To end our Revelation series – and to prepare for Christmas on the weekend – we’re going to be looking at everyone’s favourite Christmas-themed passage: Revelation chapter 12. (What could possibly go wrong?)
But this is a very different telling of the Christmas story from the ones we’re most familiar with. It’s not the one from the Gospel of Matthew, written from the perspective of a Jew who saw Jesus’ birth as the fulfilment of OT prophecy. Nor is it the one from Luke’s Gospel, from the perspective of a Gentile historian, who saw Jesus’ birth as part of God’s great plan of salvation for all of humanity.
In fact, it’s not really told from a human, earthly perspective at all. But a heavenly one. A spiritual one. A vision given to a guy called John while he was exiled on the island of Patmos, and written down in what we call the book of Revelation.
And this whole style of writing – we call it apocalyptic, which means “unhidden” – was all about revealing the hidden spiritual reality behind our physical existence. Using bizarre imagery from another world in order to portray people and events in a certain way, and to show what’s going on behind it all.
That’s what this week’s reading does with the Christmas story. Revelation chapter 12 is an apocalyptic presentation of the story of Jesus. So let’s read it through now:
Revelation 12:1 A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.
3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. 4 Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.
5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. 6 The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.
7 Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. 8 But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. 9 The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. 11 They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. 12 Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.”
13 When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach. 15 Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. 16 But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. 17 Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.
OK, if you’re still with me after that, you’re probably thinking: so how was that the Christmas story? What with the complete absence of shepherds, mangers, and inappropriate baby-shower gifts. And I admit, it’s not really Christmas carol material. No-one’s gonna sing songs about Rudolph, the seven-headed dragon. (No-one’s laughing and calling him names.)
But as an apocalyptic telling of the story, it’s not interested in cute Nativity scenes, fluffy sheep, or underage percussionists. It’s interested in showing what’s going on behind the scenes in the Christmas story. What’s going on in the skies—what’s going on in the spiritual realm. And I think that by doing this, it ends up telling us more about the meaning of Christmas than a nice, sanitised picture of a kid in a stable.
We begin with a sign in the skies (v1): the image of a woman clothed with the sun. A fashion faux-pas guaranteed to make anyone’s bum look big. But she knows how to accessorise: the moon is under her feet, and she has a crown of 12 stars on her head. Who is this?
Well if you’re reading this in the Mediterranean world of the first century, you recognise this image. It’s a pagan one, of the Queen of Heaven. Used of various goddesses like Isis, in Egypt. (To clarify: that’s the goddess Isis, not the death cult of the same name.) And, interestingly enough, it was also used for the goddess Roma; the divine embodiment of the city of Rome. The one who gives birth to the Roman emperor, who was by this time worshipped as the saviour of the world. (Does that sound just a little bit Christmassy?)
But in this story, it quickly becomes clear that this Queen of Heaven is no pagan goddess. Because the child she gives birth to is described as a son who will “rule all the nations with an iron sceptre”. And any reader who knew their Old Testament knew that this was a promise given to King David about his descendants (Ps 2:7-9), the kings of Israel. And this was a promise that came to be associated with the coming king, the Messiah. So to a Christian audience, this is a clear reference to the birth of Jesus.
So who’s the woman then? Well on one level it’s Mary, who literally gave birth to Jesus. But as we read on in this chapter, the woman seems to represent the people of God. The community that gave birth—as it were—to the Messiah.
This makes sense when you remember that the Queen of Heaven image was used throughout the empire to represent the goddess Roma, Mother Rome. But here, this subversive Christian text tells us something different. The true Queen of Heaven is not Mother Rome, as much as Rome’s spin doctors would want you to believe it.
No, the true Queen of Heaven is Mother Zion; Jerusalem; the Old Covenant people of God. They are the ones who gave birth to the real saviour. Not some nutjob in a toga who thinks he rules the world. But the true saviour, who actually does rule the world. Jesus, God’s true king.
And still today, the Queen of Heaven isn’t Mother Washington, who seems to go into labour every four years in the hope of squeezing out the next saviour. And you have to admit, if ever there was a president who acted like one of the crazier Roman emperors, it’s this one.
But neither is the Queen of Heaven isn’t Mother Humanism, giving birth to its twin saviours named Tolerance and Harmony. (Or are they Gwyneth Paltrow’s kids? I lose track…) Nor is the Queen of Heaven Mother Science, whose latest saviour promises to upload our consciousness to the clouds where we will live forever.
No. God’s people are the Queen of Heaven, and Jesus our true saviour, to whom she gave birth.