The Last Book

By Cynthia Briggs Kittredge

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

This year the Church of the Good Shepherd hosted Seminary of the Southwest Commencement — a week ago Wednesday. We celebrated the end of their studies and the beginning of their ministries as counselors, chaplains, spiritual directors, teachers and priests.

The weekend afterward, I took a short trip to New England, made a walk along the rocky beach in Maine, took my first plunge of the summer season in the sea, and spent three days on retreat at a monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, over the eve and feast of the Ascension.

At the monastery, Scripture is so vividly alive in the chanting of the brothers, and sacred writing is the center of our gathering today.

Of all the cultural changes of the past head-spinning years of technological advance, one of the most alarming has been the forecast of the demise of the book. Have you heard this? Or is it only disillusioned college professors?

No one reads anymore, so there will be no need for paper. You will not be able to find a bookstore.

We don’t read to learn. All information is digital, found on your smartphone. We don’t read to find meaning. For you can get enough meaning from movies and ads for buying more stuff. We certainly don’t read to save our lives.

The disappearance of the book is an ominous sign. Along with the decline of major industries, steel and coal, the extinction of species of flora and fauna at accelerated rates, the rise of new extreme forms of violence and terror, the loss of the book makes our lives more precarious.

With loss of writing and reading comes the loss of a central pillar of human consciousness: imagination. When humans scratched marks in stone, made pictures to represent reality, shapes for sounds, sounds for meaning, it was a momentous evolutionary milestone.

Book are the treasure houses of memory and hope. The books we read to our children, as infants, as toddlers, as school-age children, as teens — from the classic picture books, to the ABC readers, to The Chronicles of Narnia, to The Lord of the Rings — these books formed our lives. Every single dog-eared one of these books is in our daughter Emily’s classroom at Oak Hill Elementary School.

On the seventh Sunday of Easter, in a culture where the book is an endangered species, in church we gather around the last words, the very end of the Bible: Revelation 22:8-21. And it’s the last “book” of this book of books.

Among the books of the bible, the Book of Revelation is a special kind of book, a vision dictated by an angel, a prophecy, from God. The vision opens a window into true reality. Remember the beginning of Revelation: “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”

Revelation is not the most popular among Episcopalians, but from Revelation we get the crowns, the thrones, the glassy seas, the chariots, and the glory, glory, glory of our most valued hymns.

OK, it’s weird, but let’s try it on. Let’s see what it does for us to imagine and engage with it — when we read it in the very moment we are in as a culture.

When the earth is degraded and creation disenchanted, and people are glued to their phones. We’re reading it as waning mainline Christians on the brink of being washed away by a secular age.

The vision of Revelation responds to existential fear — Because its first readers had witnessed Jesus’ death and had known him risen from the dead, and now they are afraid. The unfriendly government had grown even more dangerous. They don’t know what’s next. They may be facing the end of their lives, their own civilization.

The closest historical analogy may be the Christians in the Middle East today. Or refugees or displaced people fleeing for their lives. The future is a scary, obliterating blank. They feared they had been forgotten by God. Was their faith weak and were they misguided? In dire circumstances, generations have turned to the vision of Revelation for hope.

Jesus was a rabbi on fire with God, who led a ragtag movement about the kingdom of God. He preached crazy commands like love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, and sell all you have and give to the poor. He healed the sick and fed the hungry and opened the eyes of the blind.

And then he was steamrolled over by the global Roman empire, caught up in a cleanup of troublemakers in Galilee, and nailed to a cross on a hill to terrorize everybody else. And God did not leave him dead and buried, but raised him up — confirming that his words were true, that God was just indeed, God of the righteous, and would vindicate and save God’s people.

In the vision of the seer written down in the Book of Revelation, Jesus speaks again. To the persecuted, the terrified, the ones who have been faithful but feared that they might be abandoned, forsaken.

In this vision they hear the voice of Jesus from the throne of God, where he is exalted in glory, speaking to their fear and displacement and danger. If we listen today we might hear the voice calling to us, in the confusion and chaos of the current world. What do we hear?

In an environment of tolerance and live and let live we hear an unpopular notion of judgment. Yes, there is justice, still the righteous shall hang in there. “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work.” You see, judgment is good news in a world unwinding. To those who pray “How long, oh Lord?” Jesus from the throne answers, “I’m coming. I’m not gone. I’m on my way.” Soon, soon do not lose hope.

The whole story comprehends and encompasses and goes way, way beyond the human rabbi. Jesus speaks the words I Am – the words of divine self-revelation.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” I am the first and last letter of the alphabet. The summation of human learning and communication and speech and writing. I am every one of your children’s books and your children’s children’s children’s children’s books. I am the accumulated wisdom of the volumes of all the ages. I was here at the beginning and am here at the end, whenever that end will be.

This sacred book, even as strange as it is, book invites us into another realm, into a new way of seeing, to expansive imagination.

Jesus says, I’m inviting you in, I’m opening the gates for you to enter the restored city with the beautiful, the beautiful river, and the towering shade-giving, leaf-bearing tree of life, circle around, choose the fruit, eat your fill, breathe the fragrance of the blossoms. The world is good. The world is restored.

In this world where wars are fought over water; where people die to draw it; where the land and sea are pillaged for profit; Revelation, this holy book, opens heaven and displays plentiful water.

The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

Here is an invitation to drink. To wash. An invitation to swim in the healing waters. Come. Enter into the city, enter into the redeemed community, the beloved community.

The rumors of the death of the book have been greatly exaggerated. We do see that the human love of paper and ink and pages and bindings stubbornly survives in an adverse climate. We do see the power of the book, of the written word, of the alphabet to be an instrument to resist injustice and to nourish the sacred imagination.

We in the church do read to save our lives. And to save the world.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

The Very Rev. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge is dean and president of Seminary of the Southwest, and professor of New Testament.

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