Friday, December 9
Revelation 9:1-12: The first four trumpets produced plagues that resembled the seventh, first, and ninth plagues of Egypt (Exodus 9:22-26; 7:20-21; 10:21). These plagues, prompted by the trumpets, affect only the physical and astrophysical world, not human beings—at least not directly. The final three, described by the heavenly eagle as “woes,” afflict mankind directly (8:13).
The image of a fallen star already appeared in 8:10-11. Now another star falls in response to the fifth trumpet (verse 1; cf. Isaiah 14:12-20). This star opens the bottomless pit, from which arises a hellish smoke (verse 2; cf. 8:12) that contrasts with the incense smoke of prayer. The abyss represents existence without the worship of God — the theological term for which is “hell.” As John watches, a massive swarm of locusts takes form within that hellish cloud (verse 3), reminiscent of Egypt’s eighth plague (Exodus 10:12-15). Unlike those former locusts, however, these locusts attack men themselves, not plant life (verse 4). Their activity is limited to five months, which is roughly the normal life span of locusts.
Indeed, this may be the only feature in which these particular locusts in Revelation resemble any other locusts in the world. These are not your usual, run-of-the-mill locusts (verses 8-10). They are satanic locusts, denizens of the abyss, who afflict men with despair. Deceptively, they have human faces (verse 7), but they represent a worse-than-human evil. Their king is called “Abaddon,” which is the Old Testament’s personification of the underworld, or grave. It literally means “destruction” (cf. Job 26:6; 31:12). John translates this name into Greek as Apollyon, meaning “destroyer” (verse 11). It is possible that John intends here a word play on the name “Apollo,” which name, according to Aeschylus (Agamemnon 1082), comes from the verb apoluein, “to destroy.” We may bear in mind, in this respect, that the Emperor Domitian, not a man easily outdone—it must be said—with respect to a high self-opinion, proclaimed himself a manifestation of Apollo. (There is simply no evil as evil as official, government-sanctioned evil.) The torture inflicted by these followers of Abaddon is spiritual, not physical, and the Christians, sealed with the sign of the Living God, are exempt from it.
Saturday, December 10
Luke 22:54-62: It is most significant, surely, that that event, so embarrassing to the chief of the Twelve Apostles, is narrated in detail in each of the four canonical Gospels, for it is thus made to stand fixed forever in the memory of Holy Church. From this story, all believers down through the ages are to learn a lesson they must never forget: If Simon Peter could deny Jesus, any one of us could do so.
Simon, after all, had not believed himself capable of such a thing. “Even if all are made to stumble,” he boasted, “yet I will not be” (Mark 14:29). He was so utterly resolved on the matter that, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus in the garden, Simon had attacked them with violence. Alas, he was neither the first man nor the last to confuse human excitement with divine strength, nor to mistake the pumping of adrenaline for the infusion of grace. Within a very short time after he swung his sword at the unsuspecting Malchus (cf. John 18:10), we find hum backing down embarrassed before the pointing finger of a servant girl. The Holy Spirit took particular care that Christians throughout the ages would never forget that falling away remains a real possibility for any of them. In the words of yet another converted sinner, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
Christians were also to learn from this story that, as long as they are alive, repentance and a return to forgiveness are always live options. In this respect, the repentance of Simon Peter is to be contrasted with the despair of Judas. Thus, the Gospel stories tell us, until our very last breath, it is never too late to return to God in answer to the summons of His grace.
Today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel gives the most poignant description of this conversion: “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. . . . So Peter went out and wept bitterly” (22:61–62). This event is turned into a prayer in an ancient Latin hymn, composed by Saint Ambrose of Milan to be sung at cockcrow, the very hour of the denial: Jesu, labantes respice / et nos videndo corrige / Si respicis labes cadunt / et fletu culpa solvitur—“Jesus, gaze upon those who are falling, and set us right by the gaze. Our sins fall away at Your glance, and guilt is dissolved in weeping.”
Sunday, December 11
Revelation 10:1-11: Just as there was a double interrupting narrative immediately prior to the opening of the seventh seal, so a pair of visions will now precede the sounding of the seventh trumpet: the angel holding the little scroll, and the two faithful witnesses.
In the first of these, John is struck by the angel’s numinous character, at once bright and obscure. The angel’s body is clothed in a cloud, reminiscent of the cloud of the divine presence during ancient Israel’s desert journey and the cloud associated with the tabernacle of the divine presence. The face of the angel, on the other hand, has the luminosity of the sun. Nonetheless, the very fierceness of his countenance is tempered by the rainbow arching over his head, a reminder of the eternal covenant between God and creation in Genesis 9. The angel’s legs are pillars of fire, an image also reminiscent of the Exodus. His voice is like the roaring of a lion (verse 3), which is echoed by the seven thunders from Psalm 29 (Greek and Latin 28).
With one foot on the earth, one foot on the sea, and his hand into the air, the angel touches, as it were, all three aspects of physical creation: solid, liquid, and gas (verse 5). Moreover, all three of these components are mentioned in his oath (verse 6; Exodus 20:4,11), in which he swears that God’s secret purpose (to mysterion) in history will not be delayed of fulfillment.
The scroll the angel holds is smaller than the scroll in Chapter 5, suggesting that its message may be less universal. Indeed, the message of that scroll is not directed to the world, but to the community of faith (verses 8-11). It is not read but eaten; John absorbs its message into himself. He assimilates the Word that he might then give expression to it. In this respect he imitates the prophet Ezekiel (2:9—3:4).
Monday, December 12
Revelation 11:1-10: In our reading of the Book of Revelation thus far we have encountered the Danielic expression, “a time, times, and half a time” (Daniel 12:7). If we substitute the word “year” for “time,” the meaning of the expression is clear: “three and a half years,” or forty-two months, or (following the Hebrew calendar of thirty days per month) twelve-hundred and sixty days. In the Book of Daniel this was the length of time during which the Jerusalem temple was violated by Antiochus Epiphanes IV (Daniel 9:27).
Similarly here in Revelation it is the symbolic length of time of severe trial and the apparent triumph of evil (verses 2-3; 12:6; 13:5). John’s contemporaries must also have been struck by the fact that the Roman siege of Jerusalem also lasted three and a half years, from A.D. 67-70. In the present chapter this length of time refers to the persecution of the Christian Church, of which Jerusalem’s temple was a type and foreshadowing.
There is found within the Christian Church, however, an inner court, as it were, a deep interior dimension that the forces of evil cannot trample. This inviolability is conferred by being sealed with the sign of the living God. It asserts that believers are not to fear those who can kill the body but can do no more, because there yet remains an inner court that is off-limits to the invader and defiler. This is the inner court of which John is told to take the measure (cf. Ezekiel 40:1-4; Zechariah 2:1-2), a measuring that he will narrate later (21:15-17).
The literary background of John’s vision of the two witnesses is foind in Zechariah 4:1-3,11-14, where the prophet has in mind the anointed ruler Zerubbabel and the anointed priest Jeshua, the two men who preserved the worship in God’s house that they rebuilt between 520 and 516. Those two figures represented royalty (for Zerubbabel was a descendent of David) and priesthood (for Jeshua was a descendent of Aaron), which are two essential aspects of the life in Christ (cf. Revelation 1:6; 5:10).
“Two” witnesses are required, of course, this being the minimum number required in order “to make the case” (Deuteronomy 19:15). But the two witnesses in this chapter of Revelation are the heirs, not only to Zerubbabel and Jeshua, but also to Moses and Elijah. It was the first of these who afflicted Egypt with plagues, and the second who closed up heaven for three and a half years (cf. Luke 4:25; James 5:17). This is John’s way of asserting that the Christian Church, in her royal priesthood, continues also the prophetic war against false gods. She will destroy God’s enemies by fire (verse 5), as did Moses (Numbers 16:35) and Elijah (2 Kings 1:9-12).
When the monster from the abyss kills these two servants of God (verse 7), the forces of evil seem to have triumphed (verse 10), but they will be carried up to heaven, again like Moses (Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.48) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11), because the victorious Lamb has the final word.
Tuesday, December 13
Revelation 11:11-19: With respect to the prophets Moses and Elijah, whose outlines appear in this vision as symbolic representations, we know that the “return” of both men was expected by John’s contemporaries (cf. John 1:21; Mark 6:15; 8:20). Both men did “return” at our Lord’s transfiguration; indeed, in Mark 9 and Matthew 17, the question of the return of Elijah is precisely the point of the conversation that immediately follows the transfiguration.
When the two witnesses ascend into heaven (verse 12), one tenth of the city falls (verse 13), the city in question still being “Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified” (verse 8). This one tenth of the city, calculated as seven thousand souls, is literally a tithe of the city’s population. Thus, the number of those who perish is a sort of direct reversal of the seven thousand who were saved in Elijah’s remnant (1 Kings 19:18).
Thus ends the second woe, which is the sixth trumpet (verse 14). Those first six trumpets were warning blasts, whereas the seventh will be a kind of fanfare (verse 15).
In the hymn that follows the seventh trumpet (verses 17-18), we should especially observe that God’s wrath is salvific, a matter at which believers will rejoice, because God’s reign is established by His wrath. God is not a neutral observer of history. On the contrary, He is deeply biased on the side of the poor and oppressed. Some people in this world are poor and oppressed because other people in this world worship false gods. In the biblical view, poverty and oppression are the results of idolatry, and this provokes God’s wrath. His wrath is against the false gods and their servants, and believers are summoned to rejoice in the victory of that wrath, because it is the victory of freedom over slavery, justice over injustice, and Moses over Pharaoh. The wrath of God is the last thing in the world that Christians should be afraid of, for the wrath of God is on their side (Matthew 23:35-36).
As in the ancient procession around Jericho, the Ark of the Covenant appears after the seventh trumpet (verse 19).
Wednesday, December 14
Revelation 12:1-17: Though it is surely no myth, this awesome vision bears a more than slight resemblance to certain themes in ancient mythology. For example, there was the very primitive solar myth concerning the powers of darkness, which appear to triumph over the sun and to reign over the time of night, defying the promised sun. This darkness, which has usurped the reign of the sun, attempts to devour the sun in its very birth; to kill the sun, that is to say, as it emerges from its mother’s womb.
In at least two versions of this ancient myth, in fact, the darkness is portrayed as a dragon-like snake. Thus, Egypt had its myth of the dragon Set, who pursued Isis while she carried the sun god Horus in her womb. His plan was to devour Horus at his birth. It is further curious that Isis, like the Woman in Revelation 12 (verse 14), is portrayed in Egyptian art (on an elaborate door in the King Tut collection, for instance) with wings, so that she could flee from Set. Similarly, Greek mythology described the dragon-snake Python as pursuing the goddess Leto, who is pregnant with the sun god Apollo. In both cases, the little child escapes and later returns to destroy the usurping serpent. The similarities of both of these myths to the vision in Revelation 12 are rather striking. Both myths also touch on the subject of the illegitimate “usurper,” a theme Matthew develops in his story of Herod seeking to destroy the true King, Jesus, at His very birth.
John’s vision takes place in the vault of heaven, where the Woman is described as a “sign,” an image reminiscent of Isaiah 7:10-11. Indeed, John seems to be saying that in the birth of Jesus Isaiah’s prophecy of virgin birth is fulfilled (cf. also Isaiah 26:17). Like Christ Himself (Revelation 1:16), this Woman is clothed with the sun. All Christians know the virginity of the mother of Jesus. Is this Woman being represented, therefore, as the zodiacal sign of Virgo? It would seem so, because, like the sign for Virgo, there are twelve stars involved. In the southern hemisphere the six stars crowning Virgo are sigma, chi, iota, pi, nu, and beta. In the northern hemisphere they are theta, star 60, delta, star 93, second-magnitude beta, and omicron.
Nonetheless, this is not simply a description of Christmas. The Woman in the vision is the mother of Jesus, but she is more; she is also the Church, which gives birth to Christ in the world. The sufferings and persecution of the Church are described as birth pangs (cf. John 16:21-22).
The serpent, of course, is the ancient dragon that is the enemy of our race, the one who seduced the first woman in the garden. Now he must face the new Woman, who is more than a match for him. His seven heads put one in mind of the ancient mythological dragon Hydra, well known from a Canaanite narrative found in the excavations at Ras Shamra and from the traditional story of the Labors of Hercules. In Revelation it is clearly Satan, the Accuser (verse 10) from the Book of Job and from Zechariah 3.
Michael appears right out of Daniel, of course; in the New Testament he isspoken of only here and in the Epistle of Jude.
Thursday, December 15
Luke 23: 26-43: Although we know on the authority of Plutarch that every criminal condemned to crucifixion by a Roman court was obliged to carry his own cross to the place of execution, those soldiers charged with crucifying Jesus evidently believed that His weakened state would not permit Him to do so. Consequently, they obliged a “certain man . . . passing by” (says Mark) to carry Jesus’ cross to the place of crucifixion. That man was returning to the city “from the country” (say Mark and Luke), perhaps for his midday repast. His name was Simon of Cyrene (Matthew 27:31–32; Mark 15:20–21; Luke 23:26).
A descendant of certain Jews who had settled on the north coast of Africa (in modern Libya) about 300 BC, Simon doubtless belonged to that synagogue in Jerusalem particularly frequented by Cyrenian Jews who had moved back to the Holy Land (Acts 6:9). These were among the Jews responsible for the stoning of Stephen.
Simon of Cyrene himself lives on in the New Testament, intimately associated with the cross of Jesus. Luke’s description of the event is especially instructive: “Now as they led Him away, they laid hold of a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, who was coming from the country, and on him they laid the cross that he might bear it after Jesus” (opisthen tou Iesou). Luke is the only evangelist to express the matter in this way.
In order to see the significance this expression held for Luke, it is instructive to compare the text with other Lukan passages. For example, Luke 9:23: “If anyone desires to come after Me [opiso mou], let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” And 14:27: “And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me [opiso mou] cannot be My disciple.” Luke’s latter text (particularly if we contrast it with the parallel in Matthew 10:38) shows that the bearing of the cross “after Jesus” is the true mark of discipleship. That is to say, Simon of Cyrene, bearing the cross and following after Jesus on the way to Golgotha, becomes the symbolizing embodiment of Christian discipleship.
Holy Scripture gives us no reason to think that Simon of Cyrene had been a believer in Christ before that day when Roman soldiers compelled him to assume the weight of the Holy Cross. That was the very beginning of his discipleship. He became, however, the model of those who follow Jesus to the place of His crucifixion.
Friday, December 16
Revelation 14:1-16: Now we come again to the sealing of the followers of Christ, first spoken of in Chapter 7. With respect to the “following” of the Lamb (verse 4), of course, the image is found also in the Gospels. When Jesus calls on His disciples to “follow” Him, the context is the Cross. The Lamb to be followed is the Lamb of sacrifice (Mark 8:34-38; John 21:18-19).
There are three angels in this text, representing three dimensions of the final age, the proclamation of the Gospel, the judgment of God on the city of man, and the eternal, wrathful exclusion of idolatry. First, the angel of the everlasting Gospel (verse 6), whose mandate, like the mandate at the end of Matthew, is directed to all nations. These are all called to repentance and conversion to the true God (verse 7; cf. Acts 14:15). Remember that in John’s view, the judgment of God is now. The judgment of God takes place in the very proclamation of the Good News (cf. John 3:19; 18:37). The Gospel here is called eternal; it is the proclamation of the eternal mind of God, His eternal purpose of salvation, the “Mystery” of which the Epistle to the Ephesians speaks.
Second, the angel who proclaims the fall of Babylon (verse 8). This, too, pertains to the Gospel. In biblical thought, the fall of Babylon means that the true Israelites can now go home, because the exile is over. Babylon is whatever enslaves and alienates the people of God. Babylon is the city of false gods, the city that dares to raise up its tower against the face of God; it is the monument to man’s achievements without God. Babylon is the city where men do not understand one another, because each man, as it were, speaks his own private meaning. The downfall of this city certainly is Good News, which is the meaning of the word Gospel. Christians are called to leave Babylon (18:4).
Third, the angel who proclaims the eschatological outpouring of God’s wrath, to the exclusion of all idolatry (verses 9-11). This text is important because, like certain sayings of our Lord in the Gospels, it insists on the eternity of damnation. Unlike many modern men, the Bible believes that the definitive choice of evil lasts forever.
The Son of Man on the cloud is, of course, from the Book of Daniel, an image that Jesus interprets of Himself in each of the Synoptic Gospels.