Epiphany 3 – Rev Alison Way – Revelation 19:6-10, John 2:1-11
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen
Several years ago I paid a visit to Whipsnade tree cathedral. This is a National Trust garden near Dunstable covering over 9 acres. Here is the link so you can get a feel for it: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/whipsnade-tree-cathedral. This was of course in the days when we could travel freely! It is planted mainly with trees in the approximate form of a cathedral, with grass avenues for the nave, chancel, transepts, chapels, towers and cloisters and “walls” of different species of trees. It is an intriguing and very peace-filled place accompanied by some natural sounds that I really like, the wind in the leaves of the trees and the cooing of wood pigeons. (It was summer when I visited!)
As I was wandering around the tree cathedral with some friends, I was left with lots of questions. Lovely as it was, I had lots of questions about why it existed and why it had been constructed? What motivates you to plant a tree cathedral? Especially when working with trees – the individuals concerned are unlikely to see their labours come to full fruition.
It turns out the tree cathedral was a vision of a chap named Ernest Blyth and a vision with a deeply spiritual root to it. It was as an act of “Faith, hope and reconciliation” in response initially to his memories of World War I. As a cadet at Sandhurst in 1916 Blyth had made two close friends called Arthur Bailey and John Bennett who were both dead within eighteen months. In 1930 Ernest paid a visit to Liverpool Cathedral with his wife, which was then under construction. Blyth wrote “As we drove south through the Cotswold hills on our way home… I saw the evening sun light up a coppice of trees on the side of a hill. It occurred to me then that here was something more beautiful still. And the idea formed of building a cathedral with trees. Work began in 1932 and continued in stages. The site became overgrown during the second world war, but development recommenced when it finished. Though this cathedral is not consecrated, the first religious service at the site was held in 1953, and services continue annually to this day usually on an ecumenical basis. In 1960 the Tree Cathedral was accepted as a gift by the National Trust.
Ernest did get to realise his vision of a tree cathedral, but not without setbacks and difficulties. We have to wonder what people would have made of his idea back then and his persistence rescuing his labours after 7 years away in the second world war. But he would never have seen it in its maturing glory that I saw with trees in full stature. Then there was the tangible sense of peace, and signs of hope and new life with new trees being planted to ensure his vision lives on!
Our first bible reading today also tunes into this kind of visionary stuff. Revelation was a vision written down for a people experiencing all kinds of difficulties and in a way deliberately masking things (so the people in the know could understand but if it fell into the hands of the authorities the messages within it would be difficult to understand).
All of this 2000 years or so on doesn’t make it easy for us to understand. Today’s reading is all about the sound and what the voices have to say to us. It starts with a voice from the great multitude, which is accompanied by mighty thunderpeals and very loud noises. These kind of noises are often with the voice of God or are the sounds that the people heard, when someone else is hearing the voice of God.
The voice says: Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory. Frankly this is not a statement to say quietly especially in a large crowd. Let us say that statement loudly together (forgetting for a moment traditional British reserve)
After me Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory.
And louder! Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory.
This is a 1st century understanding of the victory statement. Salvation and glory and power to our God. This would have been seen in the light of common statements made about their leaders at the time, which had a similar ring – victory and glory and power to our Caesar! This version shows that the true victory belongs to God and not in the Roman emperor! And this is the message the voice of a great multitude cries out in defiance and over and above human voices supporting Caesar! It also shows that our natural response to knowing that the Lord our God the almighty reigns is one of worship for fervent and unceasing praise of God, wrapped up in rejoicing, exulting and giving glory for God’s saving love for us.
Then the voice continues with a metaphor – Christ as the bridegroom and the people of God as the bride. This notion was quite widespread in early Christianity. Sometimes we think of the Church as the bride of Christ and use an appropriate understanding of good lasting marriage relationships as a model for the self-sacrificing love Christ had for the Church. Here the important part of this – is that his bride has made herself ready. This is about being the people of God ready and willing to partake in loving relationship with God. Readiness is a concept we more readily associate with Advent than the Sundays of Epiphany, but being alert and ready is important in our response to God.
The next statement of this voice takes us on a level to her (the people of God) it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure. This is a reference to 1st century marriage customs. Fine linen was a luxury item in the ancient world. It was more commonly in these times fine linen in purple and scarlet. There is an intentional contrast here between the “fine linen” bright and pure. Some translations use the word shining rather than bright and this has illusions to the transfiguration where Jesus was shining brilliant white.
The voice goes on to say for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. Here the fine linen is being used to represent the righteous deeds of the people of God. Thinking about righteousness, which is really the essence when our lives shine with God’s love for us, and we follow his plan for us. (rather than substituting it with something rather duller and less shiny of our own). Righteousness itself is attractive and brings out the best in us and is not to be confused with self-righteousness, which is a deeply unattractive side of human nature.
So having got there we move to a second voice, this is the voice of the angel, speaking directly to the writer of Revelation. The angel says “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” What the angel says is echoing the beatitudes (blessed are statements of Jesus) in Revelation. It asks us to think about our invitation to the marriage supper of the lamb. This is rather difficult. Some kind of illusion to the acts of Jesus at the last supper, in the supper bit clearly. Though the last supper was a one-off our remembrance of it week by week when we can share communion is not! There is also importance in that we are all invited through what Jesus did, and it is worth noting it does NOT say blessed are those who came to the marriage supper but those who are invited. Those things are different. There is also an element here about being in a committed relationship with God through marriage too.
The point about readiness and alertness of our faith has already been made and there is also clearly a celebratory element to this. Parties at weddings were well known in Jesus day (and described in our gospel reading today) and a once only element to that (only one marriage supper for any marriage). Another thought I had was this was some kind of illusion of the end times and Jesus coming again in the presence and not yetness of our relationship with God. We only see things partially and this may be a reference to dwelling in the presence of God more fully; either when we die and enter his presence or when the end times come and Jesus returns however that may work.
Whatever this phrase Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the lamb means entirely, the angel finishes his words with a command. We understand it as a faithful and true message from the final statement the angel says These are the true words of God. So in there is something we definitely need to get.
A reflection I read from new daylight on this passage said In the kingdom the rich will not be proud of their lavish attire nor will the poor be ashamed of their garb. All will be wearing robes provided by the king for the wedding of the lamb has come and the bride has made herself ready. And to finish off – the angel makes sure we understand the angel is not to be worshipped but God.
So in our journey through the vision of Ernest Blyth and this vision from Revelation with the voice sounding like a great multitude and the voice of the angel – They are all exalting us to praise God, to declare his victory in and through our lives. To live righteously ready to follow God’s path for us and to live acknowledging our blessedness as those invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. Praise on, think on and pray on with this. Amen
References: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/whipsnade-tree-cathedral/features/edmund-blyth—visions-of-a-cathedral, BRF New Daylight and The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995