"Alpha and Omega" - May 5, 2019

Revelation 1:8

            In Revelation 1:8, in one part of one of the string of visions that John describes,

 ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. 

 That is the source of the symbols in this front window, and that you will see all over Christian art and architecture, of the Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet (hear the “alpha” in that word?), and of the Omega, the last letter (and it sounds like a long “O”, not a “Z”).  The expression comes around again in Revelation 21:6, where in another vision Jesus tells John,

“It is done!  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

In the very last chapter of the entire Bible, again we read:

“I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”  [Revelation 22:13]

Those two letters are used to express the belief that God is the beginning of all and the end of all.

            Since we’re going down the rabbit hole of Greek language, though, the language of the New Testament, I should point out that when we say God is “the end of all”, the word the Bible uses doesn’t mean “the end” the way we mean it when it flashes up on the screen at “the end” of a movie: “The End”; throw your popcorn bucket away and go home.  The Greek word, “telos”, also means “purpose” or “goal”, as we might say, “To what end are you driving so fast?”  The universe starts because of God, not only because God is its Creator, but also because God is its purpose or reason for being.  God is its goal.

            Now, you can get really tangled up in this stuff.  I looked through a series of TED talks to see what is out there, and came across one called “Why does the universe exist?”[1]  The speaker’s name was Jim Holt and it had over 4 million views.  That says something right there about how compelling the question is.  What also tells me something is the way the talk opens. “Why does the universe exist?” he asks, and the audience breaks out in laughter.  “Okay, okay,” he says, and he’s laughing, too.  “This is a cosmic mystery.  Be solemn.” They laugh because they know – we all know – that we aren’t going to be able to find a satisfactory answer, not in the sense of anything that we can set out philosophically or scientifically.  He goes on to point out that the simple comeback, “There’s a universe because God created one,” isn’t really a complete answer because it just leads back to another question beyond that: “Where did this God come from?” or “Why is there anything rather than nothing at all?”

            That is a good question.  Next?

            Our faith may tell us that we are God’s creation.  We are also told that God is the Alpha and Omega, the first and last, the beginning and the end.  Science can tell us that time itself had a beginning, and I don’t pretend to understand the physics of it.  I can follow an explanation as somebody walks me through it, but I cannot hold it in my head – and that’s alright with me. 

“Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end” means that God was around before time existed, and so is sort of outside time, and thus is capable of seeing it all at once, along with all possible shapes it could take (not just what we know has happened or is happening).  Paul Tillich expresses that this way:

“Special moments of time are not separated from each other; presence is not swallowed by past and future; yet the eternal keeps the temporal within itself. …If we call God a living God, we affirm that he includes temporality and with this a relation to the modes of time.”[2]

When I ponder that kind of observation, or try to think about what really is meant when we refer to God as “eternal”, one of two things happens.  One: sometimes my mind’s eye begins to glaze over.  I lose track of whatever thought I had three seconds earlier.  Two (and this is how it should be): my sense of awe and wonder at God goes through the roof.

At the end of Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, the narrator who is by that time an elderly monk, gives his own summary of what happens to him when he holds up his own existence against the backdrop of God and eternity.

“All I can do now is be silent. O quam salubre, quam iucundum et suave est sedere in solitudine et tacere et loqui cum Deo! [O how healthy and joyful and sweet it is to sit in solitude and be silent and speak with God!] Soon I shall be joined with my beginning, and I no longer believe that it is the God of glory of whom the abbots of my order spoke to me …  Gott ist ein lauter Nichts, ihn rührt kein Nun noch Hier. [God is a nothing, nothing is still stirring here.] … I shall soon enter this broad desert, perfectly level and boundless, where the truly pious heart succumbs in bliss. I shall sink into the divine shadow, in a dumb silence and an ineffable union, and in this sinking all equality and all inequality shall be lost, and in that abyss my spirit will lose itself, and will not know the equal or the unequal, or anything else: and all differences will be forgotten. I shall be in the simple foundation, in the silent desert where diversity is never seen, in the privacy where no one finds himself in his proper place. I shall fall into the silent and uninhabited divinity where there is no work and no image.”[3]

If you are the sort of person for whom thinking and praying sort of blur together, to consider God’s eternity is a good way to draw near to him.  Admittedly, not everyone fits that description, and that is alright.

            For people as a whole, whether that describes them or not, on a day-by-day basis, we do deal with questions of time and its limits more than we realize.  We experience the weight of the past when we have to deal with people’s baggage, or our own, from long ago.  We worry about the future because of all that could go wrong.  Both of those steal our confidence in the present and our enjoyment of the moments we pass through from one to the other.  For God to announce himself as the Eternal One is a blessing.

When life itself is consciously grounded in faith, and faith is consciously grounded in Jesus, God-with-us, though, God enfolds us in a kind of care that transcends everything.  That includes all aspects of life, even time.  I’ll close with words from Paul Tillich again, who seems to have given this a lot of thought.

“‘I am the beginning and the end.’  This is said to us who live in the bondage of time, who have to face the end, who cannot escape the past, who need a present to stand upon.  Each of the modes of time has its particular mystery, each of them carries its particular anxiety.  Each of them drives us to an ultimate question.  There is one answer to these questions – the eternal.  There is one power that surpasses the all-consuming power of time – the eternal: He Who was and is to come, the beginning and the end.  He gives us forgiveness for what has passed.  He gives us courage for what is to come.  He gives us rest in His eternal Presence.”[4]

[1] https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=zORUUqJd81M

[2] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 274.

[3] http://www.goodwin.ee/ekafoto/tekstid/Eco%20Umberto%20-%20The%20Name%20Of%20The%20Rose.pdf

[4] Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963), 131-132.