Approaching the Apocalypse
If we really believe what the Apocalypse says, I am sure we would quickly arrive at the conclusion that it is the most important document ever written in the history of mankind. Let me explain: the Apocalypse presents itself as 'the Revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave to him' (Rev 1,1); it contains the 'Word of God and the Witness of Jesus Christ' (1,2.9) and it is the only message addressed to the whole Church by the Lord after his Ascension to the throne of God. Its words are faithful and true (19,9; 22,6) and those who contemplate them are blessed (1,3; 22,7). It is a prophecy (1,3; 22,10) of what must take place in heaven and on earth up to, and beyond, the second coming of the Lord, and it concerns the fulfilment of the entire Mystery, or project, of God for mankind (10,7). There are serious consequences for those who add to, or take away from, the words of its text (22,18-19).
We ought to admit, however, that the importance of the Apocalypse is little appreciated because it is a difficult book to understand. There are two main difficulties:
a) its symbolical language
The symbolical language of the Apocalypse is a language that takes us straight back to the Old Testament. In fact, the relation between the Apocalypse and the Old Testament is so close that it seems to be the intention of the author that they be compared. On this relation, a biblical scholar (Rev. Prof. Ugo Vanni) writes: "The author never uses an explicit quotation, but inserts entire expressions from the Old Testament, often literally but with some slight alteration, so bringing the context of the Old Testament back to life with the prospect that has been added to it by the New".
b) the discontinuity of its visions.
We can therefore say that, to a great extent, the Apocalypse is a 're-reading' of the Old Testament in the light of the coming, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ to the throne of God in heaven. The most appropriate method of interpretation in this case is expressed as follows in the document of the Pontificial Biblical Commission on 'The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church' (1993): "To carry out the 'actualization' (of a text) successfully, the interpretation of Scripture by means of Scripture is the most safe and fruitful method, especially in the case of Old Testament texts which have given rise to re-readings in the Old Testament itself and/or in the New Testament". In summary, the key for deciphering the symbolical language of the Apocalypse is to be found in comparing it with related passages in the Old Testament.
The second difficulty arises from the fact that not all the prophetic visions of the Apocalypse are written in order. We must look for links within the text which indicate the order in which the prophesied events will take place. This task is not as difficult as it sounds, however, since the text has a very precise structure which indicates the order to follow. Those passages which do not follow this order are, in fact, related to each other by verbal-thematic links, and form a prophecy which stands apart, as we shall be seeing later.
Using these methods for interpreting the Apocalypse, and guided by the Spirit which inspired it, we can arrive at its precise or 'literal' sense. According to the Catechism (1992), the literal sense of Scripture is the meaning conveyed by its words and discovered by following the rules of correct interpretation. Quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catechism continues: "All the senses of Scripture are based on its literal sense" (C.C.C. 116).
The clarification of the literal sense is therefore the principal aim of biblical exegesis. In fact, in a prophetic text like the Apocalypse, the literal sense has a very special importance owing to the fact that a prophetic text must be fulfilled literally in order to be considered authentic. This can be deduced from the following passage in the Book of Deuteronomy: "If you say to yourselves 'how can we recognize the words which the Lord has not spoken', you should know that when a prophet speaks in the Name of the Lord and what he says has no effect and does not happen, it is because it does not come from the Lord. The prophet has spoken out of presumption and you need not be afraid of him" (Deut 18,21 -22).
However, when we speak of the literal fulfilment of a prophetic text we do not mean that every single word should be realized as it is written, in a literalistic or fundamentalist way, but rather that the significance of its words should be realized literally, or in other words, that its literal significance should be realized. For this reason, the literal significance or sense of a prophetic text is nothing else but the prophecy itself conveyed by its words.
The other senses of Scripture, the so-called spiritual senses, are those derived from the text in order to illuminate certain aspects of the Faith, morality, or aim of the Christian life (C.C.C. 117). The importance given to the one or the other of these two forms of meaning - literal or spiritual - has determined the history and the almost infinite variety of interpretations of the Apocalypse.
In the Early Church, the predominant interpretation of the Apocalypse was one which underlined its literal sense. It originated in Asia, present-day Turkey, in the second century and is particularly well documented in the writings of two saints: St. Irenaeus of Lyons, and St. Hippolytus of Rome. According to these authors, the Apocalypse communicates a prophecy of the events at the end of time, which will be fulfilled literally.
However, this way of interpreting the Apocalypse was subject to misinterpretation about the nature of the millennial reign of Christ with his saints, mentioned in chapter 20. Those who are nowadays called 'millenarians' were expecting a period of literally a thousand years after the second coming of Christ, characterized largely by the satisfaction of sensual pleasures. Not surprisingly, this way of interpreting the Apocalypse provoked a strong reaction in the Church and as a result, it came to be interpreted in a purely spiritual way in order to illustrate the Faith, morality and aims of the Christian life. This spiritual form of interpretation originated in Alexandria, Egypt, in the third century and Origen was one of its first exponents.
St. Dionysius, a bishop of that city in the third century, was compelled to examine the Apocalypse in order to refute the opinions of the millenarians; with arguments of a literary nature he persuaded himself, and many others to this day, that the author of the Apocalypse was not St. John the beloved Apostle, author of the fourth Gospel, as asserted by the tradition. It is important to note, however, that the bishop did not doubt the divine authenticity of the Apocalypse, and admitted to not having understood its meaning very well.
In the fifth century, St. Augustine provided a definitive solution to the problem of the Millennium, based on his exegesis of the fourth Gospel, and his solution continues to be the teaching of the Catholic Church up to this day. He concluded that the Millennium should not be understood literally as a period of time lasting one thousand years, but as the interval between the Ascension of Christ to the throne of God in heaven and his coming in Glory at the end of time. In other words, Christ is reigning now with his saints in the Church.
Despite this solution, the tension between the two ways of interpreting the Apocalypse - the one which underlines its literal sense and the other its spiritual sense - continues up to this day, and allows us to classify current interpretations into two groups:
1. The interpretations which emphasize the spiritual sense of the Apocalypse hold that it represents the continuous struggle between the Kingdom of God and the power of the devil, and that it was written in a symbolical way so that it remains valid for all time as a source of inspiration and incouragement for the Christian life. Even though these interpretations are highly valued by biblical scholars, they have serious defects: they tend to distance themselves from the text, to be too liberal and to neglect the literal sense, on which - as we have just stated - all the other senses should be based.
However, this interpretation does not adequately explain many of the details described in the text, especially those which describe events that have never taken place in history up to the present time. For example, it does not explain the deceptive miracles performed by the persecutor with the purpose of promoting the worship of the 'beast which comes up from the abyss', neither the systematic way of controlling his citizens by branding them with a mark, without which they can not buy or sell (Rev 13,11-17).
2. Another group of interpretations which emphasize the literal sense. This includes a historical interpretation that is called 'preterist' and holds that the Apocalypse refers primarily to the persecution of Christians in the first century, for whom it was written as encouragement.
Furthermore, in the Apocalypse it is prophesied that the beast will destroy a city called Babylon (17,15-18). According to this interpretation, the beast represents one of the Roman Emperors of the first century (biblical scholars do not agree which one) and Babylon represents Rome. The fact that no Roman Emperor ever destroyed his imperial city in the definitive way described in the text, indicates how imprecise and inadequate is this form of interpretation.
Finally, in the Christian literature of the first three centuries, the beast described in the Apocalypse, otherwise called the Antichrist in the tradition of the Church, is nearly always presented as an eschatological figure, the extreme antagonist of Christ and of Christians at the time of the end. Against the 'preterist' interpretation, therefore, can be added the fact that the Church of the first centuries did not interpret the Apocalypse with reference to the persecution of Christians at that time, but interpreted it instead as a prophecy of the future and especially of the eschatological period.
So this brings us to consider the other kind of literal interpretation called 'futurist'. Seeing that so many things described in the text have not yet taken place in history, these interpretations consider the Apocalypse as a prophetic book which refers primarily to the eschatological period of history. The interpretation which we would like to present in this series of lectures is one of these, since it explains the Apocalypse as a prophecy which, to a great extent, has not yet been fulfilled.
The most common defect of interpretations which emphasize the literal sense is that they have a tendency to ignore the spiritual senses and to adhere too strongly to the literal meaning of the words; they tend to be 'literalistic'. We have already come across an example of this in the interpretation of the Millennium as a literal period of a thousand years following the second coming of Christ. Another is to conceive 'the new heaven and the new earth' as if they were to be established in another part of the universe, or to imagine the descent of the new Jerusalem from heaven as the landing of a 'flying object' from outer space.
Surrounded by so many different explanations and interpretations of the Apocalypse, how can we discern the true one from the others, if not by means of a great familiarity with the text. Since the text is a coherent whole, a work of the Holy Spirit in which there are no contradictions, the truth of an interpretation is shown by the completeness with which it explains the text, without omissions and contradictions. The truth of the interpretation can then be confirmed by its coherence with the rest of Scripture, that is to say with the other parts of the New and Old Testaments. In fact, a correct interpretation should not contradict either the Scripture, or the teaching, or the tradition of the Church, but should contribute to the more profound understanding of some aspect of them. These criteria correspond to the rules of correct interpretation presented by the Church in the Catechism (C.C.C. 112-114) and serve also to detect the defects of the numerous interpretations which are appearing not only
from among the fundamentalist sects but also from within the Catholic Church.
The Book of Revelation
Now we must consider the book itself, and how we can divide it in order to be able to understand it as a whole. The majority of biblical scholars agree that the book starts with a Prologue and finishes with an Epilogue. The Prologue contains information which serves as an introduction to the book; the Epilogue repeats many features of the Prologue, adds certain warnings and closes the book with the promise of the imminent return of the Lord Jesus. The remaining part of the text can be divided into three parts according to the Lord's instruction to St. John when he appeared to him and said: "So write what you saw, what is now, and what must take place after these things" (Rev 1,19).
The first part, 'what you saw', refers to the introductory vision of the presence of the risen Lord amongst the local churches. The second part, 'what is now', refers to the situation in the seven churches, to which the seven letters are addressed containing spiritual direction from the Lord. We propose to examine these two parts shortly. The third and most extensive part of the book, 'what must take place after these things', contains St. John's description of the numerous prophetic visions he was given, which span the interval between the Ascension of Christ and the fulfilment of the Mystery of God at the end of time. We will explain our analysis of this part during the next two lectures.
We now suggest a careful reading of the Prologue so that its contents can give us the correct attitude for studying the book in depth. We ask you to excuse us if our observations seem very simple or obvious, but before studying the meaning of the book itself we feel it is necessary to simplify and clarify its introductory elements, since these have been subjected to various misunderstandings and prejudices. The Prologue includes the title and begins like this:
"The Revelation of St. John. The Revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place and which he made known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bears witness to the Word of God and the Witness of Jesus, to the extent of all that he saw. Blessed is he who reads and blessed are they who hear the words of this prophecy and take to heart what is written in it, for the time is near" (l,1-3).
The title is not original, since many different titles were added to the manuscripts of the book during the centuries. However, the one most commonly used now is far from perfect, because the first few words of the text tell us that it is not precisely 'The Revelation of St. John', but the Revelation of Jesus Christ witnessed by St. John.
According to the ancient Hebrew tradition, and without doubt the Apocalypse conforms to this tradition, the first word or words of a book represent its authentic title. For example, in the Bible, the Hebrew title of Genesis is 'berashit', which means 'in the beginning'; of Exodus it is 'eleh hashemot', which means 'these are the names'; and of Deuteronomy it is 'eleh hadevarim', which means 'these are the words'. According to the same tradition, in fact, the titles of the official documents of the Vatican are taken from the first words of their text. The authentic title of the Apocalypse, the title intended by the Author, is therefore 'The Revelation of Jesus Christ' - an optimum title because it emphasizes the messianic importance of the book written by St. John, of which the Revelation of Jesus Christ is the true source and content.
The Church calls the whole Bible 'Revelation' because it reveals, little by little, the mysterious project of God for mankind. The last book is therefore called 'The Revelation of Jesus Christ' not only because it is a true synthesis of the whole Bible, but also because it is only by means of the Lordship of Jesus Christ that we have this definitive revelation of what God has prepared for the future of mankind.
When the text states that this is "the Revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave to him" , we should understand that God the Father is its principal Author and origin. The text goes on to say that God gave it to Jesus "to show his servants what must take place soon". Therefore what follows is not just consolation, nor exhortation, but a concrete warning of what must happen, and if these things have not yet taken place in history it is because they are yet to take place. If the Lord himself wishes to warn us of these things, it is because he knows we need such a warning in order to prepare ourselves. It is implied that the events will be difficult to undergo unless we are prepared by him in this way.
After telling us why God gave the revelation to Jesus Christ, the text goes on to say that Jesus "made it known by sending his angel to his servant John".
The appearance of the Lord's angel in the context of a divine revelation recalls those circumstances recounted in the Old Testament, in which the appearance of the Lord's angel is not distinct from the manifestation of God himself, but is simply the way he made himself visible to men. By means of his angel, the Lord appeared to Hagar beside the well when she fled from her mistress Sarah (Gen 16,7-13); to Abraham when he was about to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah (Gen 22,15-18); to Moses in the midst of the burning bush (Acts 7,30-34; cf. Ex 3,2-6) and then on Mount Sinai (Acts 7,38; cf. Ex 24,16-18); and also to the Israelites in order to protect and guide them in the desert (eg: Ex 14,19-31). It is by means of his angel therefore, that the Lord reveals himself and comunicates his revelation directly to John, as we shall see later.
The mystical encounter between the angel of the Lord and St. John settles the controversy about the literary origin of the Apocalypse. Many commentators make it seem as if the Apocalypse is just the product of the reason and reflection of a human author but the text itself indicates that it is not only this: it is above all the precise account of a mystical experience granted to the human author. Under divine instruction, St. John was fully conscious but totally passive - he was in fact like a dead man (Rev 1,17). He received visions, heard locutions, and experienced sensations which touched all five senses in a spiritual way. He also experienced ecstasy, rapture, and spiritual transport, and received revelations which regard all the world and its people up to, and beyond, the end of the present age, recording all these things in obedience to a command from the Lord (1,19).
Regarding the identity of the one who witnessed this experience, the Church has always held that it was St. John the Apostle. Unfortunately this conviction is not accepted by many biblical scholars these days, even though it is verified by the written testimony of at least two saints who lived in the same region as the Apostle John, and within living memory of his works - Justin martyr who lived at Ephesus between 132 and 135 AD, and St. Irenaeus of Lyons who was born, raised and educated at Smyrna around 140 AD. The question of the apostolic authorship of the Apocalypse is important, because it was one of the main reasons for including this book in the canon of the New Testament: if the apostolic authorship is doubted, questions naturally arise concerning its canonicity.
For this reason, and without having to argue about the literary characteristics of the Apocalypse, we would like to draw attention to evidence within the text which identifies its author with the beloved Apostle, author of the fourth Gospel: in chapter11, immediately after the author was told 'to prophesy again', he was given a measuring rod and was asked to measure 'the Sanctuary of God, the altar and those worshipping there' (11,1-2). 'To prophesy again' therefore implies the doing of the measuring for the new Temple of God which is in the process of construction. It is a task which lasts until the new Temple is completed at the end of time, in a way which is indicated later in the text (15,8).
Identifying the new Temple of God with the Church, made up of people reconciled to God by means of Jesus Christ, we can interpret the task given to the author as follows: in witnessing the prophecy given to him 'to prophesy again', the author is participating in the edification of the Church, up until she reaches her perfection at the end time. Even though the author is no longer present physically, the witnessing of his prophecy by the Church continues the work entrusted to him. In this way, the author of the Apocalypse continues to have an effective and lasting presence in the Church, which precisely fulfils the Lord's enigmatic prophecy concerning St. John and identifies the author with this Apostle:
The text of the Apocalypse goes on to say what St. John did following his encounter with the angel of the Lord: "he bore witness to the Word of God and the Witness of Jesus Christ, to the extent of all that he saw". We acknowledge therefore that the book which St. John wrote contains the Word of God and the Witness of Jesus. Further on in the text we read that 'the Witness of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy' (Rev 19,10). We conclude that this little book offers us 'the spirit of prophecy' in order that we may bring to maturity our baptismal gift of prophecy.
Then we find in the text the first of seven blessings or benedictions which recall the Lord's sermon on the mount, and counsels of a similar kind in the Psalms (eg: Ps 1,1-2; 112,1; 119,1-2): "Blessed is he who reads and blessed are those who hear the words of this prophecy and take to heart what is written in it, for the time is near".
You may remember that, according to St. Luke, Jesus said almost the same thing in reference to his own teaching: "Blessed, instead, are those who hear the Word of God and observe it" (Luke 11,28). The reference to these words of Jesus in St. John's book not only reminds us that this contains the Word of God and the Witness of Jesus, but also invites us to regard it as the teaching, or rather the prophecy, of Jesus himself. So true is this that the same exhortation is repeated towards the end of the book, by a voice which can be identified as that of the Lord himself: "Behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is he who takes to heart the prophetic words of this book" (Rev 22,7).
It is here that the Apocalypse challenges us: either we have faith in its words because we believe that they are true words of God, and therefore we respond to their invitation and enter into their logic, or we do not respond because we do not believe. It is a question of one's Faith.
I think that a great obstacle in taking to heart and contemplating the words of the Apocalypse is the 'preterist' interpretation, the one which is prevalent in our Church these days and favoured by the majority of biblical scholars. As we have already mentioned, this interpretation states that the Apocalypse was written to encourage Christians being persecuted by the Roman authorities at the end of the first century. It is an obstacle because it makes us think that the Apocalypse refers primarily to the past, so provoking an astonishing underestimation of its importance for faithful Christians in the present and in the future. Instead of reading the text with faithful attention to what it says about the future, we are tempted to read it with a detachment conditioned by the historical perspective of the scholars.
To enter into the logic of the text, however, we must believe in its words. The book presents itself as a prophecy directed towards the second coming of the Lord, and the time is near. Since the second coming of the Lord has not yet taken place, the prophecy is still current. Let us change from an historical perspective to a prophetical one: the greater part of the prophecy of the Apocalypse does not concern the past, but the future which is to come.
The Prologue continues with a greeting from the divine Trinity to the seven local churches in Asia which were responsible for transmitting the entire revelation witnessed by St. John.
Then follow two statements in liturgical form, which summarize the faith and the hope of Christians living in the tension between what has been fulfilled by the first coming of Christ, and what has yet to be fulfilled by his second coming, between the 'now' and the 'not yet'. 'Now' we are a kingdom and priests for God (1,5-6), but 'not yet' has the whole world become the Kingdom of God. The rest of the world will be converted when it sees Jesus Christ coming in Glory at the end of time (1,7).
With this aim in view, the Prologue closes with an exclamation from God himself: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, the One who is, who was and who is to come, the Almighty" (1,8). In order that we do not cling too much to the future, and so forget our responsibilities in the present, these words of the Lord remind us of his all-powerful Presence in every age: this omnipresence, indicated by the attribute "the One who is, who was and who is to come", expresses the full sense of the Name which the Lord revealed to Moses at the burning bush, the tetragrammaton YHWH.
Furthermore, the Lord's exclamation at this point assures us of his vigilant Presence during the formation of the book which St. John was writing. It is a sign of divine approval.
The first and the second parts
We come then to the first part of the text, the part in which St. John described "what he saw" in his initial vision:
There are three main elements in this vision:
1. The 7 lampstands which symbolize 7 local churches. Its true that '7' means more than the precise number of churches to whom the Apocalypse was addressed. '7' signifies the 'totality' or 'completeness' of a thing. Understood in this way, it is probable that the 7 churches in Asia were chosen precisely because they represent the Church in its totality.
At the centre of all three of these elements there is the right hand of the angel, which therefore represents the right hand of the Lord. In the Psalms it is always the right hand of the Lord which works miracles and demonstrates its power to save. Here, in the same way, the powerful hand of the Lord has a crucial role at the centre of the three elements: it unites each of the seven churches with its angel in heaven, and also with the other churches. United by means of the right hand of the Lord, the local churches provide a base on earth for their angels in heaven, through whom the Lord communicates with them. Manifesting the light of heaven to men in this way, the Churches witness the Presence of the Lord amongst them.
2. The second element is the group of 7 stars which symbolize the 7 angels of these 7 churches. In the context of this vision, the stars or angels in heaven also represent the lights of the 7 lampstands.
3. The third element is he who is called 'one like a son of man'. We identify him as the angel of the Lord, by means of whom the risen Lord reveals himself to St. John in vision and then communicates his revelation.
Many commentaries on the Apocalypse identify the angels of the churches with their bishops, but we consider this interpretation to be too narrow. By analogy with the lights on the seven-branched lampstand (the menorah of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem), we can identify the 7 angels of the churches in this vision with the seven flames of fire burning before the throne, described in the following vision (4,5). In the text these flames of fire are then identified with the 7 Spirits of God which stand before the throne (1,4; 4,5) and later on with the 7 Spirits of God sent out into all the earth by means of the Lamb that was slain (5,6). On account of their position before the throne, we can identify the 7 angels of the churches also with the 7 angels which stand before God (the archangels) who are given the 7 trumpets to sound (8,2) and the 7 bowls to pour out (15, 5-8). Their representation as flames of fire recalls the class of angels called 'serafim' in the Old Testament, from a Hebrew word which means 'the burning ones' (cf. Is 6,2). In brief, given that the number '7' signifies 'totality' or 'completeness', the 7 angels, flames or Spirits all represent the Holy Spirit of God in its various operations and characteristics. In the context of the introductory vision, the 7 angels represent that operation of the Holy Spirit by means of which the Lord communicates with his churches.
The introductory vision, therefore, is an ecclesiological vision which explains the relationship between the Lord and his churches, and shows how he guides his people by means of his powerful right hand. This vision recalls an important vision of the prophet Zechariah (Zech 4,1-3,11-14) which we would like to consider because it shows the kind of relation that exists between the Apocalypse and the Old Testament, and also the kind of exactness with which the order of the Old Covenant is fulfilled by the New. Zechariah saw oil dripping from two olive branches hanging from two separate olive trees. Collected and distributed by a series of bowls and tubes, the oil was feeding the seven lamps which sustained the perpetual flame on the seven-branched lampstand, in the Sanctuary of the ancient Temple. In this vision of Zechariah the Lord does not reveal himself, but his Presence among the people of Israel is symbolized by the flames on the seven-branched lampstand placed before the veil in the Sanctuary.
Represented by the flames, the Presence of the Lord is effectively maintained by the oil collected from the two olive branches, which are identified in the vision with the two consecrated leaders of the people of Israel. In other words, even though the Lord remains veiled, he reveals that he has consecrated two leaders to guide his people and so maintain his Presence among them.
Returning to the Apocalypse, we can see how the coming of the Lord has fulfilled this vision concerning the direction of his people. In the first place we note that the Lord has revealed himself and replaces the two olive branches and the whole system of bowls and tubes for collecting the oil. Now the Lord himself guides his people and his own Presence keeps the lights of heaven united to their lampstands on earth. These lampstands are no longer united at their base, like the seven-branched lampstand which represented Israel with its base in the Temple at Jerusalem, but instead they are united on high, in the powerful hand of the Lord. This hand, in fact, is in the position of a lamp, and it is precisely a lamp which represents the role of the Lamb in the new Jerusalem (Rev 21,23). There is, therefore, a strong reason for identifying the powerful right hand of the Lord, which unites all three elements in this vision, with the Lamb that was slain.
However, the interpretation of this vision in the Apocalypse is not complete, since we have not yet explored all its symbolism. The activity which is represented in this introductory vision can be interpreted by comparing it with the instructions given to Moses regarding the trimming and refilling of the seven-branched lampstand:
Represented in this passage by Aaron, the figure of 'one like a son of man' corresponds to the high priest, the sword of his mouth is the instrument with which he trims the lampstands, and the Spirit that speaks through him is the oil with which he refills them. Trimming and refilling the lampstands which represent the local churches on earth, he keeps them firmly united to their lights, or angels, in heaven. This vision of the trimming and refilling of the lampstands not only represents precisely the reproof and encouragement expressed to the churches in the subsequent letters, but also introduces us to the liturgical character ofthe visions in the Apocalypse.
I do not wish to say very much about the letters to the churches because they are very well-known, and contain relatively straightforward spiritual direction for the 7 communities which existed at the time the Apocalypse was written. We should remember, though, that these 7 churches were chosen because they represent the whole Church in every age. The fact that there is a universal significance in the messages to the 7 churches is underlined at the end of each, where it says: "Whoever has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches". Even today we can find in these letters, appropriate advice for our own community, for our family or for ourselves.
The heavenly liturgy
Prompted by the activity represented in the introductory vision, we would like to finish with a brief look at the liturgical character of the visions in the Apocalypse.
Since the Sanctuary revealed to St. John and described in the Apocalypse is the same one that was revealed to Moses as the archetype of the Tent that the Lord asked him to build (Ex 25,8-9), a precise typological correspondence exists between the heavenly Sanctuary described in the Apocalypse, the Tent built by Moses and the former Temple in Jerusalem which was modelled on this. It is a correspondence which embraces the whole of the legislation attributed to Moses, regarding the organization, administration and liturgical activity of the ancient sacrificial cult. The importance of this correspondence is that it gives us a basis for interpreting the liturgical features of the Apocalypse, by comparing them with descriptions of the ancient liturgical practice in the Old Testament and in the oral tradition of the Jews compiled in the Mishnah.
In making this comparison, we find that the liturgical features of the Apocalypse represent a liturgy which is being celebrated in the heavenly Sanctuary and corresponds closely to that of the daily morning service of the former Temple. We also find that some important features of the heavenly liturgy described in the Apocalypse correspond to elements of the liturgy which was performed specifically on the annual Day of Atonement.
As we have seen, the introductory vision of the seven golden lampstands and the subsequent messages to the churches (Rev 1,9-20; chs. 2-3) represents the trimming and the refilling of the seven-branched lampstand at the start of the morning service. The appearance of the Lamb before the throne of God in heaven (5,6) corresponds to the entrance of the high priest into the most sacred part of the former temple, on the Day of Atonement, to expiate it with the blood of the victims. The mission of the first four horses and their riders (6,1-8) represents the recital of the ten commandments and the reading of other parts of the Law during the morning service. The souls of the martyrs who appear under the altar in heaven (6,9) correspond to the members of the sacrifice, after they had been carried to the base of holocausts in the former Temple. The 'sealing' of the 144,000 men mentioned in the Apocalypse (7,2-8) corresponds to the pronounciation of the priestly blessing; the great quantity of incense offered on the golden altar in heaven (8,3-4) recalls the same action in the morning service of the former Temple, at the moment when the faithful used to pray. The angel who throws fire from the altar in heaven on to the earth (8,5) evokes the act of throwing the offerings into the fire that was always kept alight on the altar of holocausts. The blowing of the seven trumpets (chs. 8-11) and the outpouring of the seven bowls (chs. 15-16), together with the singing of the celestial choirs described in the Apocalypse (7,9-17; 14,2-3; 15,3-4; 19,1-8) are analogous to the use of trumpets, and libation bowls at the culmination of the morning service, at the time when the levitical musicians used to sing psalms and praise God. At the end of the heavenly liturgy, the scroll of Life which had been given to the Lamb a long time in advance (5,7-14) is opened and read during the final Judgement (20,11-12), just as the high priest read from the scroll of the Law at the conclusion of the specific rite of expiation that was performed on the Day of Atonement.
These observations can be explained by the fact that the liturgy described in the Apocalypse represents, in a simplified way, the liturgy that used to take place on the Day of Atonement in the former Temple of the Jews at Jerusalem. Being the fulfilment of every kind of sacrifice, the Lamb substitutes all the sacrifices that used to be offered on the Day of Atonement, and therefore corresponds to the first sacrifice of that Day: the lamb chosen to be the 'continual holocaust' for the morning service. As a result the order of the liturgy described in the Apocalypse follows closely the order of the morning service, but added to it are features which correspond to other elements of the liturgy for the Day of Atonement.
In summary, the liturgy described in the Apocalypse is a liturgy which is currently being celebrated in heaven; it started with the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, continues until the final Judgement at the end of time and represents a synthesis of the liturgy which was performed on the annual Day of Atonement in the former Temple at Jerusalem. The Apocalypse, in fact, is nothing else but the revelation of the course of this liturgy in heaven and of its consequences for the lives of men on earth. The description of the liturgy embraces all the visions of the Apocalypse, linking them up and unifying them into a unique and coherent Vision dominated by the theme of Atonement, that is to say the love of Christ which reconciles men with God.
The clarification of the heavenly liturgy described in the Apocalypse not only reveals Jesus Christ fulfilling the sacrificial cult that formed the basis of the liturgical activity in the former Temple, so nullifying every effort to reconstruct that Temple, but it also has two important consequences for the interpretation of the text:
1. The first concerns the fact that, analogously to the liturgy of the former Temple, the liturgy revealed in the Apocalypse follows a very precise chronological order. Since the events described in the visions of the Apocalypse are determined by this order, it follows that these events also succeed one another in a definite temporal order.
2. The second consequence derives from the fact that the culmination of the liturgy in the former Temple occurred at its conclusion and was indicated by the blowing of trumpets and the pouring of the libation bowl. In an analogous way, the culmination of the liturgy described in the Apocalypse can be identified with its conclusive part, which takes place at the end of time and is also indicated by the blowing of trumpets and the outpouring of libation bowls. The fact that the greater part of the Apocalypse deals with this conclusive part of the heavenly liturgy, from chapter 8 onwards, indicates that the greater part of the Apocalypse is an eschatological prophecy and ought to be interpreted as such.
In conclusion, the liturgical activity represented in the visions of the Apocalypse is so important that the study of this activity gives us the 'key' for interpreting the text as a whole. Even though we do not have time to examine every detail, we will be seeing how useful is this 'key' in the next two talks.