Many years ago, I ran into a friend in Pittsburgh. After the pleasantries, she sought permission to ask a serious question. Should she attend the Scripture retreat being offered by Fr. Tom Bonacci, C.P. at our St. Paul of the Cross Retreat on the South Side ? My immediate instinct was to say, “Well sure, why not?” I bit my tongue and instead asked, “Why is this a question for you?” She said in a lowered voice that the entire weekend was devoted to the Book of Revelation and she was deeply anxious that she would not be able to handle what might be offered in light of today’s world and national situation.
I have run into this perspective on the Book of Revelation more often that anyone can imagine. Most simply avoid the Book rather than admit they have anxieties about what it means. I suppose I should not be awfully surprised. We have several Christian denominations which grew out of a particular interpretation of this wonderful Book of Scripture. We hear it most often at the end of the liturgical year and perhaps at funerals. This in itself offers us a clue as to how we should hear and read the Book of Revelation for our spiritual and faith enrichment.
There are a few principles to keep in mind as we launch into Revelations. The first lies in its genre as an “apocalyptic” writing. It is writing about “end times”, not the immediate end of the world as we know it. The sacred author never intended to give a countdown to the Second Coming of Christ. Secondly, the language and images of the Book are highly symbolic by intention. Only someone who was immersed in the faith would be able to fully understand what was being said. Not only did this ground the reader in the mystery of God’s presence and activity on our behalf in this world, but it also kept the meaning of the text somewhat hidden from those who would use it to persecute the believers. Finally, the sacred author wrote the Book specifically to provide encouragement and hope to persecuted Christians in seven cities of Asia Minor. Providing the visions of a victorious future in the Crucified Savior was provided to help the Christians through the torturous and sometimes fatal persecutions they were experiencing.
In today’s reading, we see one of those visions of “one like the son of man” coming on the clouds. He comes to harvest the ripe earth and bring about a new creation. He harvests first the wheat, i.e. good deeds; lives lived with love, compassion and mercy. Then he harvests the ripe grapes from the vine, i.e. evil deeds and casts them into the wine press of God’s wrath. Evil is destroyed and goodness enjoys a new, glorious beginning. I find it really quite refreshing and beautiful. Over the years I have heard this one or that say the author was talking about the immediate end of the world, or nuclear war, or the initiation of the final battle between good and evil which would end before we did, and a dozen other possibilities. All of these and more reared up into view as we approached the year 2000 (Y2K ???) . But no, this is a wonderful and powerful message of hope and encouragement for living our faith today. We are being asked to consider the end – the end of another liturgical year. We are asked to take stock of our past year’s living. How have I succeeded or failed in living a life of faith , of trust , of hope, of compassion, of justice, of concern for those more unfortunate than myself, of forgiveness ? The sacred author invites us to take responsibility in truth before God for our past year’s living, to make the annual harvest of our lives, so to speak and take hope in a new beginning which is initiated with the First Sunday of Advent, made to blossom throughout the Advent preparation period and find the fruit of New Life in the celebration of the birth of our Savior. We begin again, prayer for the wisdom to see and take new pathways of goodness in the year ahead.
So I said to my friend, “Don’t be anxious about the Book of Revelation. It is meant to provide a new impetus for living our faith well and better as we move into the future.” In our current world and national circumstances, we can all use that !!!
Fr. Richard Burke, CP, is a member of St. Paul of the Cross Province. He lives at St. Ann’s Monastery in Scranton, Pennsylvania.