A worship station used at Advent Conspiracy Alternative Carols Service, Melbourne and Bendigo 2009 by Marcus Curnow reflecting on William Blake’s painting of Revelation 12 “The Great Red Dragon and Woman Clothed in the Sun.’ c. 1805-10.
‘O Holy Nightmare’ Reflection adapted from a Sojourners Article by Bill Wylie Kellerman of the same title.
Revelation 12 :1-6a, 13-17 (King James Version)
1And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: 2And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. 3And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. 4And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. 5And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne. 6And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, …13And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child. 14And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.
15And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood.
16And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth. 17And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.
Reflection: O Holy Night-Mare
In the twelfth chapter of Revelation, the woman and the dragon appear as a great sign. The Greek word is semeion and it gets a good run at Christmas. The old prophet uses it 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. The angel’s tell the shepherds the sign of their messiah will be a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
And so I too was inspired to make a great sign for Christmas.
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 the sort of thing that sits comfortably alongside fairy lit reindeers or pastoral manger scenes on well manicured suburban front lawns.
Not exactly the thing we sing to our children. “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better watch out I’m telling you why, The Red Dragon from Revelation 12 is coming to town.”
But we should read this story at Christmas. In this painting, the Dragon is seen ready to devour the child of the pregnant woman, who symbolises the Church, the Virgin Mary and Israel. Like Eve at the start of Creation we have here another primeval encounter with the serpent. But here, at the end, it is another outcome entirely.
The woman clothed in the sun stands for and with all of humanity. She bears witness to hope by looking the dragon in the eye. She stares death in the face and gives birth anyway.
There is a lot at stake at Christmas. We domesticate it at our peril.
The dragons watch in Matthew is kept by the puppet King, Herod the Great. He is the representative of Rome who stands for all the worldly powers. Even today our fairy lights do little to light the darkness of the slaughter of the innocents today from economic crisis, climate change, to famine and genocide. At stake for the woman was her life and the life of the child – and in the reign his birth promised. At stake for us is our lives and all of creation.
When you go to sleep on Christmas Eve, what is it that you dream is coming to town? Is it a Holy Night or a Holy Nightmare? 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 risking everything on the power of powerlessness. The topic of Christmas is whether we have the eyes to see it, and the heart to follow.
Like the Woman, look the Dragon in the eye. Where do you see the powers of death in your own story? Plant a seed as a symbol of life and your hope and determination for an unlikely cause.
The sign is based upon the “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Rays of the Sun,” a watercolor painting by the English poet and painter William Blake. painted between 1806 and 1809.