Thursday, November 22, 2012

Deciphering the Book of Revelation

Read Revelation 1:5-8

The last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, is intriguing because of its imagery and use of symbols, dreams, numbers and mysterious characters. For two millennia, readers have tried to decipher clues to the future in this book, especially regarding the end times. Contemporary Catholic theology, however, focuses on the meaning of this text for its first readers, at the end of the first century. These early Christians were experiencing intense persecution under the Roman Empire and were tempted to abandon their new found faith in Jesus Christ in order to save their lives. The author of the Book of Revelation invites them to be faithful, even unto death.

The first verses we read this Sunday should be understood in that light. First, the author gives three titles to Jesus. He is called “the faithful witness”, since Jesus was indeed faithful to the end. His disciples must learn to imitate his fidelity on the Cross. The author also calls Jesus the “firstborn from the dead”. Because of his resurrection, Jesus who was dead is now alive. Calling him “the first-born”, implies that those who die with Jesus will live with him beyond death. Finally, Jesus receives the title “king of the kings of the earth”. Early Christians were persecuted by the Roman emperor who claimed to be the sovereign of the earth. The Book of Revelation dares to proclaim Jesus’ sovereignty even over the Roman emperor. Christ's power exceeds that of Nero. Christians are called, therefore, to trust in the ultimate victory of Christ.

The text continues by recalling what Jesus has done for us. In delivering us from our sin, he makes of us “a kingdom and priests for his God and Father”. Nero claimed to be both king and high priest of his empire. But in Jesus, all believers are priests and kings. They share the kingship of Christ and participate in his ministry of reconciliation. Nero’s titles should have no value in the eyes of believers.

Finally, the author proclaims the coming of Christ in glory. He will come “from the clouds” – a sign of his true divinity over and against the false gods that the Roman emperor worshipped. When he comes, “all men will see... and all the tribes of the earth mourn”, because they will finally understand that they had rejected the true God of the universe.

All this leads to the conclusion, placed in the mouth of the risen Christ appearing in a dream: “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, omega is the last. This means that Christ embraces all reality: he is the master of the whole story from the beginning to the end.

The Book of Revelation does not “reveal” hidden information about the end of time, but rather the meaning of the present moment. It nourishes the great hope that abides in the Christian heart. Tortured in Roman prisons, mangled by lions in arenas, crucified by the dozen along open roads, the first Christians gave up their lives in the hands of Jesus because they truly believed he had opened the path to true glory. Two thousand years later, this message of hope continues to resonate in our ears and in our hearts.