All Saints Sunday

This vision from Revelation twice uses the word “pass away.”

November 1, 2009

Second Reading
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Commentary on Revelation 21:1-6a

This vision from Revelation twice uses the word “pass away.”

It is used for the passing away of a world (21:1) and then for the passing away of all the first or former things (21:4). “Pass away” is a word that in our ordinary speech means death. When we receive word that someone has died, we often hear that the person has “passed away.” All Saints Sunday is a time to remember those who have died.

As we call to mind the family members and friends who have passed away–in the past year, the past decade, the past generation–we also gain a sense of a world that is passing away. When the people we know die, they take with them the experiences of the First World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War They take with them the sounds and smells of the machine shop, the barn, or the kitchen in a house that has long been torn down. Their faces look back at us from the photos in an album, their expressions coming from a time that is now out of reach. When the people who are closest to us pass away, a part of our world passes away. Death does this.

What is surprising is that in Revelation the word has the opposite sense. We assume that things “pass away” when death comes, but in Revelation things “pass away” when death goes away. In Revelation’s strange upside-down world, saying that the first or former things have passed away means: “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (21:4). The first heaven and earth that pass away (21:1) constitute the world in which death was operative. To take death out of the picture is to bring about a new world.

A new world. Revelation’s vision of the future encompasses human beings and the world itself. The God who created the world holds out a future for the world and for the people who belong to it. Throughout Revelation, God is identified as the Creator. In the throne room vision in 4:11, God is given praise for having brought all things into being. In 5:13, every creature in heaven and on earth gives praise to God and the Lamb for the life they bring. To speak of the future in terms of a new creation in 21:1-6 does not deny the value of the first creation. Rather, it affirms that creation is what God does. The counterpart to new creation is not dissolution but new creation.

Death is real for those whom God has created. Yet in Christ, there is also the promise of resurrection–and resurrection is a new act of creation. Resurrection is the promise of a new existence, a transformed existence. This is also what John envisions for the world itself. Death affects all of us and the world to which we belong. Yet in his restless will to redeem, God holds out the promise of making us and our world new.

The new creation is marked, in part, by an absence of powers that oppose God and diminish life. In its dramatic visions, Revelation tells of the final defeat of evil and the liberation of earth and humanity from the forces that have held it captive. The resurrection of all the dead brings an end to death itself (20:14). Therefore, in the new creation there is an absence of death, mourning, crying, and pain–for all those marks of the former, fallen world have passed away (21:1, 4). At the same time, the new creation is characterized by the presence of the God who gives life. A voice from the throne declares that God’s dwelling will be “with humankind”; he will dwell “with them,” and “God himself will be with them” (21:3).

Revelation does not speak alone here. The opening lines of chapter 21 are a cascade of biblical promises brought to their realization. In breathtaking succession, the words of the prophets are taken up and re-proclaimed. To say, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth” takes up the theme of Isaiah 65:17-18. To speak of the new Jerusalem descending like a bride adorned for her husband echoes Isaiah 61:10. Announcing that God’s dwelling place is among people recalls Ezekiel 37:27. Proclaiming that death will be no more and that God will wipe away every tear from their eyes is a resounding affirmation of Isaiah 25:7-8. To say that the first or former things have passed away returns to Isaiah 65:17, while declaring that God makes all things new echoes Isaiah 43:18-19.

The use of language from the prophets in this climactic vision of Revelation is more than a curiosity. It underscores the integrity of God. What God has spoken, God will do. There is integrity between God’s speech and action. Revelation’s vision for the future does not rely on an optimistic reading of the present. Sin, evil, and death all call the future into question. Yet the prophets and the author of Revelation bring a word of hope into the present by affirming that the God who has created all things is the same God who brings all things to their completion.

God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end (21:1). The world’s existence and our own existence are framed by the presence of God. All Saints Day provides a moment to remember that death is real–for those we love and for we ourselves. It also provides an occasion to recall that death is not final. In God, the future holds the promise of life.