A Book Written for the Present

by on Monday, 12 December 2011 Comments

The Book of Revelation is the last one of the New Testament. Its style, its images and its dramatic aspect cannot but astonish its readers. Yet, it remains one of the most widely read of the Bible, especially in times of crisis.

It is difficult to understand its style and meaning if one does not know that it belongs to a literary genre: the “apocalyptic genre”, which developed in the Jewish world around two centuries before the birth of Jesus and will still last for one more century after his death.

Writers of “apocalyptic books” intend to reveal to their readers the project of God: the coming of His Day, when His Kingdom will be definitely established on earth. They first look at the past of Israel, reflect with their readers on the significance of the most important events, and draw a line of interpretation from this rereading of the past: God is faithful, He is working among His people today as He was doing yesterday, and as He will continue to do. Thus, understanding how God is working among us nowadays helps us to understand in which ways His coming is about to happen. Apocalyptic writers do not “see” specific events, they rather sketch the way God is working and will continue to work in human history. However, they need to do this with images and symbols. The reader needs to be sensitive to the literary code used by them. “White” is generally linked to victory and innocence; “Red’ to murder and blood; “seven” expresses perfection, and “six” imperfection; “three and half” refers to suffering and times of trial; “four” symbolizes the created world; “horn” is a symbol of power, and “white hair” of eternity rather than of old age…

John, the writer of the Book of Revelation, may be also the writer of the Fourth Gospel, or he is, more probably, one of his disciples. Traditionally, the writing of the Book is thought to have taken place around the years 90-96. Its redactor will make use of the images and symbols that we just mentioned For someone with a good knowledge of the Biblical text, most of the images being used are easy to decrypt: the completion of the victory of Christ will be evoked through the images of seven seals, seven trumpets, or seven cups… The tone of John’s Apocalypse is actually much more optimistic than the one of the former Jewish Apocalypses: Evil has already been unleashed when Jesus was crucified, but final victory is already ensured in his resurrection. Martyrs are associated to his victory. The message of the Apocalypse to his reader is quite straightforward: through our life and deeds, what Jesus has already accomplished will become everyday truer, more “real.” We can make it actually “happen”, we can make the salvation brought by Christ be known and experienced everywhere.  We are called to die to a certain way of conceiving our existence so as to live of the very life of Christ. This is painful, but the form of death we accept brings life to us and to the others. This is alike the suffering of the woman who is giving birth – an image common to the Book of Revelation and to the Fourth Gospel. This stress on the decisions to be taken by the faithful throughout his life gives a specific tone to the Book of Apocalypse: John does not describe the inexorable execution of a plan decided by God, he rather describes the path that men undertake with a God who walks with them, speaks to them and waits for their answer.

Whatever the multiplicity of images and tales he makes use of, John does not try to describe historical events to come, but rather to discover the meaning of the events that each generation of Christians is led to confront. Many descriptions of the Book of Revelation that seem to be projected into the future actually narrate events that have taken place during the life spam of the author – the persecution of Nero for instance. But they are narrated in such a way so as to receive a universal meaning. More generally, the Book of Revelation appears to be a global rereading of the Old Testament as it tries to interpret the two major events that define nascent Christianity: the break between Christian communities and the Jewish world; and the persecution it must almost immediately suffer from the totalitarian Roman empire.

Another “key of understanding” for entering into the text of the Book of Revelation is to note that it sounds very much like a “liturgy”: there are many canticles and songs, descriptions of celebrations taking place in Heavens, and allusions to baptism and Eucharist. Somehow, the whole human history is seen as a liturgy through which God is praised and glorified in the life and death of His witnesses.

Finally, the Book of Revelation celebrates the mystery of a God who comes towards us and who lives with us: Jesus is the center of history. The Verb has been made flesh, but his humaneness is expressed by a paradox Jesus is both the Lamb, whose blood reconciles God and humankind –as it was already announced in the Book of Exodus -, and the Shepherd, who cares for his people with love. He is the first and the last, the one who takes the humblest place and the greatest accomplishment of humankind. Enlivened by symbols and paradoxes that attempt to express something of an ineffable mystery, the Book of Revelation opens our eyes to a renewed vision of the Present – and calls us to fully and freely engage our whole being into the times that are ours.

Drawing by Bendu

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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