Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Book of Revelation: from dreamscape to reality

Read Revelation 1:9-19

For many of us, the book of Revelation is the most mysterious book in the Bible. Full of strange symbols, fantastic imagery, scary scenes and exuberant poetry, it seems to describe the future. Yet, in reality, it addresses the present time of its author.

It belongs to a literary style called apocalyptic, which itself means “lifing the veil.” The veil represents everything that hinders our understanding of the deep meaning of what is going on around us. Apocalyptic literature implies that we are blind to this meaning, and we need help to see clearly. This is exactly what John, the author of this book, proposes to do. Yet, he does so in a very peculiar way, not with clear explanations and reasoned arguments, but with images taken from the world of dreams and nightmares.

This was not so strange for readers in the first century, the time when it was written. This literary genre, this style of writing was quite popular at the time. Many authors used it to pass on their teachings. But for us, used as we are to the direct language of newspaper reporting and the methods of history and philosophy, this language is not at all familiar.

Actually, one of the temptations we must overcome is to read this imagery as if it were a newspaper report or a history textbook. The challenge for us is to understand the symbolic language used by the author. Taking up this challenge of reading and interpreting will help us understand the author’s intent and receive the message of hope and courage he wanted to share in a time of distress and persecution.

The very first verses of this book present us with the central figure of the text: the risen Christ who reigns over the universe, even if his reign is hidden at this time. John wants to help us see that, contrary to all appearances, Christ is indeed the master of history.

The author sees Christ in a dream. And as in all dreams, images are both striking and unfocused. Christ wears a tunic, like a priest in a liturgy. His belt is golden, the colour of royalty. He shines forth with light, just as he did at his Transfiguration. His feet are of precious bronze, like those of a solid, unmoveable statue. His voice is immense, a sign of his power. He holds seven stars in his hand, symbols of the seven churches that are to receive this text. A two-edged sword comes out of his mouth, representing his word that cuts to the heart of all thoughts to reveal what is truth and what is falsehood.

He declares: “I am the alpha and the omega,” the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. He is the beginning and end of all things: of the world’s history, and of each of our personal histories. Everything else John will write will help us understand how the risen Christ truly is the Lord who is present in the midst of the world and journeys with us towards our own resurrection. This is truly a message of hope for a desperate world. In the coming weeks, we will continue decoding this fascinating, beautiful book. 

1 comment:

  1. Apocalyptic symbolism often does include a future hope in God's triumph; the context in Jewish apocalypses was commonly one of (national) distress and persecution. In this apocalypse, Christ reveals himself through John especially to the seven churches (the seven lampstands of 1:12-13); and it turns out most of the churches are not suffering distress or persecution. Instead, they are too comfortable with false prophets and messiahs, and Jesus' two-edged sword (the word of God, the Spirit of prophecy) penetrates the falsehood here and calls for repentance (in five of the seven churches); in the last church, Jesus is knocking at the door of the church asking them to let him in. Thus the focus here is more on warning churches so that they will be part of the risen Christ's kingdom--both now and in the end.