A Woman, a Child, and a Dragon

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Lately the UK has been gripped by the Post Office scandal wherein hundreds of postal workers have been unjustly prosecuted for fraud and theft.[1] While this scandal involves events that took place between ten and twenty years ago, its effects are ongoing and resurfaced afresh this month in the four-part ITV drama “Mr. Bates vs. the Post Office.”

The airing of the drama has fueled wave after wave of public outrage resulting in the announcement of new legislation to exonerate those who had been wrongly accused. Like many across the nation, my family and I, too, were incensed watching the scandalous events unfold. The refrain “miscarriage of justice” can be heard in every corner of society. And it’s not over yet.

One question that many have been left asking is, why did it take a TV show to finally force politicians and the public to take this scandal seriously?[2] An article in the Guardian put it this way:

“The Horizon inquiry into the Post Office scandal … has been in session for nearly two years; there have been many years of painstaking journalistic work and nearly two decades of … campaigning from those affected; but still it has taken four hours of primetime television drama for the British public to pay proper attention to the unbelievable horrors of this story.”[3]

This is the power of drama. Drama is designed to do this, to create this reaction in us. Art is almost always political, speaking to us in fresh new ways, calling us to action. What’s more, drama reveals to us realities that otherwise fall on deaf ears if presented in more mundane formats.

Commenting on the importance of the “Mr. Bates” TV drama, one writer commented:

“Whether it’s from Ancient Greece or whether it’s Shakespeare … political drama is about putting the individual at the forefront, against a backdrop of national or social or economic forces. That is as powerful now as it has been for thousands of years, because you identify the human within the context of the turmoil around them…

It feels like through our news, and through our drama, we’re finally beginning to reconcile the many injustices of [decades past], of the pandemic and of the loss of faith in public institutions and public officials…

Drama just makes things human, doesn’t it?”[4]

So, too, today’s reading from the book of Revelation (12:1-5) presents a political drama using the tools of the first century. So instead of four hours of television, we are presented five verses of history’s longest running political drama: the battle for souls. God progressively taming chaos for comprehensive flourishing. The individuals this political drama brings to the forefront are the woman and her child. The dragon provides the backdrop as the force of evil.

“A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to deliver a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a scepter of iron.” (Rev. 12:1–5 NRSVue)

The woman represents the people of God which includes Ancient Israel (symbolized by twelve crowns), Eve (symbolized by battle with the serpent), Mary (as the mother of the Messiah), and the Church who bears witness to Jesus, the Messiah. Multiple images converge in this symbolism and can make it a bit weird and hard to follow if we’re not familiar with all the biblical backstory.

In verse 4, when the woman is at her most vulnerable, the enemy is at his most violent. His power will only be upended by the most unlikely of conquerors: a baby boy. This is not just any baby, but the God’s long awaited Chosen One, his Christ, his Messiah. Like the woman reverses the misfortune of the first woman, so, too, the Christ child muzzles and reverses the threat of the enemy of God’s people. He rules with an iron rod. His rule is not local, but over all nations. Surprisingly, the dragon’s demise is attributed to Christ the King’s subjects, his followers who “conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (Rev. 15:11 NRSVue). The woman faced with death gives birth to life, life in all its fullness, the life of the world to come. Those formerly accused have been exonerated.

Through striking symbolism today’s passages concisely tell a much bigger story. Allusions recall key moments in the history of redemption from Adam and Eve to the birth of Christ.

What’s at stake in these political dramas is a quest for exoneration. We are horrified by what we witness unfolding. Will injustices be righted? Will good prevail?

Today’s Post Office scandal only makes sense within the larger drama of salvation history. It’s a symptom of a wider problem. If “Mr. Bates” is a four-part drama, so too salvation history may be divided into four movements: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. We anticipate the reign of this baby boy who will rule—or shepherd—as we are supposed to: fully as God desires.

The pregnant symbolism of “The Woman and the Dragon” in Revelation chapter 12 serves to make heavenly realities human. It makes humanly accessible a supernatural political drama between invisible forces. The author attempts to describe in words the fantastic visions he sees with his eyes. For his original audience, no clearer identification of the enemies of God could have been made than through the symbolism of “a great red dragon.” Elsewhere in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, the dragon is instantly recognizable as the enemy of God, the Satan, the one who personifies evil.

A word must be said about the nature of this dragon, since for us today the idea of a “dragon” conjures up images quite different than those in the mind’s eye of ancient peoples. Ancient audiences would have pictured something more like a serpent or crocodile, rather than a fire-breathing lizard with wings, claws, and a long tail (NIDNTTE). Thus, we see just a few verses down in verse 9 identification of the dragon with Satan, which reads: “the great dragon was thrown out—the ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the one who deceives the whole world. He was thrown to earth, and his angels with him” (Rev. 12:9 CSB).

As one writer put it, the dramas “that make an impact are the ones that right a terrible wrong.”[5] So, too, “Mr. Bates” is compelling because the viewer feels the injustice and starts to see it put right.

That’s what we are seeing in today’s Revelation reading. The Great Dragon, Satan, the accuser, being overturned and the spiritually accused gaining the upper hand not on the testimony of their own innocence but on the testimony of the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. That’s one crucial difference with the Post Office scandal: I was rightly accused before God because of my sin before God buried my condemnation with Christ. There is now no guilty verdict before God for those who are in Christ, for he has conquered sin and death. The book of Revelation is meant to comfort and encourage us as believers, not just to tell cryptic tales in apocalyptic imagery. It’s food for our souls.

The creator of “Mr. Bates vs. the Post Office” commented on her show’s success, noting:

“I think a key reason it has been a runaway success is that an awful lot of people in this country feel, in their own small way, as though they have been going through something similar. They feel like those people hanging onto the wretched Horizon helpline, which they used to call the ‘hell line’. They feel unheard.”[6]

Perhaps like in today’s reading you feel that life is precarious, that danger is crouching at your door, insecurity of some sort, whether that relates to your health, your loved ones, your work, your future. God hears you. In Christ, is the victory.

Our desire for injustice to be righted is God given. The Church is the group of those who have been united to Christ by faith and trust in him for their exoneration. It’s not that we are innocent, unlike many of our subpostmasters. We are in fact guilty before God, but the Lamb has taken our guilt, erased our shame. He himself has paid the price to redeem us by offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins. Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins, as the book of Hebrews tells us.

Christ has secured the victory. It may not look like it, but his kingdom is breaking into this world, righting injustices. How will you be a part of it?

“Mr. Bates” and the Post Office scandal tug on our innate desire for order, justice, and peace. We witness innocent people, common people like you and me, falsely accused of significant crimes. Human systems will always let us down. But there is one who is faithful and true, and he will never let you down. He is working out his plans.

Now many of us are good at being religious without being spiritual. But don’t get me wrong, I love religion. Religion is part of what ties us together, but religion serves to point us beyond ourselves to hidden realities. Religion without spirituality is like a vehicle without fuel.

We are spiritual beings and our readings this Sunday, like every week, reveal spiritual realities. As Christians, the spiritual weapons for waging war against the forces of evil are not like those of this world. They are prayer, the gospel of peace, love, truth, faith, and more. Our battle is not between flesh and blood. So to our weapons are spiritual, and they are often counter-cultural. If you wrong me, I will forgive you. If you hate me, I will love you. If you attack me, I will strive to be a peacemaker. If you are about to make me late, I will patiently wait for you.

I love the heart of today’s post communion prayer:

Generous Lord, in word and eucharist we have proclaimed the mystery of your love: help us so to live out our days that we may be signs of your wonders in the world; through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

In Christ, God’s people are to be signs of his wonders in the world. May that be true of us today and always. Amen.

References

  1. Tim Adams, “‘The Timing Was Impeccable’: Why It Took a TV Series to Bring the Post Office Scandal to Light,” The Observer, 13 January 2024, § UK news, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2024/jan/13/mr-bates-vs-the-post-office-why-it-took-a-tv-series-to-bring-the-post-office-scandal-to-light.

  2. Adams, “‘The Timing Was Impeccable.’”

  3. Adams, “‘The Timing Was Impeccable.’”

  4. Adams, “‘The Timing Was Impeccable.’”

  5. Adams, “‘The Timing Was Impeccable.’”

  6. Adams, “‘The Timing Was Impeccable.’”

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