Fr Adiran Graffy, editor of the Take and Read series, introduces a new volume on the Apocalypse.
There are few biblical books which are more challenging than the Apocalypse. It is not an easy read. Also known as the Book of Revelation, it is the final book of the Bible. Difficult and confusing though it is, it has an important place in the biblical record. And it figures in our lectionary both at Easter, and during the last weeks of the liturgical year. The Apocalypse was written in a time of persecution, of state oppression and ideologies in which power and violence reigned. Our present day has many similar features, which gives the Apocalypse an extraordinary relevance.
The Apocalypse of John builds on a tradition first found in the later books of the Old Testament. An apocalypse is literally a ‘revelation’, or an ‘unveiling’. A visionary speaks of what he has seen and understood from God about the future and the end of time. The most significant pieces of apocalyptic writing in the Old Testament are the later chapters of the Book of Daniel. The visions speak of coming trials, but also of final victory. God will reward those who remain faithful.
The Apocalypse of John, the Book of Revelation, is much more extensive and brings a new perspective. What role does Christ play in the events of the end? This is a central question answered in the Apocalypse.
The Apocalypse is attributed to a man named John, though scholars remain divided on the precise identity of the writer. He presents himself as being exiled to the island of Patmos, and it is there that he receives his extraordinary visions.
In his initial vision John sees the risen Christ, who addresses him as follows: ‘Do not be afraid; it is I, the First and the Last; I am the Living One, I was dead, and now I am to live for ever and ever.’ (1:17-18) The central New Testament message of Christ’s resurrection rings out in this opening vision.
John is inspired to write seven letters to seven churches, known as the seven churches of Asia. They are located in ancient Asia Minor, what is western Turkey today. Chief among these cities is Ephesus. Christians in the various locations are praised but also criticised. Above all they are encouraged to remain faithful amid trials.
Once the letters are completed we enter more deeply into a strange world of visions. At the heart of these comes Christ the Lamb, who is central to the unfolding of God’s plan for the history of salvation. Before God’s ultimate plan is achieved there are times of trial and persecution. The reader hears the visionary speak of the seven seals, which are broken by the Lamb, and the seven trumpets which are blown heralding new stages of the end times; three signs follow; and finally the New Jerusalem, the city of God, descends from God to become the place where God dwells among his people.
Some years ago Alive Publishing brought out the first volumes of the Take and Read series: a box set of the four gospels produced by Dom Henry Wansbrough, Fr Adrian Graffy, Dr Ian Boxall, and Fr John Henry. In the following years volumes on the Acts of the Apostles and St Paul’s Letter to the Romans appeared. Now it is the turn of The Apocalypse.
Ian Boxall, author of this volume, is a real expert on the book. After extensive teaching experience in this country he now teaches at the Catholic University of America. It would be difficult to find a more experienced and competent guide. He has taught and written extensively on the Apocalypse, so that he is well able to produce an introductory volume, which helps people face the complexities of the book in a gentle way.
Take and Read: The Apocalypse is in the same style as the previous volumes. Twelve passages are selected which take the reader through the book. Each section gives the text, followed by a commentary, and enriched with quotations from Church fathers and the teaching of the Church, as well as pictures and paintings. Each section ends with points for reflection and prayer.
One of the really fascinating sections of the book considers chapter 12, which features the woman ‘clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’. Boxall points out that a battle between a pregnant woman and a dragon or other monster is ‘a common story to symbolise the struggle between order and chaos’. Such stories are found not only in the Bible but also in the mythologies of the nations around Israel and in the wider ancient world. The woman reflects Eve, the mother of all the living, but also Israel. She is also considered to reflect Mary, the mother of Christ and of the Church, whose children are reborn as children of God. Boxall describes how this vision has influenced statues and paintings of Our Lady, who is often shown trampling on a dragon or a snake, or clothed with the sun.
This section of Take and Read: The Apocalypse contains a quotation from the encyclical of Saint John Paul II on the Blessed Virgin Mary, entitled ‘Redemptoris Mater’: ‘The victory of the woman’s Son will not take place without a hard struggle, a struggle that is to extend through the whole of human history. The enmity foretold at the beginning is confirmed in the Apocalypse, the book of the final events of the Church and the world, in which there recurs the sign of the woman, this time clothed with the sun.’
A faith-filled reading of the Scriptures must include a reading of the Apocalypse, a crucial part of the biblical collection, which points as no other biblical book does to the final fulfilment of God’s plan. As the Church of the twenty-first century is once again the victim of persecution in so many lands, exposed to the violence of extremist groups and to the indifference and ridicule of secularism, the message of the Apocalypse continues to give Christians encouragement and hope. Christ Jesus is the Lamb, the ‘Living One’ who died and who lives for ever, and who awaits us in the heavenly Jerusalem.
‘The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in its place in the city; his servants will worship him, they will see him face to face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. It will never be night again and they will not need lamplight or sunlight, because the Lord God will be shining on them. They will reign for ever and ever.’ (22:3-5) The Apocalypse encourages Christ’s people to greater faith, hope and love in a world where suffering is all too common. It is essential reading. Take and Read: The Apocalypse will help you get started on this fascinating book.