Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Apocalypse of St. John

Reading N°30 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

The island to which Domitian's tribunal banished the Apostle John was one of the Sporades in the Aegean Sea, the most arid and uncultivated of those islands mentioned by ancient Greek poets. A long volcanic mountain chain, its two parts connected by a narrow ridge, barely supported a few sorry orchards. The Apostle was probably obliged to labor in the mines. There it was that he learned, perhaps from some Christians who came from Miletus or Ephesus, which were only a few hours' sailing distance away, that in Asia, as at Rome, the Christians were being hunted out, despoiled, and put to death for their faith. There, too, he heard of the advance of another dread evil: heresy, which had so greatly disturbed St. Paul, was developing there in an alarming manner. The Apostle of the Gentiles had been much concerned about certain men of Asia who combined an excessive worship of the angelic powers with exaggerated painstaking in the matter of observances, feasts, abstinences, and practices of humiliation, thus lessening the part of the Savior in the work of salvation.[1] Not long before, in Galatia, the question was one of opposition between the Law and the Faith. But here we have to do with a new doctrine, cleverly arranged, with a tendency to corrupt the Christian religion in its very essence. Under the influence of certain men claiming connection with the deacon Nicolas, and calling themselves Nicolaites, the sect spread rapidly. Besides the strange mysteries of its doctrine, it possessed a particular character of immorality in its practices. St. Irenaeus speaks of the "unrestrained indulgence" which he noted among the Nicolaites,[2] and St. John remarks "the depths of Satan" that he observed therein.[3] The Apostle's presence in Ephesus had doubtless restrained them; his exile at Patmos seemed to leave them free rein.

"On the Lord's Day," i.e., a Sunday, while the soul of the exiled Apostle was afflicted at the thought of so many evils, he was taken up in spirit. He says:
I heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet saying: 'What thou seest, write in a book. [...]' And being turned, I saw [...] one like to the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the feet, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. [...] His voice as the sound of many waters. [...] His face was as the sun shineth in his power. And when I had seen him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying: 'Fear not. I am the first and the last, and alive, and was dead, and behold I am living for ever and ever and have the keys of death and of hell.'[4]
Revelations of this sort, "apocalypses" as they were called, were not rare at that period. Supernatural gifts or charisms were frequent in the early Church. Unfortunately, illusion and fraud were mingled in them. Thirty years earlier (AD 58), St. Paul had found so many prophets and prophetesses at Corinth that he felt the urgent need of regulating the manifestations of their noisy inspirations.[5]

The account of John's visions, written at Patmos,[6] or perhaps at Ephesus after his return from exile, was addressed directly to the seven Churches of proconsular Asia: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamus, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Indirectly it was destined for the whole Church. A preface, often given the title of "Letter to the Seven Churches," in a tone of authority that we can feel rests on a divine mission, assigns blame and praise to each of the Christian communities. The Church of Ephesus is relaxing from its first fervor;[7] the Christians of Laodicea are lukewarm;[8] those of Sardis are spiritually dead;[9] the communities of Pergamus and Thyatira allowed themselves to be partly seduced by the Nicolaites.[10] Only the Christians of Smyrna and Philadelphia receive nothing but praise, for having courageously suffered persecution from the enemies of the faith.[11]

After this preamble, there begins a series of visions; their strange character and seeming lack of order are at first disconcerting, but their power captivates. As Bossuet writes:
All the beauties of Holy Scripture are gathered together in this book. [...] Notwithstanding its depth, the reader feels so gentle an impression and so superb a harmony of God's majesty, that it is something to ravish heaven and earth. [...] In the Gospel we see Jesus Christ as man, talking with men, humble, poor, weak, and suffering. But the Apocalypse is the Gospel of the risen Christ: He there speaks and acts as a conqueror.[12]
The purpose of the book is to encourage the Christians to whom it is addressed, to show them that the triumph of the saints is assured, that the persecuting empire will be laid low, that upon its ruins will rise up a new and glorious Jerusalem. The whole book is an invitation to the Churches to look for strength in the hope of Christ, who will return triumphantly.

This moral aim is the chief intent of the Apocalypse. But we can easily see in it a great dogmatic and liturgical inspiration also.

The doctrine of this book is especially Christological and eschatological.[13] Christ is called "Alpha and Omega," the "Prince of the kings of the earth," "He that searcheth the reins and hearts," He who has "the keys of death and of hell," the Lord God, the object of adoration for Heaven and earth.

As for this visible world, it will come to an end after frightful calamities. The devil will come forth from the abyss, will seduce nations, and will encompass the city of the saints with enemies. But God and His own will triumph. The wicked will be the everlasting prey of hell, where they will fall with the beast, the false prophet, and the dragon; whereas the just will enter into possession of Heaven. For them God will create a new Heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem, where they will reign forever. The Apocalypse furnishes no additional data enabling us to fix upon the date of these catastrophes. Evidently all the figures which it gives are symbolic numbers.[14] The world must remain ignorant of a date which Christ Himself said He did not know, or was unwilling to reveal even to His most intimate confidants.

The magnificent images by which the Apocalypse represents Christ's eternal glory were destined to exercise a deep influence on the development of Christian liturgy. The slain lamb standing on the throne amid the unnumbered throng of the elect; the ancients gathered about Him, carrying cups that contain the prayers of the saints; the cry of the martyrs rising from beneath the altar; the song of thanksgiving ascending from the multitttde to God, like a "new canticle," to glorify the Lamb for having "redeemed us to God in Thy blood, out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation"; the angels standing round about the ancients, who "fell down before the throne upon their faces and adored, saying: Amen"; the incense rising to the throne - all these magnificent scenes would little by little inspire the liturgical ceremonies of that "breaking of bread," which, by the addition of new rites, would become the solemn Mass, celebrated by a bishop with his priests about him, amidst the smoke of incense, before an altar bearing relics of the saints and often adorned with the very image of the Lamb of God slain for the salvation of men.[15]

These sublime visions and fervent exhortations would make a powerful impression upon the Churches of Asia. Such and such details or allusions, which have become obscure for us, no doubt were living words to the men of that time.


[1] Coloss, chapters 1 and 2.
[2] St. Irenaeus, Haereses, I, xxvi, 3.
[3] Apoc. 2:24.
[4] Apoc. 1:10-18.
[5] 1 Cor. 14:26.
[6] Harnack says: "l make profession of this heresy, which attributes the Apocalypse and the Fourth Gospel to one and the same author." Harnack, Chronologie, I, 675, note.
[7] Apoc. 2:4 f.
[8] Apoc. 3:15-20.
[9] Apoc. 3:1.
[10] Apoc. 2:14-20.
[11] Apoc. 2:9 f.; 3:7-10.
[12] Bousset, L'Apocalypse, preface.
[13] Here and there in the Apocalypse will be found also important indications of doctrine regarding God, the Trinity, the angels, the Church, etc.
[14] For example, the number seven, recurring all through the Apocalypse, is plainly symbolic. Besides the seven Churches, there are the seven seals, the seven trumpets, the seven signs, the seven vials, the seven angelic prophecies about great Babylon, the seven characters of the final triumph. (Crampon, La Sainte Bible, VII, 434.) The thousand years of peace mean simply a long period of time. The number seven everywhere indicates something accomplished and complete, and the number 666, which is the sign of the beast, indicates the unachieved, the imperfect, the evil, threefold, i. e., characterized absolutely.
[15] See Dict. d'arehéol. chrét., under the word Agneau. Cf. Olier, Cérémonies de la grand'-messe, bk. 6, chap. 2. The Office of All Saints takes its whole inspiration from the Apocalypse.


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