Apocalypses have always been fascinating to decipher, which is one of their attractions over the centuries. Dense symbolism, angelic mediators, cryptic numerical references, kingdoms which are presented as animals, all presented as emerging, in many instances, from the hoary past pull the reader into the vortex of a world that both seems familiar and far different than anything experienced before. But the same fascination with apocalyptic imagery and symbolism has also been one of the major problems in reading apocalypses. The very murkiness of the visions leads readers to create scenarios based on the political situations of the day, ripped from the headlines interpretations that, according to this interpreter or that interpreter, indicate that the world will end in the next 60 days! Or that the evil Empire described in Revelation is actually China! Or Russia! Or the Roman Catholic Church! And this certainly indicates that the Antichrist - a word which nowhere occurs in Revelation - is the Pope! Or Obama! Or Ronald Wilson Reagan! What, you never heard that one? It’s simple. Ronald = 6 letters! Wilson = 6 letters! Reagan = 6 letters! 666, the number of the beast! And, yes, when you write about these things exclamation marks are required! It is a little known apocalyptic secret!
As excitable as our age might be in attempting to decipher the coming end, it is not new to us. St. Augustine warned in City of God that Christians needed to stop "counting on their fingers" their calculations for the coming end of the age, which they were certain was any day now. Augustine called on Christians to pay attention to Acts 1:6-7, in which the Apostles ask Jesus, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority." For Augustine, this was reason enough for us not to focus on the future date of the coming Kingdom, but to concentrate on the present day mission of the Church. It is a position that from the time of Augustine has been the de facto position of the Catholic Church.
What role, then, should these apocalyptic visions in Revelation play for modern day Christians? There are three components, I think, that are essential in reading Revelation. These three components concern the past, the present and the future. Too much time is spent nowadays on the future aspect of Revelation, particularly in terms of trying to figure out "when" it will happen. Yet, strange interpretations of the future elements by even stranger preachers should not dissuade us from taking seriously the coming end. As the Nicene Creed states: "he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his Kingdom will have no end." It is not up to us to determine on what date this will occur, but it is important to have in our minds the understanding that God, out of love for his creation, will defeat evil, suffering and death and establish his Kingdom for eternity. This future promise is an essential aspect of Christian hope and it should inform our day to day activities as we trudge onward in the city of man.
For according to Revelation, Jesus is already Lord, who reigns in heaven with the saints. This was accomplished in the past, through Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. He is Lord. This past tense informs our present reality, but we are able to see, through apocalyptic portraits of ancient human kingdoms, such as Rome, the attractions these human kingdoms held for idolatrous worship. Heavenly power is so hidden, veiled, unreal, that the attractions of earthly kingdoms are always present in apocalypses, including Revelation. Who is like the Beast!? While there is a future sense to the coming Beasts, Revelation makes clear that Rome was also the Beast. Any human kingdom has te potential to become the Beast when it is worshiped above all else. We have examples of evil kingdoms, who have slaughtered millions upon millions in the past century, but it is always essential that we cast a suspicious eye on our own most closely held convictions. The past portrait of Rome in Revelation tells us that no Kingdom or Empire is God’s Kingdom, however much good it does, except for God’s Kingdom. We cannot make an idol out of any human kingdom or political system.
There is also, in a more foundational sense, a present dimension to Revelation. If Jesus is Lord, then he is Lord now. Many Church fathers presented Revelation as a picture of the heavenly liturgy, but even more as Christian participation in the heavenly liturgy. Scott Hahn, in the The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth, presents the images of heavenly worship as a model of the Mass. In some sense this must be correct, though scholars are divided as to whether Revelation gives us an actual glimpse of the early Mass or was itself influential in creating the structure of the Mass. Other scholars have even argued that Revelation is itself a parody of Roman Imperial worship. Nevertheless, the worship of God (and Christ) is clear in Revelation, whether it actually gives us a picture of the Mass itself. What this means is that we do share our worship with the saints in heaven and that will be the context next time for the discussion of the reading Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14 for November 1, All Saints Day.