Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pope Benedict's Explanation to Jimmy Akin on the Meaning of the Book of Revelation

One of the most difficult books to understand in the Bible is the book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse.
Here we offer an "interview" with Pope Benedict (taken from his writings) to learn from his wisdom on this book.


Your Holiness, the book of Revelation is often attributed to one of Jesus' first disciples: John, the son of Zebedee. He is also the traditional author of the Gospel of John and the three epistles of John. Interestingly, none of those works expressly say that they were written by a man named John, but Revelation does--four times! (1:1, 4, 9, 22:8). Was it written by this John--the son of Zebedee--or by another?
The Gospel never directly identifies [its author/the beloved disciple] by name. In connection with the calling of Peter, as well as of other disciples, it points toward John, the son of Zebedee, but it never explicitly identifies the two figures. The intention is evidently to leave the matter shrouded in mystery.
The Book of Revelation does, admittedly, specify John as its author (cf. Rev 1:1, 4), but despite the close connection between this book and the Gospel and Letters of John, it remains an open question whether the author is one and the same person.
It is obvious, on the one hand, that the author had no reason not to mention his own name, and on the other, that he knew his first readers would be able to precisely identify him.
We know, moreover, that in the third century, scholars were already disputing the true, factual identity of John of the "Apocalypse".
For the sake of convenience we could also call him "the Seer of Patmos" because he is linked to the name of this island in the Aegean See where, according to his own autobiographical account, he was, as it were, deported "on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus" (Rv 1: 9).


Many in our own day have seen the book of Revelation as a vision almost exclusively concerned with the future. How should we understand it?
The Book should be understood against the backdrop of the dramatic experiences of the seven Churches of Asia (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea) which had to face serious difficulties at the end of the first century - persecutions and also inner tensions--in their witness to Christ.
John addresses them, showing acute pastoral sensitivity to the persecuted Christians, whom he exhorts to be steadfast in the faith and not to identify with the pagan world.
His purpose is constituted once and for all by the revelation, starting with the death and Resurrection of Christ, of the meaning of human history.


There are many compelling images in the book of Revelation, but if you had to boil it down to just one, central symbol, what would it be?
The first and fundamental vision of John, in fact, concerns the figure of the Lamb who is slain yet standing (cf. Rv 5: 6), and is placed before the throne on which God himself is already seated.
By saying this, John wants first of all to tell us two things: the first is that although Jesus was killed with an act of violence, instead of falling heavily to the ground, he paradoxically stands very firmly on his own feet because, with the Resurrection, he overcame death once and for all.
The other thing is that Jesus himself, precisely because he died and was raised, henceforth fully shares in the kingship and saving power of the Father. This is the fundamental vision.
On this earth, Jesus, the Son of God, is a defenceless, wounded and dead Lamb. Yet he stands up straight, on his feet, before God's throne and shares in the divine power. He has the history of the world in his hands.
Thus, the Seer wants to tell us: trust in Jesus, do not be afraid of the opposing powers, of persecution! The wounded and dead Lamb is victorious!
Follow the Lamb Jesus, entrust yourselves to Jesus, take his path! Even if in this world he is only a Lamb who appears weak, it is he who triumphs!


One of the most mysterious images in the book is that of a scroll which the Lamb--Jesus--opens in heaven. How can we understand this image?
The subject of one of the most important visions of the Book of Revelation is this Lamb in the act of opening a scroll, previously closed with seven seals that no one had been able to break open.
John is even shown in tears, for he finds no one worthy of opening the scroll or reading it (cf. Rv 5: 4).
History remains indecipherable, incomprehensible. No one can read it. Perhaps John's weeping before the mystery of a history so obscure expresses the Asian Churches' dismay at God's silence in the face of the persecutions to which they were exposed at that time.
It is a dismay that can clearly mirror our consternation in the face of the serious difficulties, misunderstandings and hostility that the Church also suffers today in various parts of the world.
These are trials that the Church does not of course deserve, just as Jesus himself did not deserve his torture.
However, they reveal both the wickedness of man, when he abandons himself to the promptings of evil, and also the superior ordering of events on God's part.
Well then, only the sacrificed Lamb can open the sealed scroll and reveal its content, give meaning to this history that so often seems senseless.
He alone can draw from it instructions and teachings for the life of Christians, to whom his victory over death brings the message and guarantee of victory that they too will undoubtedly obtain.
The whole of the vividly imaginative language that John uses aims to offer this consolation.


Another compelling image is that of the Woman in chapter 12, who is clothed with the sun, who stands on the moon, and who has twelve stars as a crown on her head--imagery that is based on Joseph's dream in the Old Testament (Gen. 37:9-10). Many understand this Woman as Mary, but others see her as an image of the Church. What is the truth?
This Woman represents Mary, the Mother of the Redeemer, but at the same time she also represents the whole Church, the People of God of all times, the Church which in all ages, with great suffering, brings forth Christ ever anew. And she is always threatened by the dragon's power. She appears defenceless and weak.
But while she is threatened, persecuted by the dragon, she is also protected by God's comfort. And in the end this Woman wins. The dragon does not win.
This is the great prophecy of this Book that inspires confidence in us!
The Woman who suffers in history, the Church which is persecuted, appears in the end as the radiant Bride, the figure of the new Jerusalem where there will be no more mourning or weeping, an image of the world transformed, of the new world whose light is God himself, whose lamp is the Lamb.
In the vision of the Book of Revelation there is a further detail: upon the head of the woman clothed with the sun there is "a crown of twelve stars". This sign symbolizes the 12 tribes of Israel and means that the Virgin Mary is at the center of the People of God, of the entire communion of saints.
And thus this image of the crown of 12 stars ushers us into the second great interpretation of the heavenly portent of the "woman clothed with the sun": as well as representing Our Lady, this sign personifies the Church, the Christian community of all time.
She is with child, in the sense that she is carrying Christ in her womb and must give birth to him in the world.
This is the travail of the pilgrim Church on earth which, amidst the consolations of God and the persecution of the world, must bring Jesus to men and women.


After the woman gives birth, she is persecuted by the dragon. What does this mean?
This dragon sought in vain to devour Jesus--the "male child", destined to rule all the nations" (12:5)--because Jesus, through his death and resurrection, ascended to God and is seated on his throne.
Therefore the dragon, defeated once and for all in Heaven, directly attacks the woman--the Church--in the wilderness of the world.
However in every epoch the Church is sustained by the light and strength of God who nourishes her in the desert with the bread of his Word and of the Holy Eucharist.
And so it is that in every tribulation, in all the trials she meets over time and in the different parts of the world the Church suffers persecution but turns out to be victorious.
And in this very way the Christian community is her presence, the guarantee of God's love against all the ideologies of hatred and selfishness.


Many people feel frightened reading the book of Revelation. Should they be?
Although John's Book of Revelation is pervaded by continuous references to suffering, tribulation and tears--the dark face of history--it is likewise permeated by frequent songs of praise that symbolize, as it were, the luminous face of history.
So it is, for example, that we read in it of a great multitude that is singing, almost shouting: "Alleluia! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready" (Rv 19: 6-7).
Here we face the typical Christian paradox, according to which suffering is never seen as the last word but rather, as a transition towards happiness; indeed, suffering itself is already mysteriously mingled with the joy that flows from hope.
For this very reason John, the Seer of Patmos, can close his Book with a final aspiration, trembling with fearful expectation. He invokes the definitive coming of the Lord: "Come, Lord Jesus!" (Rv 22: 20).
This was one of the central prayers of the nascent Christianity, also translated by St Paul into its Aramaic form: "Marana tha". And this prayer, "Our Lord, come!" (I Cor 16: 22) has many dimensions.
It is, naturally, first and foremost an expectation of the definitive victory of the Lord, of the new Jerusalem, of the Lord who comes and transforms the world. But at the same time, it is also a Eucharistic prayer: "Come Jesus, now!". And Jesus comes; he anticipates his definitive coming.
So it is that we say joyfully at the same time: "Come now and come for ever!".
This prayer also has a third meaning: "You have already come, Lord! We are sure of your presence among us. It is our joyous experience. But come definitively!".
And thus, let us too pray with St Paul, with the Seer of Patmos, with the newborn Christianity: "Come, Jesus! Come and transform the world! Come today already and may peace triumph!". Amen!
Thank you, Your Holiness.
If you've found this interview helpful, don't forget to share it with friends so that they can benefit from it, too!

To learn more of Pope Benedict's wisdom, read the resources from which the above "interview" was taken:
Your pal,
Jimmy Akin, Secret Info Club Poobah

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