A friend living in London under lockdown has been posting pictures of the city on Instagram. It’s shocking to see familiar streets suddenly, eerily empty. Without people, the city has taken on that ‘musuem’ quality you find at archaeological sites. These buildings, streets and thoroughfares, you feel, had a function and a life once, but quite what it was you can no longer remember or imagine.
In one photo I recognise the junction of Waterloo Bridge and the Strand, where the Strand becomes Aldwych. There’s the Lyceum theatre with its posters still up for The Lion King. And there’s not a single person to be seen.
It’s an apocalypse. Or rather, it’s what we call an ‘apocalypse.’ Apocalypse has become familiar to us these days, primarily as a cinematic genre. But of course it’s really a biblical term referring to a form of literary, prophetic writing. In Greek, the word ‘apocalypse’ means an uncovering, an unveiling. Or revelation. The last book of the Bible, the book we call Revelation, is – in Greek – called Apokalypsis.
Biblical apocalyptic writing is rich in the poetics of waiting, of longing – for redemption, for freedom, for a Christ. In our day, ‘apocalypse’ means the opposite: not waiting for the cause of our renewal, but living now with the effects of our own failure to renew ourselves or our world. Biblical apocalyptic looks forward; in modern, cinematic apocalyptic there is no future to look forward to.
Perhaps we need to wake up to the original meaning of ‘apocalypse’ – as a revealing of what was hidden, a making-clear. The Catholic theologian and missionary, Stephen Bevans says this about revelation:
Revelation is only revelation when men and women are actually attending to the fact that God is always pouring love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit… Revelation is something that happens when a person opens himself or herself to reality.Stephen Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology
Bridging the gap between modern and biblical meanings of apocalypse is a song. Morning Dew was written in the 1960s, during the Cold War, by a Canadian folk singer called Bonnie Dobson. It’s a simple song about the aftermath of a cataclysmic event. Only two people on the planet are left alive.
Where have all the people gone, my honey?
Where have all the people gone today?
The song was made famous by The Grateful Dead who took to including a version of it in their live sets. Towards the end of May 1972 the band played several concerts at that same Lyceum Theatre on the Strand in London. Their record label was paying a fortune to have these concerts recorded for a live album. But in characteristically chaotic style, there was only one solitary sound engineer working in a Heath-Robinson-style van-cum-studio parked outside the theatre. During the concert this engineer realised – to his horror – that there was a problem with a piece of equipment on stage. He had no choice but to leave the precious tapes running completely unattended in the van while he went inside to fix the issue.
Now, the Dead are quintessentially a live band; they never play the same song in the same way twice. Improvisation and free-ness and play are the band’s modus operandi. So, if you miss it, you miss it forever.
During their version of Morning Dew that night, the band’s lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia, caught sight of the sound engineer – and he knew in that moment there was no one at the sound desk; there’s obviously a major problem with the recording. What did he do? Garcia smiled mischeviously at the engineer, turned in on himself and poured his heart into a sublime, unrepeatably beautiful solo, often considered one of the most transcendant moments of musical expression in contemporary popular music – and no one is at the controls. And more – Garcia knows no one is at the controls. His back to the audience, Garcia plays for himself, and God.
Interviewed many years later, the sound engineer wept as he recalled the depth and playful, prayerful beauty of Garcia’s action that night.
Of course the coronavirus epidemic is an enormous upset, not an apocalypse in the cinematic sense or in the Morning Dew sense. But perhaps it should be an apocalypse in the Biblical sense: a reckoning, a revelation of those Kingdom values we’ve forgotten or ignored or impugned, but which we need to attend to again: our love of God, our love of one another. And the deepest revelation of all – God’s love for us.
“See, the home of God is among mortals.Revelation 21:3-6
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.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
Faced by the current crisis, the sense that the tapes are running ‘unattended’, that a disaster is unfolding – what should we do? Why ask? “It is done.” Like Garcia that night at The Lyceum, perhaps we should trust, turn away from the shallow, superficial, self-conscious world of our own making, and open ourselves instead to the revelation, the in-pouring love of the Holy Spirit. And play our hearts out.
Luckily for us (and for that sound engineer), the tapes were perfect. So, live from The Lyceum in London…
God at our beginning, God at our end, God with us now,
gives us the courage to turn aside, to turn to you,
to open ourselves in trust to your Holy Spirit;
reveal your Kingdom, wipe away our tears,
make all things new through your Son,
our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.