Volume 7, Issue 7, May 1998


"Then I saw an angel standing in the sun."
- The Revelation to John, ch 19, vs 17.

Symbolism is an important element in our learning and experience. Imagination weaves the visual context of knowledge. When that which we can see, taste, or feel are not present, we imagine them as we have perceived them. When we have not seen an object, we use imagination to portray it.

Symbolism comes from two Greek words meaning to put two things together, We take the unseen but sensed object and describe it as an obvious object. This is the way we harmonize our existence.

For example, I hold in my hand a five dollar bill. It is worth very little in itself - a little paper and fancy printing. But its worth is symbolic for it stands for trading value which enables me to receive for it goods, products, and services from others.

The prevalence of figurative language in religion is due to religion's attempt to make a connection between two things of which one is concrete and physical, the other abstract and referring to intellectual, moral, and spiritual matters. Symbols are a common way of giving tangible expression to ideas belonging to the realm of the spiritual.

The book of the Revelation to John in the New Testament contains a great deal of symbolic language. One of these is the statement, "I saw an angel standing in the sun."

Here we have a symbol of the heavenly vision, being able, supposedly, to gaze directly into the blazing midday sun. It represents divine vision and learning.

A disordered generation such as ours shakes the confidence of many in religion's basic truths. When science puts in place of the certainty of faith the uncertainty of knowledge, the conscious mind sees itself isolated in a world of psychic variables, with no roots or connecting relationships. The changeableness of the world around us causes our trusted stabilities to fail, leaving us in a disturbed society, feeling out of control and without continuity.

Let us look at this symbol for the heavenly vision, this discernment of things spiritual, this awareness of the divine and eternal in our midst.

First of all let us recognize that there is THE SPIRITUAL IN THE MATERIAL.

When we speak of heaven we are not speaking of a physical place. The term is a metaphor for the inner spirit, knowledge, vision. Here is to be found ones dynamic centre of being. We are more than trained animals, we have moral imagination, creativity, knowledge as our destiny.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning has immortalized the knowledge of the spiritual in the material in a few lines of verse:
"Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries."

The symbol of the angel standing in the sun suggests also that we look for THE DIVINE IN THE HUMAN. If it is the leaven of spirituality that gives meaning to the material world, it is the element of the divine within us that gives
significance to human life.

In India there is a beautiful greeting in which the palms of ones hands are placed together symbolic of prayer, and you bow to the other person. This symbolic act says that the god that is in you recognizes the god in the other. This is a recognition of the divine presence in humanity. When you visit an Indian home as a guest, you are greeted as a visiting deity.

After a Sunday morning worship service I conducted, a thoughtful boy approached me and asked me where was God in this church building he had heard called "God's house." I don't remember my answer, but it was inadequate. A few Sundays later the lad came to me after church, a wide smile on his face and declared he had found the answer to his question of a few weeks past. He said the answer came to him during that morning's service as he continued to muse over his question. He said, I looked around over the congregation of people and realized that God was here in the people present. He had found God in God's house.

We talk too much these days about punishment and responsibility, and not enough about discovering and developing the good within one another until it blossoms in even better lives. As the writer of the Letter to the Romans stated, "Don't allow yourself to be overpowered by evil. Take the offensive - overpower evil with good."

This symbol of the angel standing in the sun suggests as well THE ETERNAL IN THE TEMPORAL.

This word "eternal" is not used much by us, but it means timeless, unchangeable, happening very often, unceasing, endless. This is as opposed to the temporal which is temporary, lasting only for a time, limited, transitory. The temporal is concerned with clocks and watches, schedules, and time tables. The eternal has to do with meaning, bliss, steadfastness, and perpetuation.

The New Testament beatitudes speak firsthand of eternal meanings. They emphasize the "blessedness" of the inner disposition of a person rather than something which outward circumstances may have caused them. Blessed means something like contentment and happiness. Charles Templeton pointed out that "Most men and women want to find happiness, but you don't find happiness any more than you find steel. You refine steel from the rough ore and you fashion happiness from life's opportunities."

Happiness, or blessedness, is not having what you want, but wanting what you have. One can be poor, know what sorrow means, lonely, desire goodness, seek mercy and peace, yet find the spiritual resources to overcome and to live life to the full.

There is a force, a strong force for good in our world, and like the force of gravity is to our physical world, the Law of Love as taught by the New Testament is to our moral world; a silent but mighty and all-persuasive force, throwing its magical aura upon the isolated actions of the everyday, giving impulse and direction to the whole of life, ruling alike the little eddies of thought and the wider sweeps of benevolent activities.

Centuries ago St. Paul confronted his world and said, "I have complete confidence in the gospel for it is the power of God." Today, in the world of megawatts and nuclear fission, we can say the same thing.

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"Religion NOW" is published in limited edition by the Rev. Ross E. Readhead, B.A., B.D., Certificate of Corrections, McMaster University, in the interest of furthering knowledge and participation in religion. Dialogue is invited and welcomed.