Last week, Plum and I went to a drop-in playgroup hosted by a local church. I’m one of the regulars there – for the past couple of years, Blue and I made a habit of going, but now it’s Plum’s turn. He is perhaps a bit small still, but the coffee and chat (and habitual cake) are good for me, I think. And I can tell myself that you are never too young for stories and songs. More or less and maybe.
You see, the story last week was about heaven. There’s been a bit of a theme running about houses and this was the last in that series, looking at heaven as God’s house. The woman telling the story read out a bit from the book of Revelations and told the children about how the heavenly city of God would be made of precious gems. She showed them her engagement ring, but I’m not sure the kids really “got” it.
I wondered afterwards about the first readers and hearers of Revelations – those persecuted early Christians who could understand the symbolism of these visions and find strength for their faith in the luminous descriptions. I suspect that in their daily life, gold and gems were the stuff of the imagination. Not only unattainable for a struggling people, these riches were largely unseen. They might be glimpsed in the glitter of priests’ garments or adorning a shining king. But those glimpses would inevitably be few and far between. Today, we might ogle (and google for that matter) celebrities’ extreme wealth from the privacy of our own homes – connected as we are to the larger world through the internet of course, and also through print media, movies and television. But in a culture without mass communication, that kind of experience of wealth would have been unseen by most. Jewels were things that must be imagined.
In the lectionary reading from Isaiah this week, we have a vision of the Messiah akin to this kind of vision of heaven in Revelations.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.
Again, the unattainable is described, and what has only ever been glimpsed will be seen clearly. What a song for advent! Justice bright as jewels, words full of longing for blessing, full of a people’s memory of God’s creating hand, God’s firm covenant with all creation. This redemption is as yet unattainable but so longed for. In this song, the people’s memory and hopes are gathered together beautifully and as we read them in the light of our Advent candles, they shine.
I wonder about connecting these songs to images that children might find easier to understand. The newspapers have been full of images of people marking Nelson Mandela’s death, and our children have been curious about his story. We’ve spoken with them about injustice and bad laws, and peoples’ hopes for equality and freedom. They may not understand the politics, nor even what 27 years in prison means, but in the story, they glimpse something of Isaiah and John’s visions.
Meanwhile, there’s a new Julia Donaldson book which has recently been added to the children’s bookshelf here. It’s called The Paper Dolls. The dolls in the course of their adventures make their way into a little girl’s memory:
“where they found white mice and fireworks, and a starfish soap, and a kind granny, and the butterfly hairslide, and more and more lovely things each day and each year.”
There’s been great debate here as to whether the kind granny has died or if she, like our own collection of grandmothers, just lives very far away. We haven’t made up our mind. Memory is a vibrant and elastic place. But we do know that these remembered things are kept safe somehow. Like all the good things we remember. They might be unattainable at present. Or as of yet only hoped for. Glimpsed and longed for. But kept safely. Like the hopes of the people as sung by Isaiah. The vision in John’s Revelation of a bright and precious heaven. The hope we hold for God’s good work among us. The prayers for peace for Africa and everywhere that we shared in church last week.