The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation
On the Solemnity of All Saints last Sunday, the first reading for Mass presented the rich imagery of the Book of Revelation depicting the great multitude of saints in heaven. Of all of the books of the Bible, Revelation is clearly the most challenging as it recounts the prophetic visions of John at Patmos at the end of the first century during a period of persecution of the Church.
The book is filled with deeply mysterious symbolism concerning human history and the end of history. And this has led to the creation of some pretty dreadful books and Hollywood movies containing serious errors and misunderstandings about what is revealed.
Thus, perhaps the first lesson of the book is how to properly read the Bible. The Catechism teaches that to gain an accurate understanding, one needs to read scripture in communion with the Magisterium (the teaching office of the Church that is guided by the Holy Spirit) and in the context of the whole of the Bible and also the historical conditions at the time it was written (CCC 85, 110-13). Such enduring continuity with the Church ensures that we can be certain that we know the true revealed word of God.
The Book of Revelation speaks to many things – it enriches our understanding of the Lord as the beginning and end who reveals the meaning of human history (5:1-8, 22:13), it provides a vision of heaven as a great wedding (19:6-9), it ensures us that our prayers rise to God (5:8, 8:3-4), and it also depicts the heavenly liturgy as the climax of history (5:6). The overarching message of John’s visions, however, is one of hope amidst tribulation. This is a message we need to hear today.
The news in our time is filled with stories of calamities, natural and social, all around the world. It seems that Christians especially are facing greater challenges, hardships and violent persecution. Our sisters and brothers in Christ around the world have been murdered, beaten, raped, and driven out of their homes. Closer to home, the Church is the subject of various forms of legal and social oppression. But we must not despair or give up.
“The Book of Revelation contains a word of encouragement addressed to believers: beyond all appearances, and even if its effects are not yet seen, the victory of Christ has already taken place and is final. This in turn causes us to approach human situations and events with an attitude of fundamental trust, born of faith in the Risen One, present and at work in history,” teaches Saint John Paul II (Ecclesia in Europa, 5).
The book opens with an assessment of various Christian communities, giving praise for the good in them, but also urging them to persevere in faith (chapters 2-3). Only those people who maintain faithful witness will survive the great period of trial and have their robes made white in the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, so as to enjoy eternal life (7:9-17).
Among the cycles of John’s visions is that of a “woman clothed with the sun” who is with child. She is pursued and threatened by a dragon throughout history, but although she appears defenseless and weak, the woman prevails in the end (12:1-17). “This is the great prophecy of this book that inspires confidence in us!” exclaims Pope Benedict XVI. “The woman who suffers in history, the Church which is persecuted, appears in the end as the radiant Bride, the figure of the new Jerusalem where there will be no more mourning or weeping, an image of the world transformed, of the new world whose light is God himself, whose lamp is the Lamb” (Audience of August 23, 2006).
After the trials, plagues and ruin of human history have run their appointed course, after the beasts and kings who fight against Christ the Lamb and King of Kings are defeated (19:19-21), comes the judgment of each person according to his conduct (20:11-15). John then saw a new holy city where there is no more pain or death and he heard the Lord say, “Behold, I make all things new . . . To the thirsty I will give a gift from the spring of life-giving water. The victor will inherit these gifts, and I shall be his God, and he will be my son” (21:1-7).
Throughout the suffering of the human condition, we rejoice in this hope, this promise of God. “For this very reason,” says Pope Benedict, “John, the Seer of Patmos, can close his book with a final aspiration, trembling with fearful expectation. He invokes the definitive coming of the Lord: ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ (22:20)” (Audience of August 23, 2006). This is our prayer too. We live with an expectation, confidence and joy, active and vigilant in anticipation, “Come, Lord Jesus, come,” as we continue to build up his kingdom coming to be among us.