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Not the End of the World: On Reading Revelation in a Time of Plague
By Joseph Mangina
May 08, 2020
Dr. Joseph Mangina wrote the following piece for his parish, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and agreed to share it here.
Disease, death, social lockdown, global depression: for many people, the experience of the novel coronavirus feels like the end of something—maybe even the end of the world as we know it. It is not surprising that the thoughts of many Christians have turned to the book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse, for insight into our present moment. (Please note that while the book consists of multiple visions, its title is singular: Revelation, not Revelations. If you want to be really fancy about it you can call it “the Revelation of St. John the Divine,” meaning St. John the Theologian, which is its name in the King James Version.) Because I love this book, and have even written a commentary on it, I was happy to take up Father Philip’s suggestion that I put together a few ideas on the theme of “Revelation in a time of plague.”
Revelation does speak about the end of the world, but not in the sense in which we usually understand that phrase. It offers no timetables, maps out no chronologies. A wise Lutheran theologian, Dr. Sarah Hinlicky-Wilson, notes that “predictions of the end of the world have had a 100% failure rate,” and that attempts to mine the Apocalypse for such information are similarly doomed to fail. She is completely right about this. Revelation’s vision is shaped not by our linear and chronological notions of time, but by God the Creator, who is the Lord of all time. Already in the fourth century, St. Augustine understood that Revelation’s parade of mind-blowing images and fantastic beasts does not purport to describe a simple sequence of events. Rather, the visions are repetitive and cumulative. They tell of God’s lordship over all of history; they vividly illustrate the aggressive, but also at times subtle and attractive, character of evil among us; and they encourage readers to stand firm in the midst of their present distress. To be a Christian is to display what John calls hypomonē. This Greek word is often translated as “patience” or “patient endurance.” I like to think of it as “suffering courage.”
But while Revelation provides no insight on when the end will come, it does tell us Who will make it happen. In one crucial episode, John is granted a vision of heaven, where he beholds saints and angels joined in worship around the divine throne. It is a powerful, beautiful picture—but there is a problem. John notices that the One seated on the throne holds a scroll in his hand, written on both sides and sealed with seven seals. Scholars have different interpretations of that scroll; but my inclination would be to see it as the divine plan for human history, or (here a dash of Mission Impossible) the details of a secret operation to deliver God’s people from their bondage to the forces of evil. But a secret operation needs a secret agent. An angel cries out in a loud voice:“Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” But no one steps forward—no angel, no mortal, no earthly power. At this point, John begins to weep; it is an unexpectedly tragic and human moment in the story.
But this tragic moment does not last for long:
And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. (Rev. 5:5-6, ESV)
I would be the first to admit that a monster lamb with seven horns and seven eyes is not my usual way of picturing Jesus. But in John’s symbolic code, every feature of this grotesque image has meaning. The Lamb’s seven horns are signs of his perfect power (throughout Revelation, “seven” of anything means completeness). His seven eyes symbolize his all-seeing knowledge and possession of the Spirit. He is the Lion because he is David’s heir, the Messiah, and the Lamb because he wins his paradoxical victory by dying on the cross. If you try to picture this Lamb, it will just seem bizarre; but if you know how to read the signs you will understand that it is Jesus.
We know who the author of this story is: the God of Israel, the good Creator. We know who the protagonist is: Christ the Lamb (often seen in company with his followers, the church). We know what the climax of the story is: the final defeat of God’s enemies, and the coming of the City of God. But we are not there yet. Thus Revelation concludes on a mixed note of longing and excited expectation, “Maranatha! Even so come, Lord Jesus!”
What I’ve just given you is a whirlwind guided tour of a few of the high points of the Apocalypse. These are the bits that usually show up in our lectionaries—the heavenly worship in chapter 4, the Lamb in chapter 5, the coming of the New Jerusalem in chapters 21-22. It is unfortunate that the lectionary-makers leave out many of the more difficult (but also fascinating and powerful) parts of the book. Strangely, they omit chapters 2-3, where Christ offers a series of amazing promises to the seven churches, but also dishes out some harsh criticisms; the church does not like to hear itself criticized. They also omit the book’s central portions, which describe—again using visionary, metaphorical language—the suffering of God’s people as they do battle against the powers of evil. For if the church does not like to hear itself criticized, still less does it like to hear about suffering!
But what has the book of Revelation do with the coronavirus? Just about everything, it turns out. The connection is simple: the coronavirus (technically SARS-Cov-2) is an agent of death. It attacks our cells, makes it difficult for us to breathe, sends our immune systems into overdrive. While some infected people never show symptoms, others—especially the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions—become severely ill. In extreme cases, they die; as of this writing there have been over a quarter of a million deaths worldwide, and nearly four thousand here in Canada. As we all know by now, long-term care centres have been especially hard hit.
Yet the effects of Covid-19 cannot be measured simply in terms of body counts. We must also reckon with damage done to survivors’ lungs and other organs, strain placed on the health care system, and the economic and psychological effects of the lockdown. There is death as seen in body counts, and death viewed as a kind of system, a multipronged attack by death and corruption on life itself. Thus St. Gregory the Great spoke of the prolixitas mortis, the slow, inexorable “spreading out” of death in our corruptible human bodies.† Gregory was writing about death in the Bible. He might just as well have been writing about the pandemic.
Why are things this way? The fact of the matter is, we don’t know. Even the Bible offers us no all-encompassing theory of death. Scripture frequently describes death in quite unsentimental terms as God’s punishment for sin. By it, God reminds human beings (His people Israel in particular) that He is God and that they are not. Many of the Psalms express in poignant fashion the connection between mortality and sinfulness (e.g. Psalms 22, 51, 90). As we learn again every Ash Wednesday, it is good for the sinner to be reminded that he or she will die.
And yet, not everything about mortality can be “explained” with reference to sin. To some extent, death—and its close cousin, disease—seems to be simply part of the fabric of created being. It was the Lord who made our frail human bodies, and set us in a world where we are vulnerable to a wide variety of ills … including coronaviruses. Creatures “do their own thing” and don’t always get along with each other. Why did the Lord make viruses, or deadly serpents, or lions, or lambs? Why did the Lord create a world in which His creatures are exposed to suffering? It is hard to discern an answer here, other than “because it pleased the Lord to do so, for mysterious reasons of the Lord’s own.” This is basically the answer the Lord gives Job when He speaks to him out of the whirlwind. The Lord asks: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4). As if to say: I am God; you are not; don’t think you can even begin to understand me. But note that the Lord loves Job, whose honesty and integrity are worth a lot more than his friends’ easy religious answers. Christian interpreters have often seen in Job a type or anticipation of Christ, another Beloved of God who was vindicated out of his sufferings.
“In the midst of life we are in death.” This is a very true word. But it is not the final word. The book of Revelation, and indeed the whole Christian gospel, declares that life is more fundamental than death—that God’s life triumphs over all the powers of death, hell, and destruction. And this is not some fond dream, but something that has actually happened in our human time and space. In the words of the wonderful Orthodox hymn that we sing each year at our parish’s Easter Vigil:
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death.
And for all those in the tombs
To be a Christian is to confess Christ the Lamb’s triumph over death and to share in his victory. Indeed, one of the more intriguing names that Revelation gives to the Christian faithful is that of “conqueror.” The person who conquers is said to receive a crown (Rev. 2:10, 3:11). For what it’s worth, the word for crown in the Latin Bible is … corona.
Being stuck at home and engaging in social distancing may not feel very much like being a “conqueror.” We may be struggling with boredom, or with loneliness, or with anxiety. Alternatively, some people—especially health care workers and people in essential services—may be experiencing the pandemic as a time of burnout, while others may worry whether they will still have a job to go back to when this is all over. It’s a strange time we’re going through. We will just need to wait, and waiting is hard.
And yet! Despite all that, the Christian calling is to be a conqueror—to affirm life, and do battle with death, trusting in the Lamb’s victory. We do not need to do heroic things, though no doubt some are acting heroically. We need only be faithful, in whatever circumstance in which the Lord has placed us.
I asked my sixteen year-old son Nicholas the other day what advice he would give to the people at St. Martin’s concerning the pandemic. He said: “Tell them it’s not the end of the world, and that this experience may help them realize how much they miss and need the church.”
I think that is exactly right. The book of Revelation tells us about the End, the successful conclusion to the human story that only God can bring about. But what we’re going through right now is not that “end of the world.” It is simply part of the Lord’s ongoing gift of time, to be put to good use—like all time—for loving God and serving our neighbour. And this time is also a time for realizing our love and need for the church. Although we cannot yet assemble for Eucharist, we can still pray, or say Morning or Evening Prayer (many Anglicans are reporting that they have a renewed appreciation for these ancient offices), or participate in an online service. Right now, we may just need to “believe” in the church a bit more, in the absence of the tangible evidence provided by our coming together on Sunday morning. But the body of Christ endures. We are that body, even when we are physically separated.
We should trust, then, that in the midst of our human confusion and uncertainty, Christ is at work among us “bestowing life.” Be not afraid. The Lamb has conquered. Alleluia!
† I am indebted for this reference to my friend Prof. David Yeago of Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania.