Clothed in White Robes

In this article, Fr Michael shares his insight into Scripture's apocalyptic literature and why you should read them.

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,  
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Revelation to John 7:9-10 NRSV

It is fitting, that we come to consider the last book of the New Testament at the start of the calendar year.  Our quotation comes from the second reading at Mass for the feast of All Saints that we heard a couple of months ago.  St John, “in spirit”, is in the heavenly throne room.  He sees 144 000 “sealed from every tribe of Israel”, angels, elders, heavenly beasts and this uncountable multitude.

This is one of the more accessible visions which St John has in the twenty-two chapters of this book.  Because the Revelation to John is so unusual compared with the other books of the New Testament – and indeed to most of the literature of the ancient world – most Catholics would only be exposed to a limited number of “purple passages”.

My hope is that I will be able to encourage you to read more deeply into this strange but wonderful book.  To do this, I’m going to take the unusual step of going back to the Old Testament, and to the book of the prophet Ezekiel, whose “River of Life” has been a motif for these articles.

Ezekiel’s prophetic book begins with a rather dramatic vision of the chariot-throne of God, supported by strange beasts and “wheels within wheels”.  Seated upon the throne was “something that seemed like a human form”.  Ezekiel tells us that “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” (Ezekiel 1:28)

There are other visions in the course of Ezekiel’s forty-eight chapters, many of them concerning the Jerusalem temple, the false worship that is going on there, and God’s judgement of the temple and the people of the city.  (This, remember, is the temple that has been “reformed” by King Josiah).

Ezekiel tells his readers to prepare for a long exile in Babylon, but also holds out to them the promise of hope – that God will in due time rescue his people; he will re-unite them; he will breathe life into dry bones, and replace hearts of stone with hearts of living flesh.

Ezekiel’s prophecy ends with a final vision – the vision of a restored temple, out of which flows the ever-deepening river, bringing life to all people and to the waste places of the earth.

While there are other brief examples of “apocalypses” (literally, “unveilings”) in the Old Testament, it is Ezekiel who sets the template for all the apocalypses that will follow – and there are many in the intertestamental period.  Visionaries will be led by glorious, radiant beings into the presence of God’s throne; they will see the veil of history drawn back, and perceive the truth of what is hidden in the heavenly realms.  They will take back with them both instructions and messages of hope to God’s people labouring in their earth-bound situations.

Just so, this is the pattern that St John’s vision follows.  Because it is often the only example of apocalyptic literature that most people will come across, it can seem impenetrable and confusing.

But there are certain lessons that can be learned from looking at the wealth of apocalyptic literature – starting with Ezekiel – that comes from the time before the New Testament.  In sharing these lessons, I feel as though I am almost offering a “User’s Guide” to this mysterious but wonderful book.

1. Don’t expect a linear story

The quotation with which we started – the countless multitude arrayed in white – reads as though it should be the climax and culmination of the work.  But it comes only one third of the way through the vision.  Very soon we will be back into woe and calamity, resolved into another glorious scene (The woman standing on the moon and clothed with the sun) – then back to woe and calamity again.

Apocalypses are “unveilings of reality”, not timetables for the future.  For this reason they often spiral around, covering the same “reality” in a number of different ways.  This is very clear in, for example, the first book of Enoch.  Interpreters during Christian history have often made the mistake of seeing the book of Revelation as a timetable – and during the present epoch of pandemic and global warming there is, in some sectors, great interest in seeing how this “fits into” the Revelation scheme.

Rather, we should see the spiral (or perhaps “upwardly tending helix!”) as giving us the message, “Life is tough.  God’s people will meet great opposition.  But God reigns, and his justice will ultimately prevail.”

2. Don’t link it to just one period of history

St John’s vision arose in a particular historical situation, and there are clear references (it is thought!) both to the politics of the Roman Empire and to the corruption of God’s earthly city, Jerusalem.  But once more, in the history of Christianity, interpreters have seen their own time as reflected in John’s vision.  The best example of this is the “Beast”, whose “name is a number”.  Both in Greek and Hebrew, there were no numerical digits as we have.  The letters of the alphabet stood for numbers.  So one could calculate the “number” of someone’s name – and this might be a useful code.  The Beast’s number is 666, and this can certainly be mapped to “Nero Caesar” but throughout the course of Christian history the number has been mapped on to other “Beasts” – Hitler, Napoleon, even certain popes!

In part, we should not be surprised at this.  The prophecies of the Old Testament arose out of definite historical situations, and spoke God’s word into them.  But as people of faith reflected on them as time went by, they were found to be relevant and applicable to new situations.  This is the way that the Bible – the written word of the Living God – speaks anew into countless modern situations.

Yes, the visions of the Book of Revelation can speak very powerfully into what is happening today.  But that does not mean that St John had 2021 in mind when he wrote!

3. Don’t limit yourself to the “favourite bits”

The Church only uses a very few sections of the Book of Revelation in its liturgy.  There are some outstanding passages that resonate even out of context.  And much of the remainder is quite hard to read and even harder to understand.  But think of an opera (and – if I may be permitted – I feel that Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” is a classic example of this).  There are “purple passages” that can be listened to out of context – one might think of the “Ride of the Valkyries”.  But the majesty of these operas only comes out when one commits oneself to the (sometimes grim) duty of listening to the whole thing, and seeing how different themes and motifs echo backwards and forwards during the performance.

4. Don’t treat it as a closed book

Why should you read the Revelation to John?  If you do, taking it slowly, not expecting to understand everything, not being put off by strange images or gruesome events, I think that you will be very surprised.  You will find so many echoes of things that you already know.  In the worship of the angels in heaven, you will come to see the Mass in a new way.  In the great pageant of the outworking of God’s justice, you will recognise things that have influenced Christian art down the ages.

But you will also find a message of hope for your own situation.  Just as Ezekiel’s stern prophetic words to the Jews of the 6th century before Christ have as their bookends the vision of God’s throne and the New Temple from which issues the River of Life, so too does the Book of Revelation.

The curtains of heaven are drawn back, and we are strengthened in our discipleship and apostolate by the knowledge that God reigns.  

Still to come…

Next month I hope to look at other examples of apocalyptic in the New Testament.  While the Revelation to John is the only “complete” apocalypse in the New Testament, there are other events in the Gospels that take on a newly significant light when read through “apocalyptic lenses”.