Christ Tree of Life Icon
Originally, according to the early tradition of the Church, St. John the Evangelist was the only person called Theologian. Why so? It is often said because he was the only one who from within the Trinity was able to tell us about Christ’s Divinity. In fact he starts his Gospel not only by stating the Lord’s Divinity, but by a close contemplation of the Triune God. In the early times, to Theologise was to be admitted in the Trinity, dwelling in the Son, contemplating the Father, in the Communion of the Holy Spirit. In this sense Theology is a guide that leads us to the highest experience, it brings us back to our original state, as we were created and redeemed by God. (See how Evagrius Ponticus understood Theology.)
Some other authors of the early centuries, like Dionysius the Areopagite, considered all the authors of the books of the Bible as Theologians. They are all bearers of God’s Word who guides us in our journey toward Him.
Let us go back to The Theologian, St. John the Evangelist and see how he understood Theology. And let us start with one of the most mysterious books of the New Testament, the book of Revelation. Many calls it the only Prophetical book. Actually, all the Bible is prophetical, in the sense that the Word of God leads us to God and to be reunited to Him.
If we consider the book of Revelation or Apocalypsis as a book that tells us about the future, or, equivalently, if we consider its prophetical aspect as being capable of telling us the future, and the future being future historical events, we are misled on both accounts: a- describing the book b- understanding the deep meaning of being prophetical according to the final revelation the Lord is bringing us.
In fact, after the Revelation that the Lord came to offer us, we do not expect any other revelation. The newness in fact, according to Christianity, consists in diving repeatedly deeper in Christ who is God and discovering always new things in Him. He is the same, but since he is God, we have all eternity to discover him and be in awe, minute after minute, for all eternity. The wonders of his being are endless. In him consists all newness. He is the Day that never dawns, and he is present to us (by the way this is the meaning of Sunday. We are called to live every week as an ascent in circles that go always deeper, toward the Divinity of the Risen Lord).
The book of Revelation is the book that holds a series of visions given to John to help the Church who was going through great difficulties, to help her understand the true meaning of what was happening in order not to go astray or be disheartened by the exterior tough events of trials, persecutions and darkness.
This book is the most focused book on the essential core of Theology: it shows the goal, it doesn’t lose time in exterior events or tales, it stays focused on the spiritual warfare in order to reach the Goal. We will see in this article – God willing – at least in what consists the goal.
Let us first notice something unique in the Church, the liturgical placement of the book of Revelation. In the Roman Latin tradition, the book is read alternately with the book of Daniel in the last week of the Liturgical year. This shows that the book is telling us the final goal, what we are aiming for. It dispossesses us from all that is futile and keeps us focused on the essential message of the Lord. Truly it still continues to look mysterious, but its liturgical placement is indicative of what it is. In the Coptic liturgy, the whole book is read and celebrated liturgically during the night of Good Friday, in fact in the early hours of Holy Saturday. It is celebrated with various hymns, taken from the book of Revelation, incense, Candelabre (lampstand) in the middle of the church and anointing in the end of the liturgy of the whole assembly (please see at the end of this article more details). Why reading the entire book of Revelation while the Lord is dead? In fact, it is exactly timed in the Holy Week between Jesus’ death and his resurrection. It is true that at this moment we believe that He goes to all the dead, to announce to them his Redemption, to offer it and free all who died in Hope of His Redemption. In a sense, Redemption starts to be applied, given. Freedom from Hades is operated. For us, who are on earth, this time is the time of huge paradox! It is the time of total absence of the Lord and it is the time of maximum hope where we search for Our Lady, the only one who during these dark hours of death stood fast and believed in the Words of her son and Lord: “I will rise again in the Third day”. It is the time of total loss, like the apostles, we feel that the earth lost her Redeemer, we do struggle with our weak faith. It is a dark moment. If you happen to enter in a Roman Latin Catholic church after the liturgy of Good Friday at 3 pm, you will notice how the church is empty. The altar is naked, the Tabernacle is opened and empty, no images, no statues are visible… total emptiness. The darkness in its true meaning.
The book of Revelation helps us go through the most difficult times and come out of it as winners. Let us see what is at stake.
The book starts with a first and fundamental vision, the vision of the victorious Lord. This vision is of total importance because the whole book is based on it. It is a vision of Christ and the vision takes time to describe different aspects of the risen and victorious Lord. These aspects are of utmost importance. Why? Because they are given to us, but not yet. They are the object of our dearest hope. They are the object of the promise of the Lord: we are about to undergo the greatest battle in our life, and the Lord says to us that if we win, we will get Him.
The battle, struggles and trials are composed of seven steps. As if in us, we need to grow seven steps, win seven times in order to get the whole Christ, the Whole Vision. This is why the entire book is set to lead us to a Wedding, the Wedding between Him and each one of us, all of us constituting the Bride of the Lamb, his bride (see chapters 21 and 22 describing the bride and the wedding).
Note: the Gospel of St. John is in fact the rendering of the book of his Revelations in a more approachable way, and you can easily notice that the first step/sign in the Gospel the one that give the entire architecture of his Gospel is the Signe of the Wedding in Cana!!
Here is the account of the fundamental vision, the description of Christ who is the Tree of Life, the Groom, our recompense. By the end of the book, after having gone through all the trials and coming out of them victorious, our recompense is Him. This vision describes in fact the one who is our recompense, he is ours in the end.
“I John, your brother and fellow-partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance in Jesus, was in the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice, like that of a trumpet, 11 saying, “What you see, write in a book and send to the seven churches: to Ephesus, and to Smyrna, and to Pergamum, and to Thyatira, and to Sardis, and to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”
12 And I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me. And having turned, I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands, One like the Son of Man, having been clothed to the feet, and having been girded about at the breasts with a golden sash. 14 Now His head and His hairs are white like wool, white as snow; and His eyes are like a flame of fire; 15 and His feet are like fine bronze, as having been refined in a furnace; and His voice is like the voice of many waters; 16 and He is holding in His right hand seven stars, and a sharp two-edged sword is going forth out of His mouth; and His face is like the sun shining in its full strength.
17 And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though dead. And He placed His right hand upon me, saying, “Fear not. I am the First and the Last, 18and the Living One. And I was dead, and behold I am living to the ages of the ages, and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.
19 Therefore write the things that you have seen, and the things that are, and the things that are about to take place after these, 20 the mystery of the seven stars, which you saw on My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” (Rev 1:1-19)
I preferred to put the entire 19 verses in order to show not only the vision in itself (vv. 12-16) but also its context, the verses before and after help us understand better the centrality of the vision, to whom it is given (the seven churches), the angels of the seven churches (their leaders),… It deserves a long explanation, but let us focus on this article’s subject: The Goal, the recompense the Lord wants to give us.
Right after this vision, we have seven messages sent to “seven churches” and in each of these messages we find the same structure. Here is the first one and let us see the structure:
“1 To the messenger of the church in Ephesus write: These things says the One holding the seven stars in His right hand, walking in the midst of the seven golden lampstands. 2 I know your works and your labour and endurance, and that you are not able to tolerate evil ones. And you have tested those claiming to be apostles and are not, and you have found them false. 3 And you have perseverance, and have endured for the sake of My name, and have not grown weary. 4 But I have against you that you have abandoned your first love. 5Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent, and do the first works. But if not, I am coming to you, and I will remove your lampstand out of its place, unless you should repent. 6 But you have this, that you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 The one having an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one overcoming, I will give to him to eat of the Tree of Life, which is in the paradise of God.” (Gn 2:1-7)
First, we have the description of one aspect of the Lord, taken in fact from the initial vision (please see and compare)! Here we have: “says the One holding the seven stars in His right hand, walking in the midst of the seven golden lampstands”. So, we not only know who is the sender of the message, but an aspect of him, closely related to the recompense.
We have first a praise, source of encouragement:
“2 I know your works and your labour and endurance, and that you are not able to tolerate evil ones. And you have tested those claiming to be apostles and are not, and you have found them false. 3 And you have perseverance, and have endured for the sake of My name, and have not grown weary.”
The Lord doesn’t start with a blame. He points out to the good things already achieved. And from that praise he draws strength for the hearer in order to set the challenge, the effort to produce: in fact, thereafter comes a blame, or reproach given by the Lord. It underlines a weakness. Think of our seven mortal sins, who are like seven potentialities in us, they can offer either grave sins, or glorious virtues and therefore recompenses. These potentialities are the “churches” to whom the seven messages are sent. Do you remember the seven mortal sins? Think of the them as a great source of information: we have seven areas in our being, and they are capable of the worst but they are also capable of the best. In our case, the Lord, described in one of the seven characteristics shown in the main vision, tells us that he is our glorious recompense, in one of the seven greats aspects of his total being.
Notice he says: “to the messenger” or “angel” of the Church of… he is the head of this church. “mortal sins” are also named “capital sins” because they are heads (capita in Latin) of many other sins of their type. Here is the blame directed to this potentiality, the Ephesus church:
4 But I have against you that you have abandoned your first love. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent, and do the first works. But if not, I am coming to you, and I will remove your lampstand out of its place, unless you should repent.
Taken aback, one can lose faith again. This is why the Lord send another encouragement: 6But you have this, that you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Now we have the end of the message, which goes this way: 7 The one having an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one overcoming, I will give to him to eat of the Tree of Life, which is in the paradise of God.”
The Lord wants each one of us to identify in our life what these messages alludes to and get from him courage and undergo the challenge and win. In order to give us more courage and strength he gives us a promise of recompense, and here it is: To the one overcoming, I will give to him to eat of the Tree of Life, which is in the Paradise of God.”
He is bringing us to the beginnings: “Out of the ground the LORD God gave growth to every tree that is pleasing to the eye and good for food. And in the middle of the garden were the Tree of Life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” (Genesis 2:9) and after the fall, after the original sin: “Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil. And now, lest he reach out his hand and take also from the Tree of Life, and eat, and live forever…”” (Genesis 3:22)
The Tree of Life is the Lord himself! we often forget that in Paradise we had two trees and not only one. We focus a lot on the tree that is the source of all our troubles, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree that will be used by the devil to tempt us: “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5) Like eve we think that there is only one tree in the middle of the Garden and that it is this one. In fact there is another tree and we were allowed to eat from it, it is the main tree: the Tree of Life!! We forgot it. We overlooked it and were attracted by another tree, close by, the tree of knowing good and evil.
As a consequence of this sin, we are deprived from the main tree, the Tree of Life.
Amazingly, undergoing the trials, growing spiritually, and winning, we are admitted to eat back again from this Tree at the centre of the Garden: the Tree of Life! “To the one overcoming, I will give to him to eat of the Tree of Life, which is in the Paradise of God.” This Tree of Life is the Risen Lord himself (see the icon above).
When we ask ourselves : “what is the goal of our life here on earth?” we should remember that if we undergo the good fight and the real warfare, there are promises to obtain. This is only the first one, let us see the sum of the six remaining ones, because they are for us:
2- “The one overcoming shall not be injured by the second death.” (Rev 2:11)
3- “The one overcoming, I will give to him the manna having been hidden, and I will give to him a white stone, and on the stone new a name having been written, which no one has known, except the one receiving it.” (Rev 2:17)
4- “And the one overcoming and keeping My works until the end, I will give to him authority over the nations, 27and he will shepherd them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken in pieces—just as I also have received from My Father. 28And I will give to him the morning star.” (Rev 2:26-28)
5- “The one overcoming thus will be clothed in white garments. And I will never blot out his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.” (Rev 3:5)
6- “The one overcoming, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall not go out anymore. And I will write upon him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from My God, and My new name.” (Rev 3:12)
7- “The one overcoming, I will give to him to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.” (Rev 3:21)
In the darkness of this life here on earth, we are offered the sum of these 7 promises. These are the Lamps that guide us, that attract us and constitute our Christian Hope. To add something more to this prophecy in any teaching is dangerous: “I testify to everyone hearing the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone should add to these things, God will add unto him the plagues having been written in this book. 19 And if anyone should take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the Tree of Life, and out of the holy city, of those having been written in this book.” (Rev 22:18-19)
Surprisingly, what is offered as a recompense (having part back again to the Tree of Life, the one we were deprived of) is taken again. These verses of Rev 22:18-19 are as sharp and menacing as the one given to Adam and Eve in the beginning: “And the LORD God commanded him, “You may eat freely from every tree of the garden, 17but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; for in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.”” (Rev 2:16-17) Adding anything to the words of this prophecy, i.e. offering any other object of Hope to any human being, is acting as a false prophet in the name of the Lord, and this incurs “death”, which means not being able to eat from the “Tree of Life” for ever. The warning is very powerful. Theology should abide with what God says, and only with what God says and Promises.
In these difficult moments the Church is undergoing today, and it is very much possible to have even darker moments in the near future, we need to focus on the essential message of the Lord, the core of it and not to be distracted by anything else, and mainly to nourish ourselves with the real object of Hope: his Promises.
Let us together, sum up the seven promises for the winners and meditate them in order to fill our heart with courage, such courage to go through the trials by the grace of God and come out of them victorious, winners in Him. He is our recompense. The first Vision that St. John has is a vision of Christ and Christ is our only Hope. Let us focus on Christ and on the infinite beauty of his being, let us meditate the Prophecy of St. John, let us draw close to The Theologian. Amen.
Note: The Night of Apocalypse in the Coptic Church
“The night of Great Friday [Good Friday] is called the Night of Apocalypse because it is on this night that we read the entire Holy Book of Revelation. On this night we celebrate the descent of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ into the pit of Hades to restore all those who died on the hope of the resurrection to Paradise. The church gathers around the tomb of the Lord Jesus Christ the whole night in prayers and rituals. This special night is begun with the opening of the altar curtain, which symbolizes when Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ opened the gates of Paradise on the great Friday. The Night of Apocalypse is divided into eight major parts: Midnight Praises, Prayer of Prime Hour, Morning Raising of Incense, Prayers of the Third and Sixth Hours, Revelation, Prayers of the Ninth Hour, the Divine Liturgy, and the Prayers of the Eleventh Hour.”
“After the Third and Sixth Hours Prayers have been read, the church begins to read the Holy Book of Revelation. The Holy Book of Revelation is read on Night of the Apocalypse because the Holy Book of Revelation refers to the bride of the Lord Jesus Christ; the Church. In the Holy Gospel of St. John, St. John calls Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ the “bridegroom” (John 3:29) and in the Holy Book of Revelation 21:9 St. John refers to the “bride” of the Lord Jesus Christ; the church…and tells St. John…”Come I will show you the bride, the Lamb’s wife.” Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ shed His blood on the cross and descended into Hades to get his bride, the saints and then opened the gates of Paradise. Now there is a bridegroom and we await the bride by reading the description of the church in the Holy Book of Revelation.
The story of salvation is that God the Father chose a bride for His Son, who paid for His bride, not with gold or silver, but with His Precious Blood. We are engaged to the Lord Jesus Christ; purified by His water and blood (Ephesians 5:25), wedded at the moment of His death on Great Friday.
All the hymns of the holy book of revelations are related to the bride of Christ: the church. These hymns call the bride to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit, enumerate the number the sealed bride, the song of the bride (Alleluia), and the foundation of the heavenly Jerusalem (the bride of Christ).
The book of revelation is read between the Sixth and the Ninth hour since at that time the Lord Jesus Christ was crucified, shed His blood and descended into Hades to restore Adam and his children to the paradise of joy.
The anointing of oil by the priests to the congregation before the Divine Liturgy is referred to in the Holy Book of Revelation 7:2-8, in which the servants of God must have sealed upon their foreheads. We are anointed with oil to seal us; to say that we are the bride of the Lord Jesus Christ. Following this, the Ninth Hour is prayed in preparation for the Divine Liturgy.” (H.G. Bishop Youssef, Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States)