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Stand Still, O Beautiful End

The second week of Advent is the time for declaring our hope for God’s peace. We cry peace, peace when there is no peace. Our journey with the poets has noted a dissonance between our anxious thoughts and war-torn world, and Advent promise. Too often what we call peace in this life, is just a diversion and distraction—a turning a blind eye to the suffering of the world. We stuff down our wounds. We comfort our souls with wine and song.

But we know that there are people struggling, hurting dying. We know about those desperate migrants who have fled the violence, economic and politic instability in Central America; the tenuous relationship between Israel and Palestine, starving children in Yemen, and we’ve heard something about escalating violence in the Philippines. All this seems so far away and abstract. We know we probably should care more than we do and that this is just the tip of the iceberg of the suffering of the world. There are so many stories we don’t know and hurts we’ve not heard about. We are aware, when we listen the anxious cry of our own hearts and though we may have some small measure of inner peace it is fleeting and we are ever aware of the ways we don’t experience it. Yet. 

Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengalese poet was the first non-western Nobel Prize for Literature laureate (1913).  Called the Bard of Bengal, he  was given a knighthood by King George V but later denounced it in protest of the British Indian Army’s Jallianwala Bagh massacre. His novels touch on the violence of Colonial powers and the violence between Hindus and Muslims in India. His poem, Peace, My Heart (part of his Gardener cycle) describes our common longing for peace:

Peace, my heart, let the time for
the parting be sweet.
Let it not be a death but completeness.
Let love melt into memory and pain
into songs.
Let the flight through the sky end
in the folding of the wings over the
nest.
Let the last touch of your hands be
gentle like the flower of the night.
Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a
moment, and say your last words in
silence.
I bow to you and hold up my lamp
to light you on your way.

For Tagore, peace was what awaited us in death— a release from the heartache and pain of existence when we are reunited with the Cosmos. This idea is more Eastern than Western and reflects Tagore’s religious and spiritual worldview. Yet he captures what it means to be at peace, much of which is echoed in our own scriptures:

  • Not be a  death but completeness—from fragmentation to being made whole (Luke 17:19 “Your faith has made you whole”).
  • Love melting into memory and pain melting into song (Psalm 126:5, They that sow in tears will reap with songs of joy).
  • Our flight through the sky ending with us safe the nest, under the wings of a Mother bird (cf. Psalm 91:4, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge”).
  • Our last touch of our hands gentle like a flower in the night (Philippians 4:5, “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near”).

Qoheleth wrote that God set eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Strangely anxious souls though we are, we long for and can describe a peace we know little, experientially about.  Torah written on the hearts of humanity (Romans 2:15), we all hunger for the peace of God to come.  Our heart testifies to us—we long for what none of us has, yet. 

Stand still, O beautiful end. . . .I bow to you and hold up my lamp
to light you on your way.

The Dejected Landscape Consorts Well with Our Shame and Bitterness

The world is not as it should be. Advent is the season for marking hope, but it is a specific hope. It is the hope that in the coming of Christ we may experience God’s peace—a peace which passes all understanding. Our piecemeal peace falls short. God’s shalom is different than these tenuous ceasefires. It is the experience of relational, spiritual, emotional, and cosmic wholeness. In God’s shalom everything is the way that it was meant to be, there is no lack, there is no anguish, there are none of the conflicts we find ourselves mired in. 

Denise Levertov’s poem In California During the Gulf War describes a world deciding not at peace. Blight-killed eucalyptus, trees and bushes rusted by Christmas frost, hills exhausted by a five-year-drought—even the promise of certain airy white blossoms inspire no hope—the dejected landscape consorts with us in our shame in bitterness:

Among the blight-killed eucalypts, among
trees and bushes rusted by Christmas frosts,
the yards and hillsides exhausted by five years of drought,

certain airy white blossoms punctually
reappeared, and dense clusters of pale pink, dark pink–
a delicate abundance. They seemed

like guests arriving joyfully on the accustomed
festival day, unaware of the year’s events, not perceiving
the sackcloth others were wearing.

To some of us, the dejected landscape consorted well
with our shame and bitterness. Skies ever-blue,
daily sunshine, disgusted us like smile-buttons.

Yet the blossoms, clinging to thin branches
more lightly than birds alert for flight,
lifted the sunken heart

even against its will.
But not
as symbols of hope: they were flimsy
as our resistance to the crimes committed

–again, again–in our name; and yes, they return,
year after year, and yes, they briefly shone with serene joy
over against the dark glare

of evil days. They are, and their presence
is quietness ineffable–and the bombings are, were,
no doubt will be; that quiet, that huge cacophony

simultaneous. No promise was being accorded, the blossoms
were not doves, there was no rainbow. And when it was claimed
the war had ended, it had not ended.

The first Gulf War was a popular war in the US, in part because of its perceived justness—Iraq had aggressively invaded Kuwait—and partly because of its brevity. Officially it lasted only 5 weeks from January 17, 1991 -February 28, 1991. American soldiers had few casualties and most of the Patriots that entered Kuwait and Iraq for the duration of the fighting were missiles.  By late February, the Iraqi military was desperately surrendering to news crews. 

I was also in California during the Gulf War, at least the start of it. I was a sophomore in high school.  My mother, an artist, and musician was invited to the NAAM Convention at the Anaheim Convention Center. She was representing  Baldwin, there to demonstrate their latest electric organ. As a teenager and budding guitarist, I spent the entire convention on the hunt for celebrity autographs and free guitar picks. We were aware of Operation Desert Storm from watching the evening news in our hotel room. It was an anxious time. War and the threat of war are never fun. But the mood inside the convention center was not dampened. Everyone was clamoring to see the latest keyboard, effects pedal, and sound system, and play new model guitars, unaffected by the bombs being dropped half a world away. 

On Sunday, my dad and I went to church at the Crystal Cathedral, the set of Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power, a weekly telecast of positive preaching which aired every Sunday morning. I am not sure if the camera panned to where my dad and I sat that day. I may have been on TV, if only briefly. 

Schuller’s sermon centered on how George W. Bush called and talked to him before declaring war on Iraq and how we should support him. Flags were waved and we prayed for our country. ‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land. God bless the USA.

Levertov’s poem proved prescient. When it was claimed the war had ended, it had not ended. This was only just another episode of violence between the US and the Gulf region. In the next decades there would be an Iraqi assassination attempt on former president Bush’s life (41), Bombing of the region by every US president, Sept. 11 and the Second Gulf War, the Hunt for Weapons of Mass Destruction, ISIS, the Syrian refugee crisis, the Saudi War in Yemen and tomorrow, who knows. No promise was being accorded, the blossoms were not doves, there was no rainbow. And when it was claimed the war had ended, it had not ended.

It’s 2018. There is more drought and exhausted hillsides, and the blight still kills eucalyptus in California, despite certain white blossoms and the distraction of celebrity sightings. We are a world not at peace. 

Even so, come Lord Jesus. 

Some Walked and Walked and Walked

Prophets and poets read the times and tell us of the world to come. Neither the poet or the prophet are readily understood. A poet is without honor in his hometown. One such polarizing prophet and poet was Daniel Berrigan, SJ (1921-2016).

A Jesuit priest, he was active in the civil rights movement, marching with Martin Luther King in Selma and visiting South Africa during Apartheid. He achieved notoriety in the Vietnam war when he traveled with Howard Zinn to Hanoi during the Tet Offensive. But it was his action on May 17, 1968, which landed him on America’s Most Wanted list, and later prison. He and 8 other Catholic activists (including his younger brother Philip, also a priest), broke into the draft office in Catonsville, Maryland. They destroyed 378 draft files in the parking lot while singing and saying the Lord’s prayer, making their prayer in the name of  the God “whose name is peace and decency and unity and love.” After this Berrigan was a fugitive of the law. He and his co-conspirators were arrested and convicted, spending three years in prison (Berrigan immortalized the trial with his play, The Trial of the  Catonsville 9, 1971).

Daniel Berrigan was passionate and willing to put his life and reputation on the line to pursue the peace of God. He was later was the Plowshares 8 in 1980, breaking into a General Electric Nuclear plant, damaging warheads and pouring blood on documents. He was also an Aids activist and opposed American intervention abroad, and capital punishment, advocating for a consistent-life ethic. 

Berrigan’s poetry intertwined with his sense of  call as prophet and priest. His poem Some is dedicated to the Plowshares 8 with love:

Some stood up once, and sat down.
Some walked a mile, and walked away.

Some stood up twice, then sat down.
“It’s too much,” they cried.
Some walked two miles, then walked away.
“I’ve had it,” they cried,

Some stood and stood and stood.
They were taken for fools,
they were taken for being taken in.

Some walked and walked and walked –
they walked the earth,
they walked the waters,
they walked the air.

“Why do you stand?” they were asked, and
“Why do you walk?”

“Because of the children,” they said, and
“Because of the heart, and
“Because of the bread,”

“Because the cause is
the heart’s beat, and
the children born, and
the risen bread.”

Ezekiel describes the judgment of God against false prophets of Israel that cried peace, peace when there was no peace” (Ezekiel 13:10). Ezekiel was a post-exilic prophet. He denounces both those who had given Israel and Judah a false sense of security before the nation was carried into exile and those in the midst of empire who tried to tickle the ears and tell the people what they wanted to hear.

We live in an era that should have no pretension of peace. War is in the water. Violence is everywhere. Another Berrigan poem The Earth Prison Poems, Viking Press, 1973, p, 82) describes the state of the world under empire:

When earth yielded up to our arms
the multitudinous children of her invention —
streams, starlight, storms — we were the pampered lovers then
of those who loved us, one flesh and blood, one bone.
O that embrace the state’s steel gauntlet
raced down on like a wild fire.  Wounded
in the nearest parts, part men only,
we wind, unwind our bloodied limbs
feverish, icy, swept by what sighs and tides . . .

This is where we live. Some may claim peace, a strong economy prosperity, but this is a world of violence, of suffering, of pain.

The poets and prophets tell us about the state of the world. They also tell us of the world to come. Berrigan was a faithful witness to the peace of God. When other’s walked away he walked and walked and walked. He stood. He spoke. He took pen in hand. May we also walk and write and stand and speak. 

I am at Peace with My Becoming

Advent is the season of angelic visitations, miraculous births and joyful expectation. It is the season to mark not what is but what will be. The valleys have been raised up and every mountain brought low—the way is being made for the New. We are mindful and attentive, watching the signs. A baby will be born, a star will die and its brilliant light will ignite the night sky. Soon shepherds will encounter luminous messengers who burst with angel song, “Glory to God in the highest, shalom to women and men who find favor with God!”

All this, but not yet. Still we wait. Advent is a song building to a glorious crescendo. It stokes our expectations. We anticipate Christ’s coming, eager that in meeting again the Divine, we may be changed. The road is open, and there is now real potential:  illumination, enlightenment, change, union. 

Rami Shapiro is a Jewish Rabbi and a Zen poet (he studying Zen Buddhism with Leonard Cohen). His poem “There is a Hunger”(from Accidental Grace, Paraclete Press, 2015, pp 32-33), illustrates this sense of expectancy:

There is a hunger in me that no thing can fill;

a gnawing emptiness that calls forth dreams

dark and unfathomable.

My Soul is whispering; Deep calling Deep,

and I know not how to respond.

The Beloved is near—as near as my breath,

as close as my breathing—

The World Soul of

which my soul is but a sliver of light.

Let me run to it in love,

Embracing the One who is me,

That I may embrace others who are One.

Enwrapped in your Being,

I am at peace with my becoming.

Engulfed in your flame

I am cleared and unclouded.

I am a window for the Light,

a lens by which You see Yourself;

a slight of Mind

that lets me know me as You

and lets me know You as me.

How wonderous this One

Who is the face of all things.

Of course, Shapiro’s spirituality, as a  Zen Buddhist Rabbi, is not particularly Christocentric. He didn’t pen these words in anticipation of some Christmas miracle. Certain lines hint at a pantheist union with all nature—the World Soul. However, if we believe as Christians that in Christ we glimpse the face of God, then our Christmas waiting opens up the potential of seeing Christ a new, in ourselves, in others, in the groaning creation.  We will become a window for others to sense Christ’s presence. How wonderous this One/ who is the face of all things!

The way is open for God’s shalom. Peace is the promise. Swords will be plowshares, spears will be pruning hooks. Predation will cease. All will be safe and secure. 

All this, but not yet. Still we wait. I am at peace with my becoming.

The Peace Thereafter

It is no mistake that the symbol of peace, the dove, is the self-same symbol which Christians use for the Spirit. In the Upper Room, before his crucifixion, Jesus intertwined his promise of the Spirit’s coming with an assurance of peace “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:26-27). Similarly, in the opening verses of Genesis 1, there is the Spirit, hovering, beating its wings like a bird, far above the void and watery chaos (cf. Gen 1:2). In the visage of a dove we see an image of both the wind of God and Shalom—the peace each of us craves.

Jesus taught us to ask for daily bread, but prayers for peace find their way, also, into our daily prayers. We ask for peace—the cessation of war, for reconciliation for our broken relations, for justice for the oppressed, for an end to systemic racism, classism, and strife. We long for an end to the fighting, for peace to reign in our relationships, and closer to home, we wish also for peace in our hearts—freedom from the anxious thoughts that plague us. 

Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, Peace,is one of my favorite poems (I’ve shared it here before). In it, Hopkins described our longing for peace:

  When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs? 
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite 
To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but 
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it? 

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu 
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite, 
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
He comes to brood and sit.

Hopkins describes Peace here, not as a gentle dove descending but as shy wild wooddove that darts about, under the boughs but at a safe distance from human hands. He longs for peace to come close. When, when, Peace, will you Peace?  Though he has experienced peace to some measure, it is but a piecemealpoor peace. Wars still rage and we still live under the threat of them. Peace, as we know it, is but a raid on the warmongers, not a full sail abolition of war. That comes later. The Peace thereafter. Until then we wait.

Hopkins was an adult convert to Catholicism. A Jesuit priest and professor of Greek and Latin in Dublin, he wrote this poem at the end (or near the end?) of World War I.  Personally, he was an anxious soul. He worried about the egotism involved in publishing his poetry(thus kept most of his poems from publication until after his death). Though a committed celibate priest, he struggled with his sexuality (attracted to a man in college and instructed by his confessor to sever all contact with him). He knew what it was like to be overwhelmed with anxious thoughts. The world that Hopkins was in was ravished by war. 

This week of Advent, the traditional theme people reflect on is peace. We say Peace, peace but there is no peace. Violence is everywhere. Mass shootings, police violence, war (America’s sponsorship of the Saudi War effort in Yemen is but the latest example). We are stressed and anxious. Injustice abounds.

We love the idea of peace but we bristle against its promise. Really? We have so little experience with anything we can really call peace. Peace is a whole different reality. We cry How Long O Lord? and When, when, Peace, will you Peace?  Peace is our longing but it seems intangible and inaccessible to us. 

“Peace” is the gospel in short form. The biblical concept of Shalom is a world made whole, everything as it should be, where nothing that shouldn’t be is. There is no war, but also no anxiety. No violence, and no sickness. No death, and consequently, no mourning.  The good news is that God’s shalom is the peace thereafter that the world is moving toward.

In the meantime,  when peace comes to our house, 
he comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
He comes to brood and sit.

Those Who Expected Lightning and Thunder Are Disappointed


Lithuanian stamp on the 100th anniversary of Miłosz’s birth

Advent is a two-story house. Built on the foundation of Israel’s Messianic hope, it is when we prepare for Christmas—the coming of Christ, born as a babe in Bethlehem, our Incarnate Emmanuel.

But it also carries the nuances of Second Advent.  Jesus came and will come again. So, traditionally this has been a season to prepare our hearts for Christmas, but also a time to set our own house in order as we prepare for Christ’s return.

A lot of my Advent reflections have focused on this second meaning of Advent, the coming Kingdom of God and how everything wrong in the world will one day be set to rights. Jesus’ first Advent was foretold, and hoped for and prophesied about. However, when the day came, it was a  complete surprise. The Redeemer was here, and nobody expected his birth would be anything like this: Angelic visitations, a virgin birth, a chorus of angels, and a star to light the way for travelers from the East. It happened the way it needed to happen, but not like anyone thought it would. 

I wonder if this aspect of Jesus’ first Advent tells us something about the way we shall be likewise surprised by Jesus’ Advent.

Czesław Miłosz’s poem, “A Song on the End of the World,” plays with the way the end defies expectations:

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be

Warsaw, 1944

What strikes me about Milosz’s poem is the ordinariness of the “end.”  Fishermen mend their nets, a happy porpoise jumps, the birds flit about, women walk with their umbrellas, there is shouting in the marketplace, a drunk lies on the edge of the lawn, sleeping off last night’s good times. A yellow sailboat nears the island and there is violin music in the air. 

This doesn’t sound like the end, and it wasn’t what anyone expected.  The sun and the moon are still in the sky, bees on the rose bush, babies are born. Milosz says those who expected lightning and thunder are disappointed. The would-be-but-too-busy prophet binds his tomatoes and says, “No other end of the world will there be.”

The Bible’s Apocalyptic literature (Daniel and Revelation) speak of the world ending. There are Seals and Trumpets and Bowls, oh my! The Sun turns to blood, there are beasts and multi-horned dragons, earthquakes, pestilence, and war. But also a  garden city, the New Jerusalem, and a new heaven and earth. The old gone and all things made new.

Revelation does tell us about the future, but to make all about the future, is to miss the point. Apocalyptic literature wasn’t so much about some coming end, as it is about how the world as we know it just ended. There was some cataclysmic shift and everything was changed. The same way that today we might talk about how a new idea or a new lover rocked our world, the ancient writers painted a picture of their world’s destruction and the new world emerging.

For John of Patmos, the world became New when he trusted his life to Jesus. Still, old worlds died hard, and those who were faithful to Jesus were persecuted. The war between the Beast and the Lamb was/is a conflict between the old order and new order of God’s coming Kingdom. John recorded his revelation so that those who struggled to remain faithful to Christ in the midst of persecution from Imperial Rome would have the courage and resilience to stay the course. 

Milosz wrote his poem in Warsaw, 1944. The fact that he highlighted the ordinariness of daily life, doesn’t mean his world wasn’t ending. The Nazis had invaded Poland in 1939, but Germany’s grip on Poland was waning. This was the year of the Warsaw Uprising. Germany was retreating and the Soviets were advancing.  The Resistance timed their revolt to coincide with this Soviet advance, but the USSR halted their forward movement, leaving the Resistance to fight it out with their German occupiers. After 63 days of fighting, the Nazi’s defeated the Polish Resistance. 16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed,  6,000 badly wounded and 150,000-200,000 Polish civilians died, mostly by mass executions. 85% of the city was destroyed. Milosz said later that the Soviets watched with binoculars while the city was decimated. 

 

Fishermen mended their nets as the porpoise played, the birds flitted, the drunk slept. No thunder or trumpets, but the world ended. For those who remained, reality forever changed. 

I don’t know when or how Jesus will return. I don’t expect a trumpet blast, the sky to crack or the moon to turn to blood. These are all ancient metaphor for a catalysmic shift. The kingdom of God may roar or come in like a whisper. It may feel ordinary—the would-be-prophet bagging your tomatoes at Food For Less and no fanfare or pyrotechnics. Or perhaps there will be blood, war, and destruction. Systems of oppression do not die easily. But when the world ends, the lamb wins, sorrow and injustice are no more. 

My Lean, Unripened Heart

Sylvia Plath struggled to stave off the darkness. She was clinically depressed, treated multiple times with electrical convulsion therapy. When her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes dissolved, because of Hughes infidelity and him leaving her for his mistress, Plath succumbed to suicide by gas oven in her London flat. Her children were asleep upstairs. Six years later, Hughes mistress, Assia Wevill committed suicide the same way Plath did.

I’ve been reflecting on hope and the promise of Advent, how the Christian story tells us that the telos which we are moving toward, is one where all suffering ceases, wars end and all our mourning turns to joy. In the meantime, hope can be a hard thing to hold out for. The pain of broken relationships and biochemistry may make it nearly impossible. Sylvia Plath described the heartache she felt in losing Hughes in her poem Jilted: 


My thoughts are crabbed and sallow,
My tears like vinegar,
Or the bitter blinking yellow
Of an acetic star.

Tonight the caustic wind, love,
Gossips late and soon,
And I wear the wry-faced pucker of
The sour lemon moon.

While like an early summer plum,
Puny, green, and tart,
Droops upon its wizened stem
My lean, unripened heart.

The bitter, the sour, the acetic, the puny green and tart, the drooping, wizened, lean and unripe. 

I believe wholeheartedly in Christian hope, that the story of God’s redemption ends well. But let’s not abstract it. Hope can be a hard thing to hold on to. I don’t know the heartache of being jilted by my lover the way Plath did, nor do I have her struggles with depression. But I know heartache. I know what it is like to a lose a job, and how insignificant and incompetent it makes you feel. I know what it is like to be rejected by those I care about and felt called to love and serve. I know what it feels like to lose hope, and have my life turn sour. 

Christian hope isn’t just for the nameless poor, the migrant, the refugee, or the war-torn in some far off distant land. We, ourselves, need it. When we lose hope, all the sweetness goes out of life. We despair. We give up. If we are to sustain life and joy, we need hope for tomorrow. 

  Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel, fell to Babylon in 587 BCE. The city of Jerusalem was captured and destroyed. The temple was torn down. Many of the inhabitants died in the siege. Families were torn apart and many were carried into exile. If there was a time that God’s people lost all hope, that was it. God had abandoned them. Their nation was no more.  They were under judgment for their rejection of their God. 

For 70 years they were in exile. A lifetime. People were born and died in captivity. And yet, God was still at work and he hadn’t really abandoned his people. Jeremiah prophesied:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”  (Jeremiah 31:27–29, NRSV)

At the end of 70 years, the sourness was gone, the exiles returned. The walls of Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt. They experienced what  Martin Luther King used to say, “The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.” It wasn’t as it was, but their hope returned. Tough the fruit of experience was still sometimes bitter there was hope for tomorrow. 

I feel sad for Sylvia Plath—depressed, rejected, despairing. Suicide is a disease that has claimed far too many lives, and I doubt if I was there I could have said any words that would restore Plath’s hopes for another day. I do know one day, maybe soon, maybe many lifetimes away that:

God will dwell with his peoples, and be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will cease. The sourness will go out of life. He will make all things new.  (cf. Rev 21:4-5).