Wednesday of Week 33 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Revelation 4:1-11

Chapters 4-22 of Revelation (Apocalypse) contain the Prophetic Visions. After the letters to the seven churches, the rest of Revelation is devoted to a series of prophetic visions expressed in very symbolic language and images. In chapters 4-16, God entrusts the future of the world to the Lamb. These chapters speak of events that will precede the “Great Day”, when the Lord comes at the end to judge and take to himself all those who belong to him and his Kingdom.

Today, the author has a prophetic vision of God’s throne and this will widen to embrace the whole universe. “A door stood open” – a metaphor for the entrance to heaven, which must be open for revelation from God or for a heavenly ascent to his presence. The “first voice” heard speaking is that of Christ himself.

John hears a summons, “Come up here”, a call similar to that which Moses received to go up Mount Sinai and converse with Yahweh. He is then “possessed” by the Spirit in a kind of mystic experience in which he is given a vision of God ruling from his throne in heaven, an image familiar in the Old Testament.

God is described as being like jasper stone (diamond), a sardion (ruby) and a rainbow that looked like an emerald. John is careful not to describe God in any human-like terms but only as an overwhelming impression of light. The images are derived very much from Ezekiel, chaps 1 and 10, who liked to use apocalyptic language, and also Isaiah 6.

Surrounding God’s throne are 24 lesser thrones on which sit 24 elders, wearing white robes and golden crowns. These have the priestly role of praising and worshipping God and also of offering the prayers of the faithful. Their number may suggest the 24 priestly classes or may represent the 12 patriarchs of Israel and the 12 Apostles, the foundation stones of the New Israel. That they are sitting on thrones indicates their role as judges of the ‘new Israel’, and their crowns indicate a share in God’s power. Their white robes indicate their total identity with God and freedom from any taint of sin.

It is to be noted that the thrones of the elders make the outer ring of the heavenly court, and in the New Jerusalem which comes down from heaven (chap 21), we are told that the outer walls are composed of twelve foundation stones of apostles and twelve gates which are the twelve tribes of Israel.

From the throne come flashes of lightning and peals of thunder, traditional symbols of theophanies, when God becomes somehow visibly present, for instance, as on Mount Sinai. They are symbolic of God’s overwhelming power and majesty. In Revelation, thunder and lightning always mark an important event connected with the heavenly temple.

The seven lamps of the seven Spirits of God are the seven “angels of the presence”, God’s special messengers (‘angel’ means ‘messenger’) mentioned in the Old Testament and all through Revelation.

Between the throne of God and John, there is a sea which seems to be made of glass. This may refer to the “upper waters” mentioned by Genesis in the creation story or it may be borrowed from Ezekiel. It is also possible that it refers to a heavenly counterpart of a large basin in the Jerusalem temple known as the “Sea”. Other features of the temple in heaven are the lamps, the altar, the altar of incense, and the ark of the covenant – all features of the Temple in Jerusalem (at this time already destroyed).

Inside the outer circle of 24 thrones there are four more thrones immediately around God’s throne. These are occupied by four animal-like creatures with the appearance of a lion, a bull, an animal with a human face, and a flying eagle. Again the imagery is from Ezekiel where these creatures are responsible for governing the physical world. The number four is a symbol of the whole universe: north, south, east and west. The animals chosen: lion, bull, human, and eagle suggest all that is most noble, strong, wise and swift in creation. We are also familiar with them as symbols of the four Evangelists but that is an idea that dates later on from Irenaeus, one of the Fathers of the Church.

Each of the creatures has six wings and eyes all around. They are the eyes and ears of the God who knows and provides for everything. Night and day they sing God’s praise and glory in words that we have borrowed for our Eucharist liturgies – “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty who was and is and is to come”.

And, as the four creatures sing the praises of God, the 24 elders also prostrate themselves and throw down their crowns before him, acknowledging that the power given them to rule over others comes ultimately from God himself. And they sing:

You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honour and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed
and were created.

Obviously, when we read a passage like this we are not to imagine that it in any remotely literal way corresponds to the reality of God. It is simply the use of language and images to express the inexpressible. We find similar language in mystics like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila.

It is important for us now and again to be reminded of the utter transcendence of God.

Too often we reduce God to human terms, and we can even identify the humanity of Christ with his divinity. But Jesus in his human nature gives us only the faintest idea of the reality of God in himself. What Jesus gives us in the Gospel is of priceless value because it tells us truths about God we might never have found for ourselves, but what Jesus revealed to us was only a faint image of the whole God.

That is why when we have some experience in praying, we find that the only thing we can do is to sit silent and motionless in a Presence that takes over our lives completely. Rather than trying to manipulate God to our own desires, we surrender to Him completely. As they say, “We let go and we let God.”

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