The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, c. 1805. William Blake
A great sign appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. Because she was with child, she wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. Then another sign appeared in the heaven: it was a huge dragon, flaming red, with seven heads and ten horns; on his heads were seven diadems. His tail swept a third of the stars from heaven and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, ready to devour her child when it should be born.She gave birth to a son–a boy destined to shepherd all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and to his throne. The woman herself fled into the desert, where a special place had been prepared for her by God; there she was taken care of for twelve hundred and sixty days.Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. Although the dragon and his angels fought back, they were overpowered and lost their place in heaven. The huge dragon, the ancient serpent known as the devil or Satan, the seducer of the whole world, was driven out; he was hurled down to earth and his minions with him….When the dragon saw that he had been cast down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the boy. But the woman was given wings of a gigantic eagle so that she could fly off to her place in the desert, where, far from the serpent, she could be taken care of for a time, and times, and half a time.The serpent, however, spewed a torrent of water out of his mouth to search out the woman and sweep her away. The earth then came to the woman’s rescue by opening its mouth and swallowing the flood which the dragon spewed out of his mouth.Enraged at her escape, the dragon went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep God’s commandments and give witness to Jesus. He took up his position by the shore of the sea. (Revelation 12:1-9, 13-17)
O Holy Nightmare: Incarnation and Apocalypse
Some 30 years ago, Fritz Eichenberg, the artist associated with the Catholic Worker, published in those pages a wonderful and disturbing depiction of the Nativity. In the center foreground lies the babe on hay and in swaddling clothes. Nestled round are an adoring donkey and a cow. Through the crossbeams above, a star points down from the heavens. Hallmark, you would think, would snatch up the print for a comforting and conventional Christmas card.
But wait. A closer look through the archway reveals a village nearly off the edge of the frame. However, this is not the cozy skyline set on a Judean hillside as one might expect, but a bombed-out city in flames. One has the feeling that it’s all coming this way, closing in on the child asleep, holy and innocent. Look again. Tucked beneath the hay is a soldier’s helmet. He is born in a year of war, and violence is near.
This is a biblically accurate portrait. We suffer much from Christmas card theologies who freeze the nativity as a static tableau where all is calm all is bright.
The incarnation of God is a still point at the center of a furiously turning world, very nearly the eye of a hurricane with all the powers of history and darkness marshalled and moving, threats and intrigues, journeys and exiles, and raging political violence. In our conventional manger scenes, these are pushed off the edge of the frame, out of sight and mind.
The 12th chapter of Revelation is not commonly read at Christmas time. The sign of the woman crying out and giving birth to the child with a dragon spitting threats and pursuing is not to be found among the lectionary readings. Sometimes, I think it should be.
In this reading God has risked everything to enter into creation and history incognito. And by this renunciation of absolute power, by this way of humility, the cosmic and worldly powers are overturned much as Paul writes: “God disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them” (Colossians 2:15).
But in this Revelation allegory of the incarnation, the powers can smell it, God is present and powerless by all of their definitions of power. They sense it and go wild with rage and anticipation. Because of God’s chosen powerlessness, they go for a time unchecked and unleashed. You can feel it sometimes, can’t you?
Detail of a stained glass window in the parish church of St Mary the Virgin, Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire, England.
Hence, the woman and the dragon. Some see Woman with a capital “W.” In some sense she stands for and with all of humanity. The same could be said of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Here is revealed the momentous character of her decision. In this view we see no meek and mild mother swept along by events. She has made a very simple choice, taking a stand on the hope of God against all deadly odds.
In the book of Revelation, the woman wears a crown of twelve stars. Can these be any less than the tribes of Israel? In scripture, twelve is the number of the community. Here is Mary, here is Israel, here is all of us crying out for deliverance and struggling to birth life in the world. The Lord hears her cry, but so does the dragon. It waits, ready to devour.
The seven heads and the ten horns are a clue to the dragons identity. Not merely a grotesque and terrifying
image, they are symbols like the stars in the woman’s crown. The horn is a standard symbol of power. The head is the sign of direction, of authority and commandment. Their multiplication is over time and space and tends toward being pretentious of absolute power.
In the seven and the ten, commentators generally see seven hills and 10 emperors as an explicit reference to Rome. The analogies to Imperial Rome are expanded in the famous 13th chapter which follows. But, we are well-advised that this historically specific allusion should not limit the dragon’s meaning.
Jeremiah saw the image of the devouring dragon in Babylon (Jeremiah 51:34), and Ezekiel saw the dragon slither down the Nile as the Egyptian pharaoh (Ezekiel 29:3, 32:2).
The dragon appears to be the power behind the powers, the authority within the authorities, the moral reality with a slew of names: destroyer, divider, seducer, confuser, accuser–death.
The woman looks it in the eye. And at the heavenly heart of things, it is already defeated, though not without a bitter fight.
The dragon takes up a stance that is a twisted parody of Advent. It watches. It is alert and awake, crouched and ready, preparing in its own fashion for the child’s arrival.
The powers, it is time to note, are likewise on aggressive watch in the gospel nativities.
In Luke’s narrative, it is Caesar who stands watch when his word goes forth all calls for a census.
This is the business of empire. Caesar’s purposes come down to the very basis of Roman power: taxation, military induction, and population control. Rome wants to know the whereabouts and number of able-bodied folks in provinces likely to revolt. Caesar sits uneasily, crouched and alert, ready to devour the slightest threat to Pax Romana.
In Matthew the dragon’s watch is kept by the puppet-king, Herod. He is the representative of Rome, and stands for all the worldly powers. When Herod gets wind of the child’s advent, he is immediately troubled and “all Jerusalem with him.”
Herod consolidated his power by military ruthlessness and a series of assassinations against opposition figures and potential claimants to the throne. He had informers and secret police everywhere. In his suspicions of disloyalty, he killed three of his sons, one of his wives, and any number of close advisers.
His response to the prospect of the Messiah’s birth is more of the same tired method: to hatch yet another scheme, conceive another assassination plot.
A question on which Matthew’s birth narrative turns is this: Will the Wise Men, even unwittingly, be drawn into Herod’s scheme? Will they return with names and addresses? Will they understand the murderous complicity into which they are being drawn?
The wisdom of the Wise Men is that they worship the true king not seated on a throne but laid in a manger. Deep in their psyches from whence dreams come, they discern Herod’s lie. They dream, perhaps, of a dragon, crouched to devour.
They are foreigners and guests. They travel with permission, their visas stamped with Herod’s mark. To go against a king who is not above murder is to risk his fury. Nonetheless, they disobey the dragon. By their act of disobedience the child is protected.
In Revelation the child is snatched from the jaws of death abruptly. The woman is lifted from harm’s way by an eagle. I wonder if that saving presence of God is really another way of speaking about acts like those of the wise men, acts of discernment, conscience, and faithfulness by which the Word of God makes its way in the world: Providence seems weave through history on small choices that end up bearing large consequences.
Herod is furious. He has a new idea: murder again. He strikes at the body of Christ by striking at the body of humanity. The point of the passage is not that Jesus is exempted from suffering. He is barely born, and already he is a refugee and exile. The point of the passage is the opposite: He will share their fate. At Jesus’ birth Herod’s power is unleashed and exposed nakedly for what it is. Herod follows and worships the dragon–death. In the end the Lord will walk into the jaws of that power.
At every turn it appears an absurd mismatch: a woman and a dragon, a babe and the kings of this world, a messiah of utter folly and the power of death. But that is precisely the method that God has chosen in the incarnation. God risks everything on the power of powerlessness.
The topic of Christmas is whether we have the eyes to see and the heart to follow.
It is said in Revelation 12 that the woman and the dragon appear as a great sign. The Greek word is semeion. It’s the same word the old prophet uses when he announces to Mary, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is spoken against” (Luke 2:34). And it’s the same word the angel announces to the shepherds, “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).
John’s preface holds that when the Word became flesh, many didn’t recognize it. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, but it didn’t know him. He came to his own, and they didn’t acknowledge or receive him. But some did. Christmas has to do with seeing the signs, with recognition, with discerning God’s presence in the world.
(Excerpt adapted from Bill Wylie-Kellermann’s Seasons of Faith and Conscience: Explorations in Liturgical Direct Action )