[The Angel] showed me Jerusalem, the holy city, coming
down out of heaven from God…
Its wall was of a great height and had twelve gates…
— Rev. 21:10ff, today’s second reading
The description goes on: city walls of diamond, streets of gold, foundations of precious stones… A city that’s a wonder, a stunning vision of the home we long for beyond any earthly home, and one which offers us the unending intimacy and joy of the marriage of the Lamb.
Today’s reading is shortened from the original text; we don’t hear about the gems associated with each of the twelve layers of the city’s foundation (jasper, sapphire, chalcedony, emerald, sardonyx, carnelian, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, chrysoprase, hyacinth, and amethyst, if you’re interested); and – unfortunately to my way of thinking – we hear about the twelve gates (one for each of the tribes of Israel), but we don’t hear what the gates are made of. Here’s the text:
And the twelve gates are twelve pearls,
each of the gates a single pearl…
Why do I think the compilers of the lectionary missed something in choosing to leave this detail out of the text we hear at Mass? Because I’m convinced that the author wanted us to notice something in the contrast he set up: We hear about all sorts of gemstones and precious metals as he describes the City: gold, diamond, emerald, and all the rest. But the gates to the City – the way we get in – they’re different. And I don’t believe that’s an accident.
You know what makes a pearl different from other gemstones: It’s organic. It’s not formed by geological processes but is the product of a living creature. Pearls result from an irritant, usually a grain of sand, which an oyster can’t get rid of. So the oyster works over what’s annoying, making that annoyance finally into a thing of beauty. And pearls keep their luster best when worn on the skin, not when put away in a drawer. John wants the City’s gates to be like this, not like dead stones. Why?
Here’s another familiar text that uses the same image: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he finds a single one of great price he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” [Mt 13:45] Why does the kingdom search for a pearl, not a diamond?
Here’s why: The pearl-making process of working over an irritant is a parallel to the process of spiritual growth. Each of us is like the oyster – bothered, somewhere, by an irritant (a sinful habit, a devastating sorrow, an emotional or physical disability, an unfulfilled dream, or the like) which we can’t get rid of – but just might be able to make something beautiful out of if we “work it over” enough.
We often think of the “good Christian” as someone who’s approaching perfection. But John knows that true discipleship is very often the result of a person’s response to Grace in struggling with a fault, sin, or disappointment. Once the work has been done, the now-transformed burden can be “worn on the skin” – displayed appropriately to others as a help to them. (Think of recovering alcoholics helping others with drinking problems.)
John says the gate into the City is a pearl. What needs working over in you, to become the doorway (for you and others) into the Heavenly City? Answering that question is no small part of “what really matters.” Until next week, Peace.