Here is a reading from near the end of the Bible that can be used near the end of a person’s life. It’s one of many readings in the Pastoral Care Lectionary.
While some Christians are absorbed by the last book of the Bible, others approach it with skepticism, worry, even fear. In its inclusion in the canon of Christian Scripture, bishops and theologians of the ancient world saw much here that did not speak to an “end times” after two millennia. They saw a literary work that was a small library unto itself: letters to Christian communities, canticles of praise to Christ, coded warnings about persecution and affirmation to remain in the faith despite obstacles.
Few obstacles are greater for today’s Christian than serious illness or injury. We are called to a new path in life. Perhaps more limitations. Perhaps in the care of others after a long adult life of independence and self-determination.
Early believers surely felt this. As pagans, they were free in a pagan empire. As Jews, they had the support of the local synagogue community. As Christians they suffered the scorn of neighbors, business associates, and even family members. Sick people are often in the same boat. Addictions are our fault. Injuries may have happened because of our carelessness. Infectious disease merits isolation. Cancer, fear and trembling and incomprehension from loved ones.
The book of Revelation offers hope. Here we read the last in a series of visions that began with 19:11:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.
The former heaven and the former earth had passed away,
and the sea was no more.
This image touches on Isaiah’s vision (65:17) of a transformed existence for God’s people. Not just renewal, but a new Genesis, a new creation. The point of John’s narrative is the new city, a place where the relationship between God and people will be intimate, live-giving, and generative, like a marriage. The marriage theme was introduced by the canticle in Revelation 19:1-8, and the author ties the intervening dozens of verses together with a final affirmation of it:
I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem,
coming down out of heaven from God,
prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race.
He will dwell with them
and they will be his people
and God himself will always be with them.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes,
and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain,
for the old order has passed away.”
The voice has announced a fulfillment of the mission of Jesus, harkening back to his reading in the synagogue (Luke 4:16ff) and many passages in the prophetic tradition (Isaiah 25:6-9, Hosea 2:16-22, among others) that speak of the intensity and commitment of God’s love.
A very Johannine passage that urges us to trust the witness that God draws us into a divine family:
The one who sat on the throne said,
“Behold, I make all things new.”
Then he said,
“Write these words down,
for they are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me,
“They are accomplished.
I am the Alpha and the Omega,
the beginning and the end.
To the thirsty I will give a gift
from the spring of life-giving water.
The victor will inherit these gifts,
and I shall be his God,
and he will be my son.
So, why read this for an ill person? A person in hospice may be prepared to receive the news that for her or him, the well-known creation in which they’ve lived will fade away, to be replaced by an invitation to enter a graced eternity. Can we say yes to it?
The believer is beckoned into God’s family. We are children of the Father by adoption, hardly a casual arrangement. Not exclusively a legal one or even a more serious covenantal relationship. The images are many, just in case one works less well for us. The intimacy will be like a marriage. A pair of spouses. The soul and the Maker. If that makes us uneasy, then parent and child. Either way, by marriage or adoption, we are connected to God in a permanent, irrevocable way.
Is a sick person ready for this kind of confidence? If so, this reading may well work in a liturgy, an anointing, or at the end when Viaticum is celebrated.
For an in-depth treatment of the Pastoral Care rites, check this page that outlines our examination from a decade ago.