Sunday, November 23
Revelation 12:1-19: Although it is surely no myth, this awesome vision bears a more than slight resemblance to certain themes in ancient mythology. For example, there was the very primitive solar myth concerning the powers of darkness, which appear to triumph over the sun and to reign over the time of night, defying the promised sun. This darkness, which has usurped the reign of the sun, as it were, attempts to devour the sun in its very birth; to kill the sun, that is to say, as it emerges from its motherÕs womb. In at least two versions of this ancient myth, in fact, the darkness is portrayed as a dragon-like snake. Thus, Egypt had its myth of the dragon Set, who pursued Isis while she carried the sun god Horus in her womb. His plan was to devour Horus at his birth. It is further curious that Isis, like the Woman in Revelation 12 (verse 14), is portrayed in Egyptian art (an elaborate door in the King Tut collection, for instance) with wings, so that she could flee from Set. Similarly, Greek mythology described the dragon-snake Python as pursuing the goddess Leto, who is pregnant with the sun god Apollo. In both cases, the little child escapes and later returns to destroy the usurping serpent. The similarities of both of these myths to the vision in Revelation 12 is rather striking. Both myths also touch on the subject of the illegitimate "usurper," a theme that Matthew develops in his story of Herod seeking to destroy the true King, Jesus, at His very birth.
Monday, November 24
Revelation 12:10-17: JohnÕs vision takes place in the vault of heaven, where the Woman is described as a "sign," an image reminiscent of Isaiah 7:10-11. Indeed, John seems to be saying that in the birth of Jesus IsaiahÕs prophecy of virgin birth is fulfilled (cf. also Isaiah 26:17). Like Christ Himself (Revelation 1:16), this Woman is clothed with the sun. All Christians know the virginity of the mother of Jesus. Is this Woman being represented, therefore, as the zodiacal sign of Virgo? It would seem so, because, like sign for Virgo, there are twelve stars involved.
Nonetheless, this is not simply a description of Christmas. The Woman in the vision is the mother of Jesus, but she is more; she is also the Church, which gives birth to Christ in the world. The sufferings and persecution of the Church are described as birth pangs (cf. John 16:21-22).
The serpent, of course, is that ancient dragon who is the enemy of our race, the one who seduced the first woman in the garden. Now he must face the new Woman, who is more than a match for him. His seven heads put one in mind of the ancient mythological dragon Hydra, well known from a Canaanite narrative found in the excavations at Ras Shamra and from the traditional story of the Labors of Hercules. In Revelation it is clearly Satan, the Accuser (verse 10) from the Book of Job and from Zechariah 3.
Michael appears right out of Daniel, of course; in the New Testament he spoken of only here and in the Epistle of Jude.
Tuesday, November 25
Revelation 13:1-10: Up till now we have seen two beasts, one of them from the underworld (Chapter 11) and the other from the heavens (Chapters 12). Two more beasts will appear in the present chapter, one of them from the sea (verse 1), who also has seven heads and ten horns (cf. 12:3), and one from the land (verse 11).
The present reading is concerned solely with the first of these two latter beasts. Like the beast in Daniel 7, he is a composite of several menacing things (verse 2). He derives his "authority" from the Dragon (verses 2,4) whom we considered in Chapter 12. That is to say, this beast shares in the power of Satan. With respect to his ten horns, two remarks are in order: First, in Daniel 7, the obvious literary background here, the ten horns seem to refer to the ten Seleucid successors of Alexander the Great. Second, here in Revelation 13 they seem to refer to Roman emperors. If we leave out Otho, who reigned over the Roman Empire for only three months, there were, in fact, exactly ten Roman emperors up to Domition, who was responsible for the persecution of A.D. 95: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Dominion. Almost all of these men were recognized as divine, some of them even before their deaths. Words such as theos and divus appear on their coins. This figure, therefore, symbolizes the idolatrous pretensions of the Roman Empire, which John ascribes to Satan. Those pretensions claim an unquestioned and absolute allegiance over the human spirit.
This beast of the Roman Empire combines all the worst features of all the earlier empires: DanielÕs winged lion of Babylon, the bear of the Medes, the Persian leopard, and the ten-horror of the Greeks. One may note that John lists these components in the reverse order of Daniel.
Far more than ourselves, the early Christians were aware of the power of evil in the world. They spoke of it frequently in personified forms that are difficult to interpret literally. And the Christians described their relationship to this evil as one of warfare. The terms of the conflict described here in Revelation 13 may be compared to the description in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12. In each case there is a widespread deception of people, their enslavement and destruction by means of lies. In both of these texts a pronounced contrast is drawn between the worldlings, who are deceived and will perish, and the faithful who will be saved by reason of their fidelity to Jesus.
Wednesday, November 26
Revelation 13:11-18: Now we come to the beast arising out of the earth, a parody of Christ in the sense that he faintly resembles a lamb (verse 11). Performing great signs and bringing fire down from heaven (verse 13), he is also a parody of the two witnesses in Chapter 11; in this respect he resembles the magicians of Egypt. The Gospels, we recall, have several warnings against false christs and false prophets, who will work wonders. Furthermore, in a parody of the sign of the living God in Chapter 7, he has his own version of the seal (verse 16). Those without the mark of the beast must suffer economic sanctions (verse 17). Political idolatry, in other words, has an important mercantile dimension, to which the Book of Revelation will return in later chapters. The adoration of the statue (verse 15), of course, is reminiscent of the fiery furnace story in Daniel.
Perhaps the easiest part of this text is to discern the meaning of the number of the beast. Indeed, John tells us that anyone with intelligence can do it (verse 18). For all that, the symbolism of the number is complex. A first mistake in attempting to read this number is that of imagining it as written out in Arabic numerals. This procedure should be dismissed immediately, because our modern numeral system, derived from the Arabs, was unknown to the writers of the Bible. In contrast, the numeral systems employed in the Bible are based entirely on the alphabet, whether Hebrew or Greek. Because of this, numbers could also stand for words, and a number of codes became possible. One of these, known as gematria, consisted in taking the prescribed numerical value of the various letters (aleph meaning one, beth meaning two, and so forth) in a name and then working little puzzles with them. There are several examples of this in Jewish works, such as the Talmud, and in early Christian writings, such as The Letter of Pseudo-Barnabas. There are also two examples of it in the Sibylline Oracles and two more in the graffiti in the excavations of Pompey.
In JohnÕs case, his puzzle runs backwards. He gives us a number and expects us to figure out what word or name the number stands for. Obviously there are many possible combinations of letters that will add up to the value of six hundred and sixty-six. Interpreters of the Sacred Text, however, have been most partial to the Hebrew form of the name, "Nero Caesar," which does, in fact, add up to exactly the number six hundred and sixty-six. There are other possibilities, but this explanation seems the most compelling. The number was thus a reference to Nero, the first Roman emperor who ever undertook the persecution of the Christian Church.
Thursday, November 27
Psalm 147: This is the second of the six "Alleluia" psalms that close the canonical Psalter.
A good interpretive key to this psalm is provided by the line that says of God that "He counts the multitude of the stars, and calls them all by name." The parallel text that jumps to mind is in Genesis 15, where God tells Abraham, "Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them." And to what point? The Lord goes on, "Thus shall be your seed."
The context of this promise is GodÕs covenant with Abraham, who as yet had no offspring and was married to a woman past the time of bearing children. GodÕs promise had to do with a numerous progeny who would share in the covenant with Abraham. Indeed, it would be a universal covenant, embracing all those who, from every nation, would share in the faith of Abraham. He would become the "father of many nations" (Genesis 17:4f). Thus, St. Paul described Abraham as "the father of us all" (Romans 4:16-18).
Our psalmÕs reference to the multitude of the stars, then, points to the numerous children Abraham, for they are the Church, which takes AbrahamÕs faith as the model for all times. Prophesying this truth, St. John the Baptist had declared that "God is able from these stones (Aramaic abanim) to raise up children (banim) to Abraham" (Matthew 3:9). These stones are we who believe with the faith of Abraham, "living stones, being built up as a spiritual house" (1 Peter 2:4).
These are the stones Ñ whether set on the breastplate of the high priest (cf. Exodus 26:17-21) or standing by the baptismal waters of the Jordan (cf. Joshua 4:3-7) Ñ that represent the fullness of the people of God.
Such is the burden of that line of our psalm that says, "The Lord builds up Jerusalem; He will gather the dispersed of Israel ." In the Book of Psalms, Israel is the Church, and of her building-up we are told that "the Lord added the Church daily those who were being saved" (Acts 2:47).
And as they are added to the Church, what are these "dispersed of Israel" described as doing? Listen to one who saw it: "And they continued steadfastly in the ApostlesÕ doctrine and communion, in the breaking of the Bread, and in the prayers. . . . So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking Bread at someoneÕs home (katÕ oikon), they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart" (Acts 2:42,46). All of these things pertain to the building-up of Jerusalem. The apostolic doctrine and the liturgical prayers of the Church, including this psalm, are here placed into the context of the Holy Eucharist, for it is in the Holy Eucharist that Lord builds up Jerusalem and gathers together the dispersed of Israel; "For we, though many, are one Bread and one body; for we all partake of that one Bread" (1 Corinthians 10:17).
This Jerusalem is the house of reconciliation and healing. "Every broken heart He heals," says our psalm, "and bandages their every wound. . . . The Lord lifts up the meek." In order to gather together the dispersed of Israel, the Lord sent forth His disciples with the command: "Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind. . . . Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled" (Luke 14:21,23).
These are "the children of God who were scattered abroad" (John 11:52). These are the very stones that God has raised as children to Abraham. These are the promised multitude of stars, each one of which He calls by name. As they approach to share His Bread, Jesus recognizes that "some of them have come from afar" (Mark 8:3). Indeed so, for they were "aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers from the covenants of promise" (Ephesians 2:12). But now in Christ they are brought near and made the children of Abraham, the very heirs of those covenants and that promise.
Friday, November 28
Revelation 14:1-13: Now we come again to the sealing of the followers of Christ, first spoken of in Chapter 7. With respect to the "following" of the Lamb (verse 4), of course, the image is found also in the Gospels. When Jesus calls on His disciples to "follow" Him, the context is the Cross. The Lamb to be followed is the Lamb of sacrifice (Mark 8:34-38; John 21:18-19).
There are three angels in this text, representing three dimensions of the final age, the proclamation of the Gospel, the judgment of God on the city of man, and the eternal, wrathful exclusion of idolatry. First, the angel of the everlasting Gospel (verse 6), whose mandate, like the mandate at the end of Matthew, is directed to all nations. These are all called to repentance and turning to the true God (verse 7; cf. Acts 14:15). Remember that in JohnÕs view, the judgment of God is now. The judgment of God takes place in the very proclamation of the Good News (cf. John 3:19; 18:37). The Gospel here is called eternal; it is the proclamation of the eternal mind of God, His eternal purpose of salvation, the "Mystery" of which the Epistle to the Ephesians speaks.
Second, the angel who proclaims the fall of Babylon (verse 8). This, too, pertains to the Gospel. In biblical thought, the fall of Babylon means that the true Israelites can now go home, because the exile is over. Babylon is whatever enslaves and alienates the people of God. Babylon is the city of false gods, the city that dares to raise up its tower against the face of God; it is the monument to manÕs achievements without God. Babylon is the city where men do not understand one another, because each man, as it were, speaks his own private meaning. The downfall of this city certainly is Good News, which is the meaning of the word Gospel. Christians are called to leave Babylon (18:4).
Third, the angel proclaiming the eschatological outpouring of GodÕs wrath, to the exclusion of all idolatry (verses 9-11). This text is important because, like certain sayings of our Lord in the Gospels, it insists on the eternity of damnation. Unlike many modern men, the Bible believes that the definitive choice of evil lasts forever.
Saturday, November 29
Revelation 14:14-20: On the image of harvest as judgment, see Joel 4:13-14 (3:9-14). The Son of Man on the cloud is, of course, from the Book of Daniel, an image that Jesus interprets of Himself in each of the Synoptic Gospels.
Unlike ourselves, men in antiquity actually experienced harvesting with a sickle and treading grapes in a vat, both actions characterized by a distinct measure of violence. Even these relatively benign images of harvest season, therefore, strongly suggest that the "end of time" will be more than slightly daunting. It should not surprise us that the harvesting with a sickle and the trampling of a wine vat because associated with the feeling of GodÕs definitive wrath.
The association of anger with the treading of the grapes was hardly new (cf. Isaiah 63:1-6), and it will appear again (Revelation 19:13-15). The grape harvest arrives in September, as the seasonal period of growth comes to an end. It is natural to think of death at this time of the year.
The amount of blood in this text (verse 20) is rather dramatic. The Greek stadion being six hundred and seven feet, sixteen stadia is about two hundred miles. A horseÕs bridle is about five feet off the ground. Thus we are dealing with a great deal of blood. This must be one of the most unpleasant passages in the New Testament.
The rising pool of blood becomes a kind of Red Sea. Indeed, the following chapter will be full of imagery from the Book of Exodus: plagues, the cloud of the divine presence, the tent of testimony, Moses, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the destruction of the pursuers.