If you’re ever curious why Christian art depicts people in heaven carrying around harps, today’s first reading provides the origin. In his apocalyptic vision, St. John describes those who are victorious in the struggle as holding God’s harps.1 Earlier he describes them as holding “palm branches,”2 and then someone tells him they are those “who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.3 Art can help us see the symbols in context, but it doesn’t always help to explain them. Sometimes, if we know what the symbols mean, art can help guide us into a fruitful meditation.
A harp is a musical instrument made up of strings of various lengths and thicknesses. It is an instrument designed to produce melodies, but it also produces harmonies. The harp is an instrument we see mentioned frequently in scripture, especially in connection with the singing of the Psalms. In today’s reading, the harps are not simply man made instruments being played in a liturgical service. The harps the victors are holding – not playing – are a gift from God. They are divine harps, with strings measured and strung by the Trinity. We could interpret these harps as instruments of interior harmony and melody. The Incarnation is the divine harp given to the victors. The Word played upon this harp produces the harmony of grace in the soul which listens. The soul which resonates deeply with the harmony of this harp is loosed from the dissonant bonds of sin and vice. The vibrations of its music, pulsing in the soul, are the pure affection of God’s love. The strings of this harp are at one and the same time the Three Persons of the Trinity, the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Old and New Testaments, the Divine and Human Nature of the Word, the infused virtues, and the three wisdoms.
CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA:
Christ promises, however, that he will deliver them certainly and completely. He says that a hair of your head will not perish.4
Death comes to either the soul or the body. The soul cannot die, and yet it can die. It cannot die, because its consciousness is never lost. It can die, if it loses God. You see, just as the soul itself is the life of the body, so in the same way God is the life of the soul. As the body dies when the soul that is its life abandons it, in the same way when God abandons the soul, it dies. To make sure, however, that God does not abandon the soul, it must always have enough faith not to fear death for God’s sake. Then God does not abandon it, and it does not die.
It remains that the death that is feared is feared for the body. Even on this point, the Lord Christ reassured his martyrs. After all, how could they be unsure of the integrity of their bodies, when they had been reassured about the number of their hairs? “He said that your hairs have all been counted.” In another place he says even more plainly, “For I tell you, that not a hair of your head shall perish.” Truth speaks. Does weakness hesitate?5
Believe Christ when he says, “Not a hair of your head shall perish.” Putting aside all unbelief, consider how valuable you are. How can our Redeemer despise any person when he cannot despise a hair of that person’s head? How are we going to doubt that he intends to give eternal life to our soul and body? He took on a soul and body in which to die for us, which he laid down for us when he died and which he took up again that we might not fear death.6
For [the sea] is glass because of the brightness and purity of the righteous in it. However, it is mixed with fire because of the cleansing and purification from all filth, for there is need of purification even for the righteous. “For we all make mistakes,” as it is written, and “Who is clean from filth, even if his life upon the earth is but one day?” As has been frequently noted, the “harps” are a figure for the euphonious hymn to God sung by the saints.7
[The harps] refer to their hearts, which are devoted to the praise [of God] and which are in full harmony through the harmonious truth of the two Testaments. Or this image speaks of the flesh of the passion, which is extended upon the wood, where not only the sound of the voice but also the effect of a good work is signified.8
ANDREW OF CAESAREA:
We think that the “sea of glass” signifies the multitude of those who are being saved, the purity of the coming reward and the brightness that the saints will radiate by the sparkling of their virtue. The fire that is mixed with it may be understood from what was written by the apostle, “Fire will test the work of each, whatever it is.” Although this fire does not harm the pure and the undefiled, it is divided without mixture into two energies, according to the word of the psalmist: it burns the sinners, and, as the great Basil understood, it illumines the righteous. It is possible that the “fire” indicates both the divine knowledge and the grace of the life-giving Spirit. For God appeared to Moses in fire, and the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles in the form of tongues of fire. The “harps” suggest the dying of members and the harmonious life in the symphony of virtues, plucked with the plectrum of the divine Spirit.9
In Moses the Old Testament is signified as the New Testament is signified in the Lamb, and by this it teaches us that the elect were all equipped from both and perfected in both.… By a harmonious truth the pages of both Testaments testify to us concerning [their song], for “all the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth.”10
- Rev. 15:2.
- Rev. 7:9.
- Re 7:14.
- COMMENTARY ON LUKE, HOMILY 139. Just, A. A. (Ed.). (2005). Luke (pp. 320–321). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- SERMON 273.1. Just, A. A. (Ed.). (2005). Luke (p. 321). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- SERMON 214.11–12. Just, A. A. (Ed.). (2005). Luke (p. 321). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- COMMENTARY ON THE APOCALYPSE 15.1–4. Weinrich, W. C. (Ed.). (2005). Revelation (p. 239). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- COMMENTARY ON THE APOCALYPSE 15.2. Weinrich, W. C. (Ed.). (2005). Revelation (p. 239). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- COMMENTARY ON THE APOCALYPSE 15.2. Weinrich, W. C. (Ed.). (2005). Revelation (p. 240). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- COMMENTARY ON THE APOCALYPSE 15.3. Weinrich, W. C. (Ed.). (2005). Revelation (p. 240). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.