Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. —Revelation 2:10
Hold fast to what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. —Revelation 3:11
John of Patmos, in his second of seven letters to churches in Asian Minor (ancient Turkey), counsels them to be faithful until death. He offers the ultimate of paradoxes essential to the spiritual life: this life is not all there is.
To access a deeper, divine life, however, something in us must die. All of my deepest transformations have happened because of pain, humiliation, and failure. I’d like to say otherwise, but it wouldn’t be true. Some even describe contemplation as a way to “die before you die,” because when we sit in silence, unguarded with ourselves before God, we are forced to choose: to grip tightly to our obsessions, inner scripts, and agendas, or to let them go, if only for twenty minutes or so.
The most perceptive of scholars see a potential historical background to John’s short letter to the church in first-century Smyrna. They construct a situation in which Jesus-followers are ratted out to Roman authorities by other minority groups. The Romans were fairly tolerant religiously—if you worshiped their gods. If you didn’t, you were at risk. Jewish and Gentile (non-Jewish) believers in Christ could fly under the radar from imperial persecution for a time, but as the Flavian dynasty reigned, the position of communities who did not worship the Roman gods became more precarious. It was every community for itself, and especially so in imperial cult centers such as Smyrna, Ephesus, and the other cities to whom John sends his messages. (See this commentary.) The people lived and worshipped with the ever-present possibility of danger.
John passes on a promise to these people, and to all people, navigating fear and suffering: a promise of life amidst and beyond death. The symbol of such life is a crown. If we read this verse alongside 3:11, above, we see that the crown of divine life is not something that we receive later, but something that we already have.
Our divine identity is the truest part of ourselves; it’s just that most of us don’t realize it. And the way to access it, unfortunately, seems to be through some form of “dying.” For those on a spiritual journey, this does not only include physical death, which is the ultimate passing over into God, but also simply and devastatingly what the late Fr. Thomas Keating called the “dismantling of our emotional programs for happiness.” He writes:
The false self is looking for fame, power, wealth, and prestige. The unconscious is very powerful until the divine light of the Holy Spirit penetrates to its depths and reveals its dynamics. . . Instead of trying to free us from what interferes with our ordinary human life, the Spirit calls us to transformation of our inmost being, and indeed of all our faculties, into the divine way of being and acting. The Greek Fathers called this process deification.
John’s promise of our “crowned” identity is rooted thoroughly in the Hebrew and New Testament Scriptures. Psalm 8:5 and 6 prays, “Yet you have made them (human beings) a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.” The Psalmist speaks to the royal vocation of the human being to reflect God’s rule of compassion, justice, and peace by living and working in the same Spirit. Disastrously, instead of compassionate and humble co-creation with Earth and living creatures, we turned the Genesis mandate to have dominion (1:28) into unbridled domination. In nearly every category of life, humans have wielded power-over other living beings with relentless brutality.
Like modern politics, the biblical tradition has its fair share of evil kings. The early Jewish prophet Samuel warned the people what would happen: “These are the ways of the king who will reign over you” (1 Samuel 8). To paraphrase Samuel’s diatribe, the king will enslave your people, start wars with them, abuse their labor, and steal your crops. The Israelite people opted for one anyway. But alongside the anti-king warnings and the evil kings’ reigns, the Bible reclaims true, loving, and just royalty. Jesus heralds the “kingdom” —even though the realm he celebrates looks like nothing Pilate can imagine (Luke 23:2–3). 1 Peter calls the early church a “royal priesthood” (2:9) and John of Patmos promises crowns to those who hold fast even through death. Then, in Revelation chapter four, the worshippers before God’s heavenly throne cast their crowns off, singing in praise to the true Lord (not Caesar, Trump, whiteness, or Wall Street), “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power” (4:10).
German mystic Meister Eckhart takes up the biblical theme of royalty and clarifies its mystical dimension. In his sermon thirty-six, the title of which Matthew Fox gives as “Everyone An Aristocrat, Everyone A Royal Person,” Eckhart quotes Jesus’ parable in Luke: “ A man of royal birth went to a distant country to be appointed king, and afterward he returned” (Luke 19:12). The inner spiritual reality of our lives is a “new person, a heavenly person, a young person, a friend, and a royal person,” Eckhart teaches. The divine depth terrain of our lives, however, often remains “a distant country” for those of us so used to dwelling on the surface level, caught up in the webs of affirmation, security, and control that we tell ourselves make up who we really are. Thus, it takes a journey to a distant land to return home to our royal personhood: “To return home means to know and realize the fact that we know and realize God.” (Matthew Fox’s translation of Meister Eckhart’s Sermon thirty-six, see this book; read a post about Eckhart’s “nobility inside” here).
The crown of life, then, is the inheritance we’ve already been gifted. God’s presence in us; our presence in God. Every single day threatens to seize it. We must hold fast.
Apocalyptic culture moment: Last week.
Apocalyptic quote of the week: Is the Christ of the Gospels, imagined and loved within the dimensions of a Mediterranean world, capable of still embracing and still forming the center of our prodigiously expanded universe? Is the world not in the process of becoming more vast, more close, more dazzling than Jehovah? Will it not burst our religions asunder? Eclipse our God? —Teilhard de Chardin
Image: Patmos, with thanks to @louverstudio
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