Reading Revelation with the Surrealists: Part 3- In the wilderness

 A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth…And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.  -Revelation 12:1-2,5-6

Landscape with Butterflies (Salvador Dali)

I think one of the most misunderstood symbols in the Bible is “the wilderness”. Which is a little sad because it is also one of the most common. Jacob passes through the wilderness, so does Joseph. Moses is called there; the Israelites spend 40 years there (infact “Numbers” is named “In the Wilderness” in Hebrew). David hides out in the wilderness, so does Elijah. Ezekiel is taken there. Isaiah’s prophesies reference it over and over. Even Christ spent time there.

Actually I blame that last one for the trouble. Matthew leads with “Jesus was lead into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” but Mark is more ambiguous. In both cases Jesus is in the wilderness 40 days before anything happens with Satan. Most readings seem to miss that (i know mine frequently do), and so miss the real purpose, the real power of being “in the wilderness”.

The wilderness is not a place of trial and temptation. It is not to be endured, it is not where we get lost (thank you very much Dante) The wilderness is where we end up when we are already lost; when the trials have been too much or will be too much. We come to the wilderness when it most reflects our spirits: dry, barren, lonely, quiet. The wilderness does not sap us or challenge us, it mirrors what we already are.

Wilderness is liminal space. It is the space, the time in between. Something has come to an end when we arrive in the wilderness; but something is also about to begin. Again an again the wilderness is a place God takes people to prepare them for what comes next. For new relationships, for new roles. For difficult callings, and new realities. God shelters and cares for us in teh wilderness and shows us the possibilities to come. God makes new things spring spring forth like rivers in the dessert.

So it is in Revelation, there is new life, new beginning in the wilderness and that’s why I find Dali’s landscape most appropriate.

After the seven scrolls and the seven trumpets, before the seven bowls, there is (what some translations call) a parable. More often than not, when we come to this section we focus on the Beast and its number, or the dragon who calls it.

But we shouldn’t forget the woman, the pregnant woman. Like creation she groans for the coming of a new thing, a new life, a new kingdom. The child is born, and she is taken to the wilderness where she is sheltered and cared for. I believe John here claims the paradoxic nature of the Kingdom of God. It has come–the child is born–but it is yet to come–the child is taken up to heaven to come again. In the mean time we live in the wilderness–sheltered, cared for, and being prepared for the new thing that is coming.

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