The third part - the interruptions in the 'baseline prophetic narrative'
Now we must examine those passages which interrupt the continuity of the 'baseline prophetic narrative', that is to say the chronological sequence of events prophesied in the Apocalypse, which proceeds from the Ascension of Christ and leads up to the fulfilment of the Mystery of God at the end of time.
We have seen that the vision of the opening of the heavenly Sanctuary at the end of chapter 11 (Rev 11,19) is taken up again in chapter 15, where it says: "And after this I looked, and the Sanctuary of the Tent of Witness in heaven was opened..." (Rev 15,5). Given that these two passages refer to the same unique event, that of the opening of the Sanctuary in heaven, it is possible to link these two passages together and skip the piece in the middle, as we did in the last
lecture when we were following the outline of the 'baseline prophetic narrative'. In fact, this way of reading the text is made possible only because there is a natural break in the continuity of the text at the beginning of chapter 12, where the largest of the interruptions that we have to examine begins.
At the moment, it is enough to note that in this interruption two periods of time are mentioned - 1,260 days (12,6) and 42 months (13,5) - which are mentioned for the first time at the beginning of chapter 11, and indicate an overlapping between this chapter and the largest interruption (12,1 - 15,5). We call this feature of the literary structure of the Apocalypse the 'overlapping section', and all it means is that two consecutive parts of the text run parallel with each other to give information which is different, but complementary, about the two short periods of time.
Firstly we should note that the 'overlapping section' refers to times and events which immediately precede the blowing of the seventh and last trumpet - the point, in fact, where the 'overlapping section' unites with the 'baseline prophetic narrative'.
Another thing to note is that the 'overlapping section' occupies the most central part of the text of the Apocalypse, the part which was reserved for the most important information in ancient documents.
Finally, it is clear that the overlapping of two passages as in the 'overlapping section', allows the transmission of a much larger amount of information than in only one passage, even though in a less obvious way.
From these observations, it follows that the 'overlapping section' contains an eschatological prophecy which presents itself as the central message of the Apocalypse. In the following discourse, we hope to show you also how all the interruptions in the 'baseline prophetic narrative' refer, in one way or another, to the contents of the 'overlapping section'.
The prophecy of the 'overlapping section'
We would like to start with chapter 10, because this chapter introduces us to the special role of the prophecy in the 'overlapping section'.
After being taken up into heaven 'in spirit', St. John found himself again on the earth and saw a mighty angel coming down, holding a little open scroll in his hand. The angel swore that there will be no more time to repent after the sound of the seventh trumpet, because in those days the mysterious plan of God will be fulfilled. Then St. John was asked to take the little scroll from the hand of the angel and eat it, and so prepare himself to "prophesy again about many
peoples, nations and kings" (10,11). The little scroll was sweet in his mouth, but bitter in his stomach.
There are many allusions to the Old Testament in this vision, which help us to interpret it. The mighty angel had a rainbow around his head, which recalls the eternal sign that God gave Noah to indicate that he would never again destroy every living creature (Gen 9,12-16), neither by means of a flood, nor - we suppose - by means of any other catastrophe. Around the head of the angel who is announcing the imminent fulfilment of the Mystery of God at the end of time, this rainbow is a very reassuring sign that the life on this planet will continue.
Other aspects of the vision remind us of the encounter between Moses and the angel of the Lord on Mount Sinai, which was accompanied by cloud and smoke, fire and thunder (Ex 19,16-21): similarly the angel who appeared to St. John was wrapped in a cloud, his legs were like columns of fire, and at the same time the voice of the seven thunders resounded. Furthermore, the little open scroll corresponds in some way to the Word of God given to Moses under the form of the Law.
The most obvious reference to the Old Testament, however, is to the prophetic vocation of Ezekiel, who was given a scroll to eat, on which were written "laments and cries and woes" (Ezek 2,8 - 3,3). That scroll was as sweet as honey, but left him "bitter in the centre of his soul" (Ezek 3,14).
In an analogous way, St. John was prepared to 'prophesy again'. Even though everything that he had written up to this point was prophecy, it appears that the prophecy which arises from the assimilation of the little scroll has a special role. To find out what this role may be, it is important to know the significance of the little scroll.
When the angel was sent to St. John with the little open scroll, we know that the Lamb had just broken the last of the seven seals of the scroll which he had taken from the right hand of God, and was therefore able to open it. The fact that the little scroll was also open suggests that there is a relation between the two scrolls.
In the introductory vision of the Lord's angel walking among the 7 lampstands, holding 7 stars in his right hand, St. John was told that the stars represent angels in heaven. By analogy, we suggest that the little open scroll in the left hand of the angel described in chapter 10 represents the contents of the scroll which the Lamb had just opened in heaven, in a form which could be assimilated by St. John on earth. As we have already seen, this scroll is identified in the text with the scroll of Life (Rev 13,8; 21,27), in which is written everything that God has prepared for the future of mankind.
Furthermore, we note that the first two verses of the Apocalypse have a specific reference to the angel with the little open scroll which was given to St. John to renew his prophetic vocation. In these two verses we read: "The Revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave to 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 Christ, to the extent of all that he saw" (Rev 1,1-2). Understood as a summary of the vision described in chapter 10, this passage allows us to identify the little open scroll as the 'Revelation of Jesus Christ', communicated by his angel to St. John who recorded it in the book of the Apocalypse. The reference to the main aim of the book, "to show his servants what must soon take place" (l, l), prepares us to confront its most central and important part, the part in which 'the things which must soon take place' are revealed. Then begins the 'overlapping section' which is the main subject of this lecture.
After St. John was asked to 'prophesy again', we suppose he was given a new prophecy to write. The text, however, states that he was given a "reed similar to a rod", and was asked to "measure the Sanctuary of God, the altar and those worshipping there" (11,1-2). Just here, at the start of the 'overlapping section', the language changes and now refers to the construction of the new Temple of God. The 'reed similar to a rod' is therefore a way of describing the prophecy given to St. John in order to 'prophesy again'; the act of measuring signifies the act of witnessing this prophecy; and 'the Sanctuary of God, the altar and those worshipping there' refer to the main components of the new Temple which is being built.
In the metaphorical context of this instruction, however, this Temple is not a building made of stones and concrete, but as in other parts of the New Testament (eg: Eph 2,19-22; 1 Pet 2,4-10; Heb 12,22-24; Rev 3,12), the new Temple of God is one which is made of the people from every age and place whom God has reconciled to himself by means of Jesus Christ, and is called the 'Universal Church' (cf. Conc. Vat. II, Lumen Gentium 4:13).
In summary, St. John was asked to witness the prophecy that was given to him, in order that this could serve as a measure, or rule-of-faith (a 'canon' in the authentic sense of the word), in the edification and perfectioning of the Church.
Now, with the purpose of understanding its implications, let us examine in detail the instruction given to St. John: "Get up and measure the Sanctuary of God and the altar and those who are worshipping in it. And reject the court which is outside the Sanctuary and do not measure it, because it was given to the nations and they will trample the Holy City for forty-two months. And I will give to my two witnesses and they will prophesy for one thousand two
hundred and sixty days, dressed in sackcloth" (Rev 11,1-3).
The former Temple consisted of an inner part which only the people of Israel could enter, and an outer part - a large court - which also people from the pagan nations could enter. Remembering that the new Temple represents the Christian people, we interpret the inner part which is to be measured, as the faithful Christians who come to be edified and perfected by the witnessing of the prophecy given to St. John.
In contrast, the outer part of the new Temple is to be rejected, because it was given to the nations which will also trample the Holy City for 42 months. In the biblical context, the word 'nations' recalls the hebrew word 'goyim' which signifies people who are idolatrous and immoral, and the Holy City always refers to historical Jerusalem. We therefore interpret the outer part of the new Temple as nominal Christians who allow themselves to be separated from the Faith, and become like the people who are idolatrous and immoral.
In metaphorical language, therefore, the instruction indicates that the witnessing of the prophecy given to St. John causes a disassociation between those Christians who receive it as a measure, or rule-of-faith, which leads to their perfection, and those Christians who love more the values of the world and so separate themselves from the Faith. The instruction alludes to a great apostasy from the Christian Faith, following which Jerusalem falls into the hands of idolatrous and immoral people for 42 months, and so becomes a city of the same character.
At this point we find references to the two specific periods of time that link the two parts of the 'overlapping section' and impose a very precise temporal structure to this section. Before examining this structure, however, we must first see what happens in these two periods.
The period of 1,260 days is characterized by the public ministry of two witnesses or prophets of the Lord. In fact, since this is the first event described in the prophecy given to St. John in order to measure the new Temple of God, it is clear that the ministry of the two witnesses not only 'actualizes' the prophecy but, by bearing witness to it, also brings to fulfilment the instruction given to St. John.
Like Jonah, the two witnesses are a sign of the need to repent (cf. Luke 11,29-32); like Moses and Elijah they bring plagues. In order that this feature of the text does not scandalize the faithful, we will try to explain why the two witnesses have the power to bring plagues.
In the first place, the text does not say that all the witnesses of the Lord will have the power to bring plagues, but only these two. We believe, in fact, that during the prophetic ministry of the two witnesses the miracles of compassion which have always accompanied the mission of the Church will flourish.
In the second place, the powers given to the two witnesses are very similar to those given to Moses and Elijah, and strongly recall the situations in which these two prophets of the Old Testament were involved. Moses and Elijah brought plagues in order to demonstrate the power of God and communicate his will to people and to societies that did not want either to believe or to listen. We find the same type of situation in a society like ours, in which the people who refuse the Gospel are no less hard than the adversaries of Moses and Elijah, and for this reason they need a demonstration of the same severity in order to recall them to repentance. At this point, I always remember a saying of the Blessed P. Pio: "For those who need apurgative, a little sweet is of no use". The severity of the prophetic ministry of the two witnesses is therefore a sign of the gravity and urgency of their call to repentance. The precise context which determines the gravity and urgency of their mission is the imminent manifestation of the 'beast', about whom we will speak shortly.
The mission of the two witnesses takes them to prophesy in the city 'where their Lord was crucified', and there in Jerusalem they give their witness to the Jews who, not believing in Jesus or in John the Baptist, are still awaiting their 'Messiah' and his forerunner. In fact, since the Messiah that they are waiting for should be like Moses, and his forerunner like Elijah, we can infer that the severe powers given to the two witnesses have the specific purpose of recalling the Jewish people to the Lord.
At the end of the period of 1,260 days, the two witnesses are put to death in Jerusalem by the 'beast which comes up from the abyss':
It is clear that this 'beast' is a confirmed enemy of the Faith witnessed by the two prophets, and we propose that he makes a scene of their death in an attempt to discredit not only the Apocalypse, which asserts that they will resurrect, but also the Christian Faith in the Resurrection of Jesus to which their resurrection is a witness. Since those who do not believe in the Resurrection maintain that the disciples removed the body of Jesus from the tomb after three days (Matt 28,11-15), the 'beast' leaves the corpses of the two witnesses, under guard, in the sight of the public for three and a half days, half a day more in order to be sure that they do not resurrect:
Their resurrection witnesses to the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and precipates the conversion of many Jews, so realizing St. Paul's hope for the salvation of his people at the end of history:
In spite of all this, the 'beast' does not by any means return to the abyss. After having openly revealed his antichristian character, he dedicates himself to exercising his power in the world, as described in chapters 13 and 17 of the Apocalypse. However, before considering this information on the 'beast' and his reign, we ought to say that in the language of the Apocalypse the 'abyss', the 'sea' and the 'waters' are all synonymous terms, whose meaning is explained to St. John by an angel as follows: "the waters which you saw...are races and crowds and nations and tongues" (Rev 17,15). For St. Augustine also, the abyss represents "the incalculable number of the irreligious, because their heart is an abyss of wickedness against the Church of God" (The City of God, 20,7.3).
At present concealed under the surface of the waters of the abyss, the 'beast' arises from this human sea and reveals himself when he puts the two witnesses to death. At this point, and not before, it will be possible to identify the 'beast' with certainty, by means of the details described in the Apocalypse.
The beast is described as a monster which embodies the power of the devil and is formed from parts of all four of the 'beasts' revealed in a vision to the prophet Daniel (Dan 7,2-8). Just as these represented four successive powers or kingdoms in the ancient world, so the 'beast' described in the Apocalypse represents a power in the contemporary world which reflects elements of all these ancients kingdoms.
The full manifestation of this power is identified in a special way with the last of its seven heads, which represent seven heads of state. After being mortally wounded (Rev 13,3), this leader survives, allies himself with ten other leaders (represented by the ten horns of the beast) and becomes a leader of international fame; it is in this role that he is called the 'eighth' head (17,11). The following passage indicates that there is an invincible military force under his command: "And all the earth followed the beast with wonder, and they worshipped the dragon because he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshipped the beast saying: Who is like the beast and who can make war with him?" (Rev 13,3-4).
We are struck not only by the power of this leader but also by his immense popularity, and by the extent to which he is acknowledged and adored by people of the world. In fact, the exclamation 'Who is like the beast', imitates the way in which God is praised in the Psalms (Ps 113,5; 89,7.9; 86,8; 35,10; Ex 15,11). However, in contrast to the worship of God, the adoration of this leader is not totally spontaneous, but is wickedly promoted by a second 'beast',
a man called the 'false prophet' in other parts of the text (Rev 19,20; 20,10).
With a combination of deceit and coercion, this false prophet manages to bring many people to regard the 'leader' as God. Those who do not worship the speaking image of this leader (these days a televised image comes to mind) are liable to the death penalty; those who refuse to identfy themselves with him by receiving his mark, are prohibited from buying and selling (13,13-17).
With these details of the kingdom of the beast we should be able to recognize its pseudo-messianic character, and so identify the 'eighth head' of the beast as the false messiah known as the 'Antichrist' in the Christian tradition: "And all the inhabitants of the earth will worship him, everyone whose name is not written in the scroll of Life from the foundation of the world, of the
Lamb that was slain" (Rev 13,8).
What will happen, then, to those who refuse to worship the 'beast' because their names are recorded in the scroll of Life, which belongs to the Lamb that was slain? As the ripe grain at the time of the harvest, these are harvested by the One who is coming on the clouds (14,14-16) and prepare themselves to be received into the heavenly Tent after passing through a great tribulation: during the brief reign of the 'beast', they are persecuted, killed and "numbered among the wicked" like their Lord (cf. Luke 22,37), in what the Catechism calls "the final Easter when the Church will follow its Lord in his death and Resurrection" (C.C.C. 677). At the end of this great tribulation, St. John saw an immense multitude of martyrs in the heavenly Sanctuary celebrating the salvation of God in a way which recalls the ancient Hebrew feast of Tabernacles, a feast which takes place after the produce of the threshing floor and the wine press has been gathered in (Ex 23,16; Deut 16,13). Notice in passing how the allusion to the feast of Tabernacles indicates an analogy between the great tribulation and the threshing of the grain, and is consistant with the identification of the martyrs with the grain itself.
This vision of celebration in chapter 7 of the Apocalypse (Rev 7,9-17) is related to the vision of the 'conquerors of the beast', seen at the opening of the heavenly Sanctuary and described in chapter 15: "And I saw what was like a glassy sea mixed with fire and those who had conquered the beast and his image and the number of his name, standing on the glassy sea holding harps of God. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the
Lamb..." (Rev 15,2-3).
You may remember that at the culmination of the liturgy in the ancient Temple at Jerusalem, the offerings were thrown into the fire on the altar of holocausts and so 'presented' before God. In the heavenly liturgy described in the Apocalypse, however, the situation is reversed and the fire of heaven is thrown on to the earth in order to kindle the offerings (8,5). The end-result of this action is what we see in this vision: the martyrs standing before the throne
of God on the glassy sea mixed with fire, like the offerings of the ancient liturgy 'presented before God' on the altar of holocausts.
We are therefore at the culmination of the heavenly liturgy, the moment when, apart from the multitude of martyrs before the throne, St. John sees the opening of the heavenly Sanctuary, the consignment of the libation bowls full of the anger of God, and the filling of the Sanctuary with the Glory and the Power of the Lord. The significance of this last sign can be inferred from
two important events in the history of the ancient cult of Israel; Moses had just finished the Tent which he was asked to build, when the Lord consecrated it (Ex 29,43-45) in a very similar way:
The same sign appeared also at the completion of the Temple built by King Solomon (I Kgs 8,10-13).
In the context of the heavenly liturgy, therefore, this sign indicates the completion and consecration of the new Temple of God, in whose construction St. John has been participating with the prophecy given to him as a measuring-rod. Since the new Temple is in fact the Church, this sign indicates the moment when our Church will have reached her perfection, and will be celebrating her total consecration to God at the end of time.
At the same time as this celebration is taking place in heaven, the outpouring of the bowls full of the anger of God brings the reign of the 'beast' to an end, but before speaking of this I would like to return to this reign and read from the text how the 'beast' and his allies do something which is actually willed by God: "And the ten horns that you saw and the beast, these will hate the prostitute and will leave her desolate and naked, and will eat her flesh and will
consume her with fire, for God put it into their hearts to serve his purpose and to be of one mind, and to give their kingdom to the beast until the words of God shall be fulfilled" (Rev 17,15-18).
Further on in the text (18,8) we read that God himself had condemned the prostitute, Babylon, and had ordered her destruction because her sins had reached heaven. First among these sins is her unbridled desire for riches and luxury, and it is this sin which unites her with the leaders and magnates of the earth. Owing to her enormous influence in society, all mankind follow her in her desire for riches and luxury, and so it is her fault that the whole earth becomes
corrupted in this way. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is a vast and joyful celebration in heaven following the destruction of this great prostitute (18,20; 19,1-3).
The kingdom of the beast is brought to an end by means of the plagues caused by the outpouring of the bowls filled with the anger of God, in the hour of his judgement. Those who identified themselves with the 'beast' by worshipping his image or accepting the mark of his name, will experience a terrible test at this time, which we mentioned in the last talk. The text describes this test, saying that these people will drink "the wine of the passion of God, poured without being diluted into the cup of his anger" (Rev 14,10). We can trace the origin of this wine to the eschatological grape-harvest of the earth (14,17-19) and to the treading of the grape by the Word of God (19,15). When the wicked are crushed by the truth of the Word of God, the anger they generate reaches heaven and is then returned to the earth in the hour of God's judgement, as the wine of his anger poured out of the seven bowls of libation (chs. 15-16). As a result, the wicked follow the 'beast ' in blaspheming God (13,5-6; 16,9-11), exposing themselves in this way to eternal condemnation (14,10-11).
At this point, I would like to remind you of a prophecy of St. Paul, in which the coming of the 'beast', whom St. Paul calls the 'man of iniquity', is explained as a judgement for those who have not received the love of the truth in order to be saved. Reading this passage of St. Paul, we will also be able to note the points of contact between his prophecy and that of the Apocalypse:
Returning to the Apocalypse, we can read of the circumstances in which the Lord Jesus will destroy the 'man of iniquity' with the breath of his mouth: the series of plagues caused by the outpouring of the seven bowls leads finally to the Battle of the Great Day of God, in a place called 'Harmagedon' - from two Hebrew words that mean 'mountain of Megiddo' (Rev 16,16). Megiddo refers to the great plain in Northern Israel, famous as a battlefield in Old Testament times, and the mountain which dominates this plain is Mount Carmel. Just here, in the same place as the Lord overcame false religion in the days of Elijah (1 Kgs 18,20-40), the Lord manifests himself in order to defeat the beast, the false prophet and all the armies gathered by them in this place (Rev 19,11-21).
According to the text, the reign of the beast lasts only 42 months (13,5), the same period in fact in which Jerusalem is trodden by the 'nations' (11,2). In this period Jerusalem is no longer referred to as the Holy City, but like Babylon it is known as the Great City; its spiritual name is not 'Zion', but 'Sodom and Egypt' (11,8). We have already seen that it is here in Jerusalem that the 'beast' starts his international reign with the killing of the two witnesses of the Lord (11,7).
The fact that the 'beast' arises from the abyss at the end of the period of 1,260 days, during which the two witnesses are active, and then begins his reign of 42 months, indicates the temporal structure of the prophecy in the 'overlapping section': the two periods of time are consecutive, first the period of 1,260 days then that of 42 months, and represent a total period of 7 years proceeding the sound of the seventh trumpet at the end of time (11,15).
In the Old Testament , the prophet Daniel also prophesied a final period of 7 years in his prophecy of the 70 weeks (Dn 9,24-27). In this prophecy, a period of 70 weeks of years (i.e., 490 years) is described, which precede the end of time and in which the last week (i.e., 7 years) is characterized by the alliance between a tyrant and many people. The second half of this last week of years (i.e., the final three years and a half) is described by the prophet in various ways:
1) a half-week or 1,290 days (Dn 12,11) which begin with the erection of the 'abomination of desolation' - a term which refers to a false object of worship erected in a part of the ancient Temple;
The details of this prophecy help us to understand better the part of the Apocalypse in which we find an analogous period of time, with analogous events. In particular, the last half of the 7 years prophesied by Daniel and all its principal events correspond closely to the period of 42 months described in the Apocalypse. In the prophecy of Daniel, the tyrant identified with the little horn of the fourth beast and the abomination set up by him, correspond, in the prophecy of the Apocalypse, to the leader identified with the eighth head of the 'beast' and to the sophisticated image of himself through which he is worshipped.
2) 'a time, two times and half a time', when the saints of the Most High will be oppressed and persecuted by the tyrant, who is identified with the little horn of the fourth 'beast' seen by Daniel (Dn 7,23-25; 12,7).
So we find in the Apocalypse a representation of the last week of years prophesied in the Book of Daniel. This correspondence between the Apocalypse and the prophecy of Daniel constitutes an fundamental point of contact between the Apocalypse and the eschatological prophecies presented in the Synoptic Gospels, since these are also based on the same prophecy of Daniel. Given that they are all concerned with the same eschatological events, much of what we have said about the reign of the 'beast' in the Apocalypse, is described in other words in the 'eschatological discourse' reported in the Gospels of St. Mark and St. Matthew:
The reference to the period of 'a time, two times and half-a-time' in the prophecy of Daniel, brings us finally to a most important aspect of the prophecy of the Apocalypse which we have not yet examined; in chapter 12 we read: "And the two wings of the great eagle were given to the woman to fly to the desert, to her place, where she is nourished for a time and times and half-a-time away from the face of the serpent" (Rev 12,14). We have just seen how this enigmatic period of three times and a half (i.e., three years and a half) corresponds precisely to the period of 42 months during which the beast is allowed to reign.
In chapter 12 it is also stated that: "the woman fled into the desert, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there they might nourish her for one thousand two hundred and sixty days" (12,6). This period, on the other hand, corresponds to the 1,260 days in which the two witnesses prophesy, which immediately precedes the period of 42 months. Interpreting both these statements together, it is implied that the woman flees to the desert and remains there for the entire final period of 7 years, which is composed of the two shorter, consecutive periods.
But who is this 'woman' who is described in chapter 12, and flees to the desert like the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt? This is one of the most mysterious parts in the whole of the Apocalypse, perhaps because it concerns a mystical phenomenon. We must go back and read from the beginning of chapter 12: "And a great sign was seen in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun and the moon beneath her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars, and she is pregnant and cries out with the pains of labour and the distress of giving birth. And another sign was seen in heaven and behold, a great fiery-red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and with seven diadems on its heads, and his tail drags a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth. And she gave birth to a son, a male, who is to shepherd all the nations with a rod of iron. And her child was caught up to God and to his throne" (Rev 12,1-5).
Once the male child who shepherds all the nations from the throne of God is identified with the Messiah (cf. Ps 2), it follows that the woman who gives birth to him represents the community from whom the Messiah was to come. It is a fact that this community is called 'Zion' in the Old Testament, but it is also true that 'Zion' is personified in a particular way by the Blessed Virgin Mary. The problem with the interpretation of this vision relates to the apparition
of the two signs in heaven; what do they mean, who sees them and what happens next?
The signs summarize the entire mystery of Jesus Christ, representing it symbolically by the rapid passage from his birth to his Ascension into heaven, followed by the defeat of the devil. The remaining part of the vision describes what will happen after these signs are seen in heaven. The seeing of signs in heaven suggests a mystical experience with a visionary character, a kind of divine revelation. Those who see the first sign experience a revelation of Jesus Christ from the innermost part of their soul, just as in the vision the male child is born from the woman clothed with the sun. Those who see the sign and experience the revelation therefore come to identify themselves mystically with this woman, 'Zion', and like 'Zion' in the vision they flee to the desert for the period of 1,260 days and then for 'a time, times and half a time', which is to say for the entire final period of 7 years.
We know that those who see the signs and identify themselves with 'Zion' in this mystical way form the group of 144,000 men, on account of the fact that later in the vision St. John sees these men on the mountain called by the same name: "And I looked and behold, the Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand having his name and the Name of his Father written on their foreheads. And I heard a sound from heaven like the sound of many waters, and like the sound of loud thunder, and the sound which I heard was like harpists playing their harps. And they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders, and no one was able to learn the song except the hundred and forty-four thousand, those that were bought from the earth. These are the ones who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins; these follow the Lamb wherever he may go. These were bought from among men, first-fruits to God and to the Lamb, and no lie was found in their mouth; they are immaculate" (Rev 14,1-5).
It is not possible to interpret this vision fully without referring to the vision of the opening of the heavenly Sanctuary in chapter 15, in which the musicians who sing the new song are identified with the multitude of martyrs standing on the glassy sea mixed with fire, within the heavenly Sanctuary. Since the martyrs are all inside the heavenly Sanctuary, it is clear that this vision of Mt. Zion describes the proximity of the heavenly Sanctuary to the assembly of the 144,000 men, in such a way that together they represent the new Temple of God. Since the opening of the heavenly Sanctuary indicates the revelation of the throne and the Parousia of the Lord, we also know that this vision concerns the new Temple in its final form, just before its consecration with the smoke of the Glory and the Power of the Lord (15,8).
So the flight of the 144,000 men to the place prepared by God in the desert, for the last 7 years of history, is by no means an evasion of responsibility, but rather an essential part in the preparation of the new Temple, that is to say the Church, for her total consecration to God at the end of time.
We should not doubt the material existence of the 144,000 men, despite their uncommon and immaculate moral quality. We can be sure of this because the text states that they are the only ones who can learn the new song, and only those souls which are united to flesh and blood have the need and the faculty to learn. The preparation of the 144,000 men for their mission in the desert, after being shown the signs in heaven, is described in chapter 7 as another kind of mystical experience, one in which they are sealed on their foreheads with the seal of the living God (7,2-8). It is interesting to note, in fact, that the sealing of the 144,000 and the revelation granted to them, correspond respectively to the fifth and sixth 'mansions' described by St. Teresa of Avila in her book 'Interior Castle'.
The precise location of the place called Mt. Zion, where the 144,000 assemble, is not stated openly in the text, but we have already noted that it coincides with the place in the desert which has been prepared by God for the 'woman'. From the text, all we know is that this mountain in the desert is not in any way related to contemporary Jerusalem, because in those days Jerusalem is no longer spiritually called 'Zion', but 'Sodom and Egypt' (11,8).
Further on in the text we find another two references to the place where the 144,000 assemble. Since 'Zion' in the Old Testament is the City which God loves (Ps 87,1-3) we can identify the assembly of the 144,000 on Mt. Zion with the 'camp of the saints and the beloved City', which is surrounded by the hostile forces of 'Gog and Magog' in the last phase of the final Battle (Rev 20,7-10). As confirmation of the fact that the Lord fights in favour of the 144,000, divine fire descends from heaven and defeats their enemies.
After the vision of the final Judgement, St. John was transported 'in spirit' on to a great and high mountain, from which he saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, descending from heaven (21,10). Given that, in the Old Testament, the great and high mountain refers to Mt. Zion (Is 2,2-3; Ezek 40,2), we can conclude that within sight of the mountain where the 144,000 have their camp, the Holy City will be established - the place where God will dwell among men.
The prophecy which we have just outlined speaks about two witnesses with similar powers to those as Moses and Elijah, and about a leader who rules a great part of the world, persecutes those who do not want to worship him and destroys a city called Babylon; it also speaks about a certain number of men who flee to the desert whilst these things are happening in the world, and remain there to establish the new Jerusalem on the earth. The life these days goes to extremes, but perhaps you find it difficult to believe that such things can really happen. We would therefore like to finish with the identification of a sign of our times which may help us to believe.
There has been a great deal of speculation about the identity of the 'beast', or Antichrist, and of his false prophet. In the text, however, there are clear indications that these two leaders are specifically linked to the land of Israel:
1) The 'beast' begins his reign after killing the two witnesses in Jerusalem, which inherits the title 'Great City' from Babylon (Rev 11,8). As with Babylon (cf. ch. 17), this title implies that the 'beast' develops an intimate relationship with Jerusalem.
It is significant therefore that, in the land of Israel, up to this day, the Orthodox Jews are still awaiting the appearance of two figures whom Christians identify with John the Baptist and Jesus Christ: they expect a prophet who fulfils the announcement of the return of Elijah (Mal 3,23), and also a powerful leader who fulfils the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. In fact, according to the norms of Judaism (the 'Halakah'), this leader should be a Jew who forces the enemies of his people to submit, reconstructs the Temple in its original place, and rectifies the nations of the world by eliminating the wicked from among them. The reign of the leader who tries to perform these duties literally, would indeed correspond closely to the reign of the 'beast' described in the Apocalypse.
2) The false prophet performs great signs, and can even make fire fall from heaven on to the earth in front of men (13,13). Firstly, since this sign recalls the divine power given to the prophet Elijah (2 Kgs 1,9-14; 1 Kgs 18,30-40), the imitation of this sign by the false prophet suggests that he wishes to identify himself with Elijah. Secondly, in the history of the ancient sacrificial cult, this sign frequently appeared at the consecration of a new altar, indicating divine approval (cf. Lev 9,24; 1 Chr 21,26; 2 Chr 7,1). Its imitation by the false prophet therefore implies his participation in the reestablishment of the ancient cult, a development which would involve the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and its consecration in this impressive but unauthentic way.
3) The reign of the 'beast' finishes at a Battle which takes place around the 'mountain of Meghiddo' ('Harmagedon': Rev 16,16) which, as we have seen, corresponds to a real place in Northern Israel.
Furthermore, it is expected that this leader of the Jewish people will punish 'Edom', which is identified with Rome in the Jewish tradition, and we suppose that he has to do this in revenge for the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem in 70 AD. Such an action, however, would further identify this leader with the 'beast', since it is written in the Apocalypse that the 'beast' and his allies destroy a city called Babylon, which is indeed identified with Rome in the Christian tradition (1 Pet 5,13; Rev 17,9).
However, the fact that Babylon is described in the Apocalypse as a prostitute implies that this power, which has a kingdom over the rulers of the earth (17,18), should not be identified precisely with the City of Rome. In the language of the Old Testament, prostitution is a metaphor which refers to the idolatry of the people of Israel, representing it as the height of infidelity to their Covenant with God (Deut 31,16; Is 1,21; Jer 3,1-10.20; Ezek l6,13-34; 23,1-21; Hos 2,4-7). As a great prostitute, then, Babylon can not be identified with a secular or pagan power, such as that of imperial Rome, but rather with a religious power that has been unfaithful in its relationship to God, because of its idolatrous love of riches and luxury (cf. Matt 6,24).
There is even an indication in the text as to the specific religious character of this power: it is written that Babylon is "drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus" (Rev 17,6). Since the saints generally die a natural death, and are not killed for witnessing their faith like the martyrs, this statement does not mean that Babylon is guilty of shedding the blood of the saints and martyrs of Jesus, as alleged by so many biblical scholars. Neither is there any indication elsewhere in the text that Babylon persecutes or kills the people of God. To be 'drunk' with their blood implies that Babylon appropriates the glory and merit of the saints and martyrs, and exalts herself. This self-exaltation, or spiritual pride, causes her to act in an irresponsible and disordered way, like a woman who is drunk.
Moreover, knowing that the irresponsible and disordered way in which Babylon acts is described as 'prostitution', it is not difficult to recognize her state of 'drunkenness' as the necessary condition for her 'prostitution'. In other words, considering the merits of the saints and martyrs as her own (being 'drunk' with their blood), Babylon succeeds in satisfying her lust for riches and luxury (her passion for 'prostitution'). In summary, Babylon 'glorifies herself and lives luxuriously' (Rev 18,7) by exploiting the merits of the saints and martyrs of Jesus. Allying herself in this way with the saints and the martyrs of Jesus, the religious power that is called Babylon in the Apocalypse can not be anything else but Christian.
Defined as a Christian power with 'a kingdom over the rulers of the earth' (Rev 17,18), and having its base in a city identified as Rome (Rev 17,9), it is difficult to escape the identification of Babylon with the administrative centre of the Catholic Church, or more specifically with the place that is presently called Vatican City.
In his letter about the preparations for the grand Jubilee in the year 2000, His Holiness Pope John Paul II writes: "Whilst the second millennium of Christianity is coming to a close, it is right that the Church assumes responsibility for the sins of her children with greater awareness, remembering all those circumstances in which, during the course of history, they have distanced themselves from the Spirit of Christ and from his Gospel, offering to the worldinstead of the testimony of a life inspired by the values of the Faiththe spectacle of ways of thinking and acting which were really forms of anti-testimony and of scandal" (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 33; our translation).
We trust that the attitude proposed by His Holiness in this document will prepare us to accept the identification of Babylon with the City of the Vatican, which not only answers to the description of the prostitute presented in the Apocalypse but also continues to witness to the Church's love of riches and luxury during the course of history.
However, after confronting this disturbing theme, we should note with great relief that following the destruction of Babylon there is no mourning for the loss of human life, but only for the loss of trade and precious articles (Rev 18,9-20). Nobody dies during the destruction of that place since the Church, having repented from her sin, abandons the prostitute shortly before she is destroyed, at the moment in which the Lord says: "Come out of her my people" (Rev 18,4). It seems that all those who find themselves inside that city in those days carry out this order of the Lord and leave, for the simple fact that all of them are his people.
It only remains to say that, right now, amongst the Jewish people a vigorous messianic movement is currently being conducted by several Orthodox organizations in Israel and in other parts of the world. The information which we have mentioned about the messianic expectation of the Orthodox Judaism is, in fact, supplied by the Lubavitch or Chabad organization ('The Days of Moshiach, the redemption and coming of Moshiach in Jewish sources'. Rabbi Menachem Brod, 1993). Its leaders have launched a campaign to prepare the Jewish people for the imminent coming of their 'Messiah' because they see anticipatory signs of this event in recent developments: the foundation of the State of Israel, the return of the Jews to their homeland - even from Russia, the changes in the world towards global peace and the favour shown to the Jews in recent times.
For the Christians, however, the second coming of Jesus Christ does not by any means imply that he is going to reincarnate himself or be born again. For this reason, no leader on earth could be accepted as 'Messiah' by Christians who maintain their Faith in Jesus. In fact, any leader who claims to be the Messiah of God, is not only false, but is the incarnation of that antichristian spirit which denies that Jesus is the Messiah.
The Apocalypse warns us to use intelligence in order to identify this pseudo-messianic reign (13,18) and encourages us not to resist it with violence or with hate, but with our Faith in Jesus Christ, even though it brings great tribulation to Christians and to all those who refuse to worship the image of the 'beast', or receive the mark of his name. "Here is the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and Faith in Jesus" (Rev 14,12).