The Woman and the Dragon

Sunday 11th September 2011
The Twelth Sunday after Trinity
St Peter's, Woodmancote
Revelation 12:1-12

I have always been fascinated by the Book of Revelation or, as it is sometimes called more chillingly, the Book of the Apocalypse and there is no more startling a passage in it than that which is our Second Reading for today.

Readings like this can be daunting, filling us with a sense of bewilderment, so let me suggest that we follow my usual way of reading the Bible, that we untangle what the sentences actually mean and only then go on to see what they might signify in allegorical, or symbolic, terms.

The first thing to notice is that this incident of the woman and the dragon does not take place on earth where we might be inclined to wonder how literally to take it; this event, like much else in this book, is visualised by John the Divine as taking place in another realm. He imagines a dragon threatening to devour the envisioned woman's special male offspring who will rule the world. The woman conveniently exits into the wilderness, making way for a celestial set-to between God's angels and Satan and his angels in which Satan is thrown to the earth defeated. Well, not quite: there is at least a suggestion that we are plagued by the devil because he has been thrown to earth and knows that his time is short. In any case, Satan is punished for slandering the author’s Christian brothers and sisters who have given their lives for Christ and have been saved by the sacrifice of the Lamb.

Now, if we look at the allegorical significance, it is easy to draw the conclusion that the woman giving birth to the male child who will rule the world is Mary; and there is a long tradition that this passage is read on the ancient Feast of the Assumption of Our Blessed Lady into Heaven. So the author visualises Mary's incarnational act being threatened in a terminal way by Satan; but the child is saved and is transformed, later in the passage, into the lamb whose blood saves those Christians who have given their blood in martyrdom; and we are left with the problem of evil because although Satan's claim to be equal with God was comprehensively ruled out, there is a way in which Satan still exists to make our lives difficult; and the last verses of Chapter 12 go on to make that more specific.

As you can well imagine, this passage has turned out to be immensely influential in the history of Christianity because it contains two ideas which were particularly influential in the middle ages: the first is the idea that there was some struggle between good and bad angels which the good angels won - well, almost; and the second idea is that evil is personified in the entity, the person, of Satan or The Devil. This led, without too much fancy footwork, to the idea that the person of Satan lives in hell.

The problem arises with the Book of Revelation in general and this passage in particular when we mistake the symbolic for the literal. The only two statements that can be taken literally in the whole reading are that the author saw a vision from heaven and that the author heard a voice from heaven. What the voice says is credible because it fits with the whole theology of martyrdom and redemption but whether it is the author putting words into the voice's mouth or whether it is the voice putting words into the author's ears is an open question.

So what are we to make of it all? Well, personally I've got quite a lot of time for good angel’s at least. I was brought up with the idea of Guardian Angels and I'm particularly attached to the writings of Saint Luke which bristle with angels. We have a highly complex tradition of God's messengers, the angels, acting as a conduit between the divine and the human.  It's not creedal to accept angels; but not to would put us pretty near the end of a spectrum which thinks that the Bible is almost entirely allegorical, tenable perhaps with our Revelation reading but not when considering Luke.

The Satan and hell traditions are much more problematic. We can all acknowledge that people in this world make wrong choices - which we might loosely call sin - and that these choices can be extremely wicked, a state of affairs we quite often describe with the word Evil; but I am not sure how much any of this helps us to make sense of our selves and our position in the world.

If we start from a basic position, we were made imperfect for the specific purpose of being enabled to choose whether or not to love God our Creator; there's no real love without choice. Our necessary imperfection means that we are bound to make wrong choices, choices which lead us away from God and it is therefore necessary for us to repent if we are to mend our relationship with God, although, of course, it is God who gives us the means of Grace to do our kind of mending. But, ultimately, it's God that does the mending so that we are all, in spite of our imperfection, enfolded back into the perfect love out of which we were created.

It seems to me that the problem with Satan and Hell is that it puts human beings, particularly religious leaders, into positions of immense power because they claim to know what will put us in heaven or hell, a position of power that no human being should presume to possess; and the other problem is that to externalise wrong choices in terms of the devil, or sin, or evil, takes the responsibility away from us and puts it elsewhere; we too often mount the defence of Eve, that the serpent tempted us, when the truth is we knew all along that we were doing wrong; but still did it.

But the thing that is most wrong with this terrible iconography of evil and judgment is that it links together what we do on earth with what our relationship with God will be like when we die. The two are not connected. We do not get golden stars for doing good and black marks for doing wrong. God would create nothing in love which, for whatever reason, he would be prepared to cast into something called hell. We are all saved, or not, by the grace and mercy of God; and the devil doesn't come into it, nor hell, nor the power of humans to know what fortune beckons.

But for myself, I believe that through the loving Grace of God we will all be re-united in perfect love, however we behave, and that to behave well is not an insurance policy for heaven but is, rather, our natural state of being; we were created to do good; but, as I said, we were also created to make wrong choices for which we will not be punished.

At the very least, then, this is a clear case where concentrating on our loving God is much more sensible than worrying about the p\osturing of religion.