I was nine years old the first time I watched Psycho. My mother brought it home from Blockbuster and lined the three of us kids up on the couch. I remember being confused—this wasn't our usual cartoon fare—then terrified. That night, I slept with one eye open (which is to say, not at all) because I was sure that Norman Bates was going to creep through my bedroom window. I eventually fell asleep in the early morning hours and came home from school the next day ready to watch Psycho again. It remains one of my favorite movies, part of a genre that proves terrifying viewers is one of the most powerful effects a film can have.
In the same way that horror films and Shirley Jackson offer me some odd comfort, I am drawn over and over again to the book of Revelation. I have struggled with anxiety most of my life, and many well-meaning friends have pointed me to passages like Matthew 6:34 or Philippians 4:6. But as I read these verses urging Christians not to worry, I’d wonder, what was wrong with me, that I couldn't obey this simple command? I longed to be the kind of Christian who had no fear. I knew those people, or at least I thought I did: Warm, effortless, kind Christians who only struggled with things like not spending enough time in prayer or not memorizing enough Scripture.
I was in college before I read Revelation start to finish. Even though I grew up in the church, Revelation always struck me as Advanced Bible Reading, for theologians and pastors. I sure couldn't explain what a pregnant woman was doing clothed in the sun and standing on top of the moon, or why that mattered for the Christian faith. But after a visit to Ephesus during a trip to Europe, I was curious about what John had to say to the other six churches in his historical, prophetic, apocalyptic account. I didn’t come away from the final book of the Bible with much insight on my own—that would take reading a few commentaries—but it was immensely comforting to me as someone who’s always worried about what could go wrong.
My anxiety is vague and inchoate; it will attach itself to specific events occasionally, but it mostly accompanies me as a small black cloud threatening to rain on even the sunniest day. I am fearful all the time—afraid I won't succeed, afraid that persistent cough is indicative of something worse, afraid that the plane will crash. In other words, I am afraid that I have no control and that the world is a terrifying place. And just like in my favorite horror films, the world in Revelation is scary. It's unrecognizable.
And it is strangely soothing.
I am comforted by the apocalyptic sections of Revelation. I don't know exactly where I fall on thorny theological issues like pre- or post-Tribulation rapture, or the metaphorical versus the literal in the text. There are some parts of my faith that I am content to understand as mysteries. So when I read that there was "an angel coming down from heaven" who seized Satan and threw him into a pit for a thousand years, I am not necessarily picturing an actual journey from the sky or an actual pit. But I understand that God is battling Satan, a very real and embodied evil, and I see that even during the very worst times, God is still present.
We are in the season of Advent right now, when we wait again for God to become human and enter the world. Every year, we need to learn again how to wait on God. When I would rather not wait, my impatience is often motivated by anxiety—I want to be reassured that the worst-case scenario won’t come to pass. The days are getting shorter as Christmas draws near, and I want some sort of guarantee that I won’t be in the dark forever. So I turn to the prophets, whose waiting is the stuff of legends.
Revelation is dripping with references to the prophets of the Old Testament, who are another source of mystery. "Comfort, O comfort my people," God says in Isaiah. This God is very involved in familiar things: the sun and moon, the grass, the flowers of the field. This is a God who knows the earth because it is his creation, which makes me think that perhaps this is a God who knows me, too.
My fear of being alone diminishes in the presence of such a close God; my fear of the future fades as I see how powerful God is. "I saw a new heaven and a new earth," we read in Revelation 20, "and I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, 'See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."
I have heard the refrain about "every tear" being wiped from their eyes. It's a popular, and comforting, thought. But what I haven't heard many pastors deal with is what comes at the end of that passage: "First things have passed away."
I am a first thing. You are a first thing. First things will not make it through the death of death; all things will die before they are renewed. Rather than avoid this, the book of Revelation invites us to think seriously about what it means to die. In a strange way, to meditate on death as a Christian is a deep comfort, because one of our core beliefs is that death has already been defeated, and that to die is to live as presently as possible in the Kingdom of God. I am afraid of what I see in a glass dimly, but when I see face-to-face, I will have no fear.
Until then, though, I will keep remembering. People with anxiety disorders are often great in a crisis because they are constantly braced for one. Scary movies gave me a kind of thrill that also served to shatter my illusions about being the one in control. Revelation takes that thin truth and makes it thicker, truer, and more honest: Yes, every tear will be wiped away. But first, we have to die.