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Commentary on Rev 18:1-2, 21-23; 19:1-3, 9
Our reading is in two parts today: first, an angel announces the fall of Babylon, and this is followed by songs of victory in heaven. The reading consists of relatively short extracts from chapter 18 and half of chapter 19. John has a vision of an angelic messenger, who had great authority and whose brightness lit up the whole earth. He is, of course, an emissary from God and speaks with God’s voice. He announces the coming fall of Babylon, that is, Rome, the centre of the empire and the source of so much persecution for the Christians.
The image of the coming destruction on the city must echo in many ways the state of Jerusalem after it was destroyed by the Romans within the living memory of the author and his readers: a haunt of devils, a lodging for every foul spirit and dirty, loathsome bird and every hateful beast scavenging the remains of the devastated city.
In a symbolic act, another angel lifts up a huge boulder, in the shape of a millstone, and hurls it into the sea. This was a very large millstone, sometimes called a “donkey millstone” because it was so heavy it required a donkey to turn it. This is what was going to happen to Rome. It is going to be destroyed because of its idolatry and for the sufferings it brought on the Christians. In the Gospel Jesus had said that the only deserving treatment for someone who blocked a disciple coming to Christ was to have a millstone put around his neck and that he be thrown into the sea. “Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!” (Matt 18:7)
As he throws the millstone the angel recites a hymn. The violence shown in the throwing of the boulder is a symbol of the violence by which the power of Rome will be overthrown and city obliterated. The hymn which follows describes a city which has become a ghost town: no music, no craftsmen’s skills or the grinding of corn (ironically described as ‘the sound of the millstone’), no more any light or the happy voices of the newly-wed. A big change from the days when its citizens were “the princes of the earth and all the nations were under [their] spell”.
Rome, of course, did not quite experience the utter destruction that was the fate of Jerusalem. However, the empire did collapse; “barbarians” from the north came in and took over. It seemed like the end of the world at the time but life went on – and the Christians, far from being wiped out, converted the invaders.
The vision of John moves (we are now in chap. 19) to a huge heavenly assembly singing in joy and triumph: “Alleluia! Victory and glory and power to our God!” This is the song of those who have come successfully through persecution and oppression. (The acclamation, ‘Alleluia’, which means “Praise the Lord!”, is used four times in this passage but is found in no other part of the New Testament.)
It is a hymn of thanksgiving that justice has been brought on the “famous prostitute, who corrupted the earth with her fornication”, another reference to Rome’s idolatrous and corrupt regime. God’s servants, who suffered so much, have been avenged. It is, of course, not a description of what is actually happening but is a prayer of hope for the future, a prayer that was indeed answered, and a boost for the morale of suffering Christians.
The passage ends with the fourth of the seven beatitudes scattered through the book: “Happy are those who are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb.” (A list of these ‘beatitudes’ is given in the reflection for Monday of Week 33.)
We too believe that evil will never have the last word. Truth and goodness and justice will eventually prevail. Let us pray, though, that we may so live our lives that we, too, will receive that invitation to join the wedding feast of the Lamb. All our lives are geared to making sure we do get that invitation. Nothing else matters!
Commentary on Luke 21:20-28
Jesus continues his warnings of what is to come.
It is a blending of what is going to happen to Jerusalem and of the end of all things. The images are mainly biblical and apocalyptic, from Old Testament prophecies and not to be taken as an accurate description of what is actually going to happen some 40 years later. The sign that the end was near would be Jerusalem surrounded by armies accompanied by the “abomination that causes desolation” (cf. Matt 24:15). Nevertheless, it is true that Jerusalem was encircled by the armies of Rome. The safest place to be was not in the city, which was reduced to rubble, but in the surrounding hills.
Jesus is emphasising not so much the actual events but rather their cause – the faithlessness and corruption of so many for which destruction was the inescapable outcome. So he calls them the “days of retribution” or the “time of punishment”, not indicating God’s revenge but the natural result of evil and corruption, warnings of which the Scripture, especially the prophets, are full. See, for example, Isaiah 63:4; Jeremiah 5:29 and Hoseah 9:7. And especially Daniel 9:27: “For one week he [King Antiochus] will make a firm compact with the many [faithless Jews]. Half the week [three and a half years] he shall abolish sacrifice and oblation. On the temple wing shall be the horrible abomination until the ruin that is decreed is poured out upon the horror.” The temple was desecrated by Antiochus from 167 to 165 BC. The “horrible abomination” perhaps refers to an inscription placed on the portal of the temple dedicating it to the Olympian Zeus. All of this, of course, was to be repeated. And, in many ways, has been repeated again and again. One thinks of the nude statue set up as a deity in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris during the French Revolution.
What follows from verse 23 is more relevant to the destruction of Jerusalem. It will be a particularly difficult time for women who are pregnant or nursing. It will be a time of great distress.
Many will be cut down and others will be led away into captivity to pagan territories. (The Romans liked to parade their prisoners in a victory march in Rome.) The holy city itself, its Temple in ruins, will be trampled on by the Gentiles – a fate it still experiences.
This will happen “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled”. For, as Paul indicates in his letter to the Romans (11:25-29), it is the Gentiles who have taken the place of the Jews as the bearers of the Good News and the builders of the Kingdom. But Paul believed that the age of the Gentiles would only end with the return of Israel and the reconciliation of all in Christ Jesus as Lord. It is an indefinite period and it is still in process. Our God is an all-inclusive God. And a patient God.
Finally, Jesus speaks of various cataclysmic and apocalyptic signs to signal the end of time. They are typical biblical phenomena and not meant to be taken as exact foretelling of events. They conclude with Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man riding on a cloud coming with great power and glory. It is not intended to fill people with fear and trembling, except perhaps those who have lived wicked lives.
But for the disciples, the loyal followers of Jesus, it is a time to “stand up straight and raise your heads, for your redeeming is near at hand”. As we saw in yesterday’s Gospel, sufferings and tribulations are part and parcel of living the Christian life to the full. Our message and our vision is a ‘sign of contradiction’, a beacon of light to many and to others a threat to be radically uprooted.
But for those who have tried to live by the vision and values of the Gospel, for those who have tried to seek and find Jesus in all the people and events of their lives, who have spent hours with him in intimate dialogue, it is the time of their final liberation, a time when there will be no more sorrows, no more tears, no more hardships, no more disappointments. Rather, they will be entering an unbroken time of love and intimacy, of freedom and peace, of joy and consolation.
So, as we approach the end of another liturgical year, we do so on an upbeat note.