scary since everybody would have heard the story before. Well worn within their own Greco-Roman culture was the myth of a fierce dragon named Python and a woman named Leto who became pregnant by Zeus, the chief of the gods. Python pursued Leto in order to kill her child because he knew that the child had been appointed to slay him. But Leto, rescued by a north wind blown in by Zeus, was transported to a desert island. There Leto gave birth to Apollo, the sun-god, who in short time returned to make short shrift of the dragon. A classic triumph of good over evil, it was a very popular myth. So popular in fact that the ruling Caesars publicly identified themselves with symbols of Apollo so that the populace might view them as worthy of veneration. Sort of like politicians in our own day wrap themselves up in religious and patriotic symbols so that voters might view them as worthy of election. Symbols are powerful which is why people use them—and are so moved by them.

However, we should not assume that John, Revelation’s writer, merely borrows symbols from pagan myth (or movies) and infuses them with Christian meaning for popularity’s sake. The church would later do something like that by borrowing popular pagan winter solstice festival traditions, decked with garland, trees, wreaths and gift-giving, and turn the whole thing into Christmas, something the Puritans totally rejected. But here in Revelation 12, the embedded imagery actually has its own roots in Old Testament realities. John’s adaptation derives from real Biblical mothers and dragons, not ripped off ones. Now this is not to say that John envisioned an actual mother with her feet on the moon or a literal monster with seven heads. That he sees them as portents or signs indicates that he is speaking figuratively. Yet his symbols do represent the characters, entities and events that comprise the Biblical epic—an epic that finds its ultimate denouement in Jesus Christ the true Lord and true King. With one fantastic sweep of his pen, John exposes the entire pagan mythological system as the devil’s lie, while at the same time upending those who would use it for political power plays.

I’ve been working through Revelation for some time now, and already we’ve encountered plenty of symbols: seals and swords, apocalyptic horsemen and a beast from the abyss, fire-breathing prophets and a butchered little lamb. Revelation 12 raises the curtain on a whole new a new cast of characters, but the storyline basically remains the same. These last 11 chapters of Revelation will unveil in greater detail what the former introduce and imply. There will be more beasts, a false prophet and a harlot of Babylon; but the real difference now is that cosmic evil gets a name and a shape. The dragon is the devil, the great instigator of persecution and trial. We know that the dragon is the devil because John tells us so here, but the identities of the other characters are less certain, which is what makes ascribing Christmas meaning to Revelation 12 tricky.

Roman Catholic theology has produced mountains of literature on Revelation 12 arguing that the heavenly woman is Mary, the exalted mother of God “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” However a more accurate interpretation has the mother representing a desolate Sarah-like figure longing to beget her promised progeny, genuine followers of God who keep his life-giving commands. God promised Abraham that his descendants would be like stars of the sky. The sun, moon and stars as specifically indicative of Israel appear in a dream of Joseph, Abraham’s great-grandson, with the number twelve denoting Israel’s twelve tribes. Isaiah and Micah, whose prophecies are read every Advent, both view this mother who cries out in labor as representing expectant and suffering Israel, that enduring remnant of chosen people, who in time and through the Messiah, birth the church. The child born is the long-expected Christ, that much of the Christmas story is here. Yet unlike the Christmas story, the child goes straight from birth to heaven. Obviously this ascension occurs to avoid his getting eaten by the dragon, but more importantly, that his ascension turns out to be a coronation summarily debunks the dragon’s crowns. Like Herod and Caesar and every ruler on earth, the dragon is nothing but a power-grabbing pretender.

Some do wonder, with no mention of the cross and resurrection, whether this child in Revelation 12 can truly be Jesus. Tied to the mention of the conquering Lamb, is the child described as “he who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” He is the same lamb of God whose blood takes away the sins of the world. If your NRSV translated verse 5 more literally, the connection to Jesus would be even clearer. The verb to rule is actually the verb to shepherd, the iron rod literally an iron staff, indicative of the Messianic King to come as a good shepherd in line with King David. His staff is made of iron not so much because his sheep are so unruly, but mainly to show that the shepherd will guard his flock from all danger. It’s as Psalm 2 sings it: “The kings of the earth set themselves against the LORD and his anointed, but He who sits in the heavens laughs. ‘I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill. You are my son, today I have begotten you. I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’ Therefore be warned, O rulers of earth. Serve the LORD with fear, with trembling. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”

Of course now with the devil enraged as a dragon, the need for refuge intensifies. John’s dragon has seven heads and ten horns, perfect and complete numbers to emphasize perfect and complete wickedness. Its redness is the color of blood, emblematic of all the bloodshed wrought by its evil. The battle lines drawn are long established. God said to the serpent back in the garden: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers.” Throughout Israel’s history her enemies all were portrayed as serpents, be it the Egyptians, the Assyrians or the Babylonians. Yet whether ancient snake or earthly empire, they all hissed and blew fire within divine limits. Whatever triumphs they were allowed over Israel were as agents of God’s judgment. And if ever they overreached in triumph, they became objects of judgment themselves. God ordains and redeems all things for his purposes.

It is no surprise that the final book of the Bible finishes up what the first book started. The dragon knows the Genesis curse as well as anybody, which is why he crouches in wait to make a meal of the newborn king before the king crushes him. Yet like Herod in the Christmas story, God foils the dragon. The child gets snatched up to heaven while the dragon gets hurled down from heaven, booted out by Michael and his angelic army, the guardians of the galaxy and God’s people as narrated by the prophet Daniel. [off]

Of course some will wonder what Satan was doing in heaven to begin with. Throughout the Old Testament, the word satan is not regarded as a proper name but as the proper role of adversary, which is what satan means: adversary. The context is typically a heavenly courtroom with the adversary as prosecuting attorney, accusing the faithful of being faithless. The picture of the adversary as a fallen angel, pieced together from various Old Testament references, doesn’t really take firm shape until the New Testament where satan darkens into the devil proper, the one who directly tempts Jesus in the desert, confounds Peter, corrupts Judas, torments Paul and prowls like a roaring lion seeking to devour everybody else. Now grown into an even more ferocious monster, Satan amasses his full power to fight Michael and his angels, but he’s too weak to win. Satan falls to earth eliciting cheers from above. “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ, for the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been thrown down.” The Lamb of God slain has taken on himself the sins of the world, so there is nothing left to accuse. The case is closed and the verdict rendered: “No condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” “They conquered the dragon by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” [off]

This last allusion is to the martyrs killed for their faith, the same ones huddled under the altar in heaven, you’ll remember, worrying over how long it would be before God did something about evil in the world. Their worries aside, why huddle under the altar in heaven? What were they afraid of there? It may have had something to do with a seven-headed monster running free. But now that menace has been banished, the martyrs in heaven can come out and sing: “Rejoice, you heavens and those who dwell in them!”

Unfortunately the news on the ground is not so upbeat. The song continues: “But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath because he knows that his time is short.” Great. Heaven dumps its toxic waste on the world. The dragon’s let loose to pollute the planet. Satan’s mad because he’s been tossed out of heaven; he’s mad because God has numbered his days. He takes out his anger on God’s people, as would be expected. Yet for John, Satan’s fall to earth presents ironic good news because it’s the first step in a two-step demotion. In chapter 20 the devil will be hurled the rest of the way down into an eternal lake of fire. So we’re halfway home.

Yet in the meantime, like any frustrated predator, his fury is stoked by his being so dismissively kicked to the ground. Therefore, upon landing on earth, the dragon lunges after the mother, chasing her into the wilderness, or better, the desert, a place loaded with theological significance. The desert is a place of depravation, temptation and rebellion, but also a place of refuge, provision and faithfulness. It was into the desert that Pharaoh chased the Israelites. And though the Israelites mutinied against God there, the Lord fed them with manna. The dragon pursues the woman, but since no mother having just given birth can outrun anybody, she’s given wings to fly. The allusion again is to the Exodus where God is portrayed as lifting Israel on his own wings to safety. In this second Exodus, like Pharaoh in the first, the dragon tries to use water to drown the mother; but God’s turns the tide. Satan’s thwarted, as is always the case in the desert (remember Jesus defied the devil there too). So the dragon turns to take on the rest of the mother’s offspring, those faithful Christians “who keep God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.”

For early Christians, persecuted under the oppressive rule of Rome and by the prejudice of Hellenistic culture, this explained everything. Though they had been saved by the blood of the lamb, they suffered like sheep led to slaughter because they were not ashamed of the gospel. The vengeful dragon was still on the loose. In Christ our troubles do not get eliminated. Jesus said, “No servant is greater than his master. They persecuted me, they will persecute you too.” Whenever the church advances we stoke the devil’s fury. He’s still looking for faithful people to consume.

Still, I do struggle with those who blame the the devil for what’s wrong in the world and for what’s wrong in their life. It seems as if most misery can find sufficient cause in our own human depravity. It may be that my exceedingly rational theological training minimizes anything that’s too charismatic. And I don’t put a lot of stock in the demonic. My secular psychology training provides that much of what we used to call demon possession is now understood as chemical imbalance or a consequence of genes or bad learning. Take your medications and you can probably keep your demons in check.

And yet there persists unimaginable and inexplicable evil that defies human reason and medical diagnosis. Call it systemic evil or collective sin, its the kind of dark power that infects entire nations, civilizations and institutions resulting in the horrors of holocausts and genocides, world wars and homicidal terrorism, ecological upheaval, racial injustice and global poverty. For such endemic evil the word cosmic doesn’t seem too big nor the image of a devouring dragon too bizarre. That such evil exists remains the foremost problem of faith. But this is not Revelation’s problem. If Revelation teaches us anything, it teaches us that whatever power of evil we confront on the earth is always a defeated power. It cannot win. As the apostle Paul so famously put it, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; we carry in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in our bodies.” Resurrection is always at work.

The way of the cross is the way of life; the resurrecting church marches on, the gates of hell powerless to prevail against it. This is the repeating message of Revelation, and as such it is the repeating message of Advent and Christmas. We can confidently endure whatever the devil dishes out because our eyes have seen God’s salvation, which he has prepared in the sight of all people—a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to his people Israel.