Visions, vindication and victory: the strange world of the Apocalypse

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The Revelation to John, also known as the Apocalypse, contains seven letters, which make up the second and third chapters. However, it is not itself a letter, but the only New Testament book which as a whole is in the literary genre of apocalyptic. This is a type of literary description of visions that claim to unveil the meaning of history for those in the know.1 They often contain the metaphor of a journey through heavenly or spiritual realms with a guide. The vision at the heart of the Apocalypse is that the soft power of the Lamb’s self-sacrifice will be triumphant over the hard power of the mighty Roman empire. While readings from this book are used on a number of feast days,1 Revelation also provides the second reading for the Sundays of Easter in Year C. Its celebration of Christ’s triumph draws out a key aspect of the Easter gospel.

Readers are somewhat prone to introducing readings from this book wrongly. It is the Book of Revelation in the singular, not Revelations in the plural. The book itself claims to be the record of a single revelation, handed from God to Jesus and from Jesus via an angel to his servant John. There is only one secret to be unveiled: the triumph of God over evil through the cross of Christ.

Unfortunately, the obscurity and ambiguity of much of the language has made this a happy hunting ground for poets and revolutionaries, for heretics and lunatics alike. The most troubling ambiguity concerns its use of violence. Should we see the way in which the book portrays the “lion of the tribe of Judah” (Rev 5:5) as “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (Rev 5:6) as its core, subverting the idea that victory is gained by violence? Or should we be stirred by such visions as that of the Word of God, clothed in a robe dipped in blood, riding on a white horse (Rev 19: 11-13): “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty (Rev 19:15).” Christians have taken the book in both ways, and it has stirred both non-violent and violent resistance movements.

The four horsemen, by Viktor Mikhaylovich Vasnetsov. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps in recognition of its character as a disturbing book, one that nearly didn’t make it into the Bible, as well as one subject to multiple, and sometimes very strange interpretations, the lectionary takes only a select few readings from it.3 These tend to be the more straightforward passages, such as the opening ascription of praise to God, and pictures of worship in the heavenly throne room.4 Other readings come from the majestic closing chapters of the book, and the visions of a new heaven and a new earth, and the final triumph of God.5

There is only one reading from the stranger sections of Revelation used in both lectionaries, for the 15 August, in the Roman calendar the Assumption of Mary, and in the Anglican one a generic feast day of the Blessed Virgin.6 That passage is the sign of a woman in heaven, about to give birth to a child who will rule the nations.7 It is not surprising that traditional interpretation has applied that to Mary. But as in John’s gospel, there is probably more than one meaning. The evangelist never names Mary, but in her appearances at the beginning (John 2:1-11) at Cana, and the end (John 19:26-27) at the cross, she is simply described as Jesus’ mother.

It seems as if the lack of her name in the gospel is because John the evangelist also wants to use her as a symbol for Israel’s faithful remnant, from whom the Messiah came, who first trusted him, and who together with his new community of disciples, make up the church, the people of God. I suggest that something of the same symbolism is going on here in Revelation: the woman robed with the sun is both Mary, the mother of Jesus, but also the representative of the faithful remnant of Israel, on whose side (as in the book of Daniel) the archangel Michael fights the dragon.

That is, of course, why so many people either struggle with or thrill to the strange visions of the Apocalypse. So much of it is ambiguous, playing with multiple meanings. It wants to encourage the church with thoughts of the empire’s ultimate defeat, while encoding that message in sufficiently strange symbols that the Romans will fail to understand how subversive it is.

As readers today I suggest we should take our guide both from the caution with which the church accepted the book as scripture, and the carefully limited use the lectionary makes of it. There will always be those who will be misled into becoming anoraks obsessed with timetabling the end of the world (and inevitably getting it wrong). The Revelation to St John is simply too easy to misinterpret, and the core of our faith is expressed with much greater clarity in other scriptures, to which we should give the larger part of our attention.


Notes

  1. There is discussion of this also in the post on the main Old Testament example, Daniel.
  2. For example, All Saints’ Day, Michaelmas, Christ the King (Year B) and others.
  3. There are a few more in the Revised Common Lectionary than there are in the Roman Catholic one.
  4. Respectively Rev 1:4-8 for Easter 2 (and Christ the King), Rev 5:11-14 for Easter 3, and Rev 7:9-17 (or 7:9,14-17) for Easter 4
  5. Respectively Rev 21:1-6 for Easter 5 (and All Saints’), slightly varying selections in the different lectionaries from Rev 21 and 22 for Easter 6 (either 21:10, 22 – 22:5 or 21:10-14,22-23) and Rev 22:12-14,16-17,20 for Easter 7.
  6. Anglican diversity is such that some will pass the day over in silence, and others will mark it, like their Roman friends, with full panoply as the Assumption.
  7. The Roman reading is 11:19,12:1-6,10, the Anglican one the slightly longer 11:19–12.6,10.

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