On The Island of the Apocalypse
In the book of Revelation, at the end of the New Testament, we read these words:
9 I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, 11 which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”
After this beginning, John the Revelator revealed an incredible vision that has confounded scholars and theologians for centuries.
The book of Revelation has been the source of countless misinterpretations, bad theology, fevered visions of the future, not to mention the foundation of many of the strange ideas and beliefs that many Christians hold about the end of the world.
John the Revelator's vision happened on the Greek island of Patmos, which is home to the Monastery of St. John the Theologian, founded upon the site where John is believed to have received his vision in a cave.
I had the chance to revisit the island during my trip to Greece and return to the Monastery. My visit got me thinking about many things, including all of the studies I've made of John's Revelation.
To begin with, it's important to know that the very name of the book of Revelation tells us a bit about what it's all about. The Greek name for the book is the Apocalypse of John, which reveals the kind of writing we're reading off the bat.
This kind of writing was not meant to be a future prophecy. It was a revelation of what was happening and what outcomes current events might have in the future. And the fantastical word pictures that we find in Revelation would have been completely understood by the readers.
It's also up for debate whether The Apostle John wrote the Apocalypse of John. It's been dated as having been written well after 70 AD and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and could have been written by an elder (or presbyter) who was the overseer of the seven churches mentioned in the text.
At any rate, there is a vision that occurs in the book's opening lines--a vision that happens on the island of Patmos, where hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit each year.
During this last visit to the island, our group joined a huge queue area to visit the grotto or cave where John the Revelator had his vision and where, according to tradition, dictated what he saw to an assistant.
The wait time was over forty-five minutes to enter the Chora or Cave of the Apocalypse, which was converted into a chapel as part of the Monastery of St. John the Theologian in 1088.
As I wanted in line with the rest of my group, I reflected on how many people over the centuries have waited to enter the Chora--the curious, the devout, skeptics, tourists from cruise ships, faithful pilgrims, worshippers, and the like.
And everyone who visits has their own sense of what occurred in that cave and why it's considered a holy site.
Some believe that some sort of code needs to be cracked in the Revelation to determine the course of history. Others write it off as a legend or the ravings of an unhinged person suffering hallucinations.
There are also some (myself included) who don't take the text to be literally true and find in it a warning to followers of Jesus not to assimilate to the excesses of the Empire, whatever form the Empire takes throughout the ages.
Yet, we all gather on a remote island off the coast of Greece to stand in line for a glimpse at where this book of Revelation was conceived.
There is something quite beautiful about it, really. I had to wonder what made a place holy. Was it what happened there, or was it something else? What was it about that cave that made us all enter into it hushed into reverent silence after waiting so long for a glimpse of it?
Could it be that the place is made holy because so many of us gather there, wondering, praying, seeking understanding, longing for answers, or simply wanting to find some connection to the Divine, some glimpse of what comes next for all of us?
Perhaps this is the secret to Revelation, after all.
Like so many aspects of the Christian faith and tradition, it is a mystery. It spoke to a particular time but also speaks to all times. It was for a specific group of first-century Christians, but it was also for all followers of Jesus in all places and times.
And we find ourselves saying like those Christians of old, "Even now, come quickly, Lord Jesus!" We long for the world to be made right by the eternal and universal Christ. And we live as faithfully as we can until then.
May the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.