Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from the Mass on Easter Sunday. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction to these reflections and please look at the readings for Sunday Mass here (these will open in a separate window for ease of reading):
“Come, Lord Jesus”. So ends the Apocalypse and so ends both the New Testament and the Bible. “Come, Lord Jesus”: this cry, these final words of the Bible reach out across the millennia as we await the return of the Lord in glory and the final fulfilment of God’s plan of salvation for the world. “I am coming soon” are the last word of Jesus. We continue to wait in faith and hope.
This Eastertide, the New Testament reading on Sundays are a few short selections from the Apocalypse. In no way are they are adequate presentation of this book which many find strange and yet it has always been important for the Church. I follow Catholic custom and call the book the Apocalypse. The word means “Revelation” and that provides the alternative title. More than usual, reading the book requires a good guide such as “Revelation for Everyone” by Tom Wright. Yet curiously, as far as I can tell, nothing is said in his guide about the book’s place as the last book. That though gives the book importance and it is from that point of view that I want to comment in this reflection.
I began by quoting the last words of the Apocalypse: “Come, Lord Jesus”. The first words of the Bible in the book of Genesis are “In the beginning”. In this way, the Bible gives us an overview of history and above all of God’s plan for the world right from the beginning until the Lord comes again. The Bible provides a magnificent overview from a particular point of view of God’s relations with the humans he created. God is always faithful, from the beginning humans were unfaithful. Then, in the middle God became human for us in Jesus.
That gives rise to the two Testaments which form the Bible, Old and New. It is here that we can see the careful Christian architecture of the Bible, maintained even by the Protestants who removed the Greek books from the Old Testament. The Protestants restricted the Old Testament to those books in Hebrew, those which are the Jewish Scriptures though the Jewish arrangement is different. The classic two Testament arrangement has been muddled in some Bibles because the Greek books of the Old Testament are placed in a third section between the two Testaments, usually known as the Apocrypha.
At this point, if we look at the two Testaments in parallel, the significance of the Christian arrangement becomes clear. Both Testaments begin with primary revelation, the five books of the Law in the OT and the Gospels for the New. Both are followed by the history of the people, an extensive account in the OT, just the Acts of the Apostles in the New. Next comes the teachings. These are the Wisdom books of the Old Testament and all the Letters of the New. Finally comes the prophets. These again form an extensive collection in the Old from Isaiah onwards while there is just one representative in the New, the Apocalypse that we are considering.
The consequence is that both Testaments end with the prophets. Their message looks to the future for its fulfilment, the two comings of Christ. Thus the Old Testament prophets look to the coming of Christ in the flesh. While the New Testament prophet, the Apocalypse, looks as we have seen to the coming of Christ in glory. This is a remarkable and rarely recognised arrangement of the books of our Bible which confirms the theme I have mentioned. We have a theology of history where God creates and reveals himself to humanity. To this revelation, we humans must respond.
It is the Apocalypse itself which says that it is a prophecy. The point is made at the beginning of the book and strongly at the end. Too many read the first word of the book, Apocalypse, and immediately think of it as one of a whole series of visionary writings common at the time. They are known as the Apocalyptic books. Typically they have an unnamed author who writes claiming to be a character in the past predicting the future. The only Biblical example is the Book of Daniel, written at the time of the Maccabean revolt around 160 BC and claiming to be by Daniel at the court of Babylon some four hundred years previously. The Apocalypse is quite different. It is by a named prophet, John, and addressed to the contemporary issues of the seven Churches which receive letters at the beginning of the book. Yet its style is often similar to that of the Apocalyptic writings.
However, the main source of the Apocalypse is not far to seek and may be an important reason why it was included in the New Testament, despite some controversy. The best entry into the world of the Apocalypse is to know the Old Testament. John really knew his Scriptures and as steeped in them. There few direct quotations but an abundance of allusions and of scenes which clearly have OT origins. Scrolls for example point to the prophet Ezekiel. A “rod of iron” recalls psalm 2.
Some comments on the opening chapter will give us some focus, though there is no space for details. The reading this Sunday is taken from this first chapter but as usual the editing is clumsy. The book opens therefore with a heading which provides a train of transmission. The “revelation of Jesus Christ” means primarily that it is from Jesus but it is important that it is also about Jesus. There is then a blessing on those who read aloud and those who hear, the setting is a liturgy. It is here that the book is introduced as a prophecy.
This is followed by a greeting in the style of a letter. Seven is a number of completeness so the message is also addressed to the whole Church. What follows can with a bit of imagination be read as a liturgical dialogue between reader and hearers.
John the prophet then introduces himself. He is in exile on Patmos for his witness to Jesus. There on the Lord’s day and inspired by the Spirit, he has a vision from Jesus telling him to write to the seven Churches. Removing their names from the Sunday reading makes a specific instruction become too general. John is a writing prophet, the Apocalypse is a carefully composed written work. The loud voice is a reminder that the Apocalypse is also a remarkably noisy book. There are follows a presentation of the Son of Man with many echoes of the Old Testament prophets, notably Daniel, Ezekiel and Isaiah. The setting is seven lampstands and seven stars and we can note that John often explains his symbols. Here we are told that the stars are angels and the lampstands are the churches. This explanation however is left out of the reading.
The focus of the reading is clearly the presentation of Christ as the Son of Man present in the midst of his Church. He will be with his Church until his return in glory.