Dramatis personae: The Book of Revelation, Part 3
The pivotal chapter in the Book of Revelation—the specific material which most illuminates the entire text—is the middle chapter, chapter twelve. Moreover, this chapter combines with the two immediately following to give us the most information about the characters at the very center of the struggle between good and evil represented by the entire Book. In addition to the angels and saints taken generally, who are present in various ways throughout, I am referring to the figures of the Woman, the Dragon, St. Michael the Archangel, and the Lamb.
Chapter twelve is easily the most famous and most intriguing chapter of the entire book, the chapter about the mysterious woman clothed with the sun. From the first, Church Fathers, saints and doctors have given three different—and not at all exclusive—interpretations of this Woman. Here I will mostly summarize the Navarre Bible’s commentary on the Book which I recommended in my first installment, since it does such a good job of explaining the three most common interpretations. All of them fit quite well, and yet none fits every facet of the text all by itself. This, in fact, argues strongly that all three interpretations provide insight into the very same mystery.
If you will forgive me one very long quotation, here is the pivotal passage:
And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. And another portent appeared in heaven; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God….
Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to earth, and his angels were thrown down with him....
And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of a great eagle that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness…. Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus. [12:1-6a, 7-9, 13-14a, 17]
Now, consider that this passage can apply to Israel, to the Church, and more specifically to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Israel was chosen by God as the people from which the Messiah would come. In fact, Isaiah compares Israel to “a woman with child, who writhes and cries out in her pangs, when she is near her time” (Is 26;17). Clearly Israel suffered much in bringing forth the Messiah, including taking refuge in the wilderness to escape Pharaoh. Just as clearly, the Dragon (Satan) heaped trial after trial on Israel to prevent the Messiah’s coming or to destroy Him.
But the woman can also refer to the Church, as St. Gregory wrote: “The sun stands for the light of truth and the moon for the transitoriness of temporal things; the holy Church is clothed like the sun because she is protected by the splendor of supernatural truth, and she has the moon under her feet because she is above all earthly things.” The Church gives birth in travail to many offspring—or to the one Body of Christ—and that Body is harassed by Satan down through the ages. Its members also take refuge in the wilderness (a metaphor for personal closeness to God).
And of course, the woman can refer to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who gave birth to the Messiah. Though without labor pains at Christ’s birth, she certainly suffered them later in Christ’s passion and death to establish the entire People of God. We might see in the eagle’s wings a reference to her Assumption into Heaven. Moreover, the figure of Mary merges with those of Israel and the Church. At the Annunciation, St. Luke, through the angel’s greeting, identifies Mary with the faithful remnant of Israel (“daughter of Zion” in Zeph. 3:15). St. Paul sees a woman as the symbol of the Church, our mother; and the Second Vatican Council taught that Mary is a type or symbol of the Church (Lumen Gentium 63).
The richness of this reference to “the Woman” brings what we might call the human history of our salvation together in a single figure. One can meditate for a lifetime (and for eternity) on this chapter of the Book of Revelation.
St. Michael, the Dragon, and the Beasts
As soon as the woman gives birth, chapter 12 changes its focus: “Now war arose in heaven” (12:7). There are good grounds here for the theological assumption that the ultimate reason for Lucifer’s rebellion was his refusal to accept a human superior through the Incarnation, just as there are good grounds in the long quotation above for the traditional idea that one third of all the angels followed Satan. In any case, immediately we see “Michael and all his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven” (12:7-9). Then John heard a loud voice in heaven, saying:
Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ has come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. [12:10-11]
But, as we have seen, the Dragon—again, fallen Lucifer, that is, Satan—went off to make war on the woman’s offspring, meaning on Israel, on Christ while on earth, on the Church and on each of the faithful—on us. Moreover, we learn a little more of Satan’s methods in chapter 13. First John sees “a beast rising out of the sea” (13:1), to which Satan “gave his power and his throne and great authority” (13:2). The beast is often associated with worldly political authority set in opposition to God, in the service of evil. Early on, this was often thought to refer to the Roman Empire, which persecuted the Church, but it is easily applied to all political power exercised for purely worldly ends.
A little later, John saw “another beast which rose out of the earth” (13:11). This beast, to which the Dragon gives much power and the authority to speak on his behalf, constantly woos and frightens people everywhere into the service of the first beast. Again, this is often interpreted as a symbol of all the other worldly sources of influence and gain, especially commercial powers, which constantly justify illicit political and worldly ends, urging everyone to go along with and accept evil as good. Thus the second beast makes an image of the first beast, with the power to kill those who refuse to worship it. Note in particular the economic consequences:
Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. [13:16]
This is doubtless a commentary on misused economic or public relations or advertising power in every era. But in keeping with the early applications to the Roman Empire, it is interesting that the sign of the beast is given as 666, or in some manuscripts 616, and that this corresponds to the letters used for Caesar Nero in Hebrew (666) or in Greek (616). (In Hebrew, Greek and Latin, letters of the alphabet were used to designate number values; but nobody really knows the signification of the numbers, and there have been many interpretations.)
The Lamb and his companions
I will close this installment with a consideration of chapter 14, which marks the transition from the enmity between the “woman” and the “dragon” to the ultimate victory of the Lamb and all those who have been faithful to Him. John starts this chapter with the following words:
Then I looked, and lo, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpers playing on their harps, and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who had been redeemed from the earth. [14:1-3]
Once again, the number 144,000 refers to fullness or completion. John explains that this multitude of the redeemed are those who are chaste, who follow the Lamb “wherever he goes”, who have been redeemed from mankind as first fruits, “and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are spotless” (14:4). It is an understatement to recommend taking this information to heart.
After this come three angels proclaiming an “eternal gospel” to all on earth:
- “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come.” (v. 7)
- “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great [Rome and/or worldly power, wealth and influence in general], she who made all nations drink the wine of her impure passion.” (v. 8)
- “If any one worships the beast…he also shall drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever….” (vv. 9-11)
Then John heard a voice from heaven: “‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them’” (v. 13).
Following these announcements, the final harvest of souls begins, with its bloody vintage:
So the angel swung his sickle on earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God; and the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for one thousand six hundred stadia. [14:19-20]
This is very serious material. In reading the Book of Revelation, as in our very lives, it is time now to consider the final judgement of God. We will take up that judgement, and what comes after, in my next and last installment on St. John’s magnificent book of prophecy.
New Testament Series:
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