Saturday 22nd May 2021
After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’ At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and cornelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.
Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,
‘Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.’
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,
‘You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honour and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.’
The four living creatures described in today’s passage in the book of Revelation are borrowed in fact from the book of Ezekiel. In the ancient world they may have originally represented the four ‘highest’ creatures in the known world. The lion we still know today as the king of the jungle, that is the king of wild beasts. Likewise the ox in ancient times could have been considered the king of the providing animals, be it providing meat or labour. For its size and predatory abilities it is easy to see why the eagle may have been regarded as the king of the birds. And finally, human beings – made in the image of God, have often wrestled with the idea of humanity being the pinnacle of creation and what the rights and responsibilities of such a claim may be.
In medieval times these four creatures were also used to symbolise the four Gospels.
Matthew, then regarded as the first Gospel, represented by the human creature; which may also reflect Matthew’s Gospel beginning with the incarnation of God in the human baby Jesus.
Mark, is symbolised by the lion and the qualities of courage and bravery – Markan themes which have re-emerged since the spread in understanding of socio-political readings in recent years.
The ox or bull is associated with Luke, and connected to imagery of service and self-sacrifice, strength and resilience.
Then John is the Gospel which traditionally soars above the others, the eagle reflecting the loftier notions of the logos, the word made flesh, of Jesus being the lord of all.
Though not used in our traditions much today, maybe these four ancient symbols could serve as reminders for us of the nature of discipleship, of seeing to follow Jesus. The one who shows us true humanity, through courage, service and self sacrifice. And it is through these things that we are each lifted closer to God.
God we see in Jesus,
symbolic words and ancient emblems
can often today feel like they conceal rather than reveal.
May difficult text and the long forgotten images
speak afresh to us today
of what it is to follow Christ
and be signs of your love
which speak to our times and places.