Monday of Week 34 in Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Revelation 14:1-5

In a passage immediately preceding today’s and not included in our liturgical readings, the followers of the Beast, an agent of Satan, were said to be branded on the right hand or the forehead with his name and number, just as slaves were branded with their owner’s sign or the way we brand cattle and sheep today. This was a sign of ownership. The Beast is also identified with the enigmatic number 666, said to be the sum of the numeric value given to the Hebrew letters making up the name Nero Caesar. (As a document written during time of persecution, many references in Revelation are expressed in a code which would only be understood by those within the persecuted community.)

In today’s reading, the followers of the Beast, who are branded with his name and number, are now contrasted with the followers of the Lamb marked with his name and the name of the Father. And just as there was a ‘remnant’ of Israel that returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile, here we have the ‘remnant’ of the new Israel, the faithful Christians who have survived persecution and who will begin the restoration of God’s kingdom once its enemies have been destroyed.

John has a vision of Mount Zion. Originally, Mount Zion referred to the fortress of the pre-Israelite city of Jerusalem before it was taken over by David and made his capital. In time, the term became synonymous with Jerusalem itself and, in Revelation, it refers to the “heavenly Jerusalem”, the place where God lives for ever with his people. At the end of Revelation, it comes down to the ‘new earth’.

Here John sees the Lamb with 144,000 faithful followers, all of whom have the name of the Lamb and of the Father on their foreheads, again as a sign of ownership. The number 144,000 is a multiple of the perfect and complete number 12. These are the ones who have not compromised their faith and have persevered through times of persecution by being ready to give their lives for their faith in Christ. They are the martyrs (a word which means ‘witness’), those who gave the ultimate witness of their faith. They are, as it were, the nucleus of the final Kingdom.

And John hears a mighty sound as loud as that of the crashing surf of the ocean or the roar of thunder. It was the sound of harps being played. It was the accompaniment to a new song they were singing in the presence of God’s throne, the four creatures and the 24 elders. Just as Moses celebrated the deliverance of God’s people from Egypt with a new song, so the 144,000 also celebrate the deliverance of God’s people and the new order which the Lamb has inaugurated with a song. It was a song only they who had been saved from the ‘world’, the pagan world of sin, by the Lamb were competent to sing.*

And so they are said to follow the Lamb wherever he goes, just as the Israelites followed Yahweh after the Exodus into the desert, where the marriage rite of the covenant was sealed and signed, and as the first disciples left everything and walked after Jesus.

They are called the “firstfruits” of God and of the Lamb. Just as in Jewish tradition the first fruits of the crops were always offered to the Lord, so these martyrs are the choice offering of the community made to God and the Lamb. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the phrase applies to the first converts in a particular place, and to the first to rise from the dead.

Finally, they “never allowed a lie to pass their lips”. That is, they never invoked the Beast (the emperor Nero, most likely) as their god. Unlike the Gentiles mentioned by Paul in Romans who “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25).

Naturally, we all hope and pray that we too may be numbered among that host of martyr-witnesses with the Lamb, our Lord and Saviour. We too, have been marked in baptism with God’s sign of ownership on us. But that still requires our total commitment and response to his call.

May we strive to follow the Lamb closely in our faithfulness to the Gospel at all times. Let our lives be lived in total integrity so that we always in fact are what we would like to be seen to be.
*At this point in the original text (verse 4) there is a sentence omitted from our reading: “It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins.” In this context, it is generally understood that John is speaking metaphorically. In the Old Testament marital infidelity was often a metaphor for idolatry, and in this case, the worship of the Beast. But, even after legitimate intercourse, the release of semen was regarded as rendering the man unclean and similarly for the release of menstrual blood in the woman. The only way to avoid such ‘uncleanness’ then was total abstinence. The “virgins” in this context are those who, even at the cost of their lives, have remained totally faithful to God and Christ, who have not been contaminated in the slightest way by a corrupt and immoral world – whether they were actually married or not. One wonders to what extent this verse had an influence on the future asceticism of the Church and the high esteem given to virginity and celibacy in the Christian life. There are far more ‘virgin’ saints, men and women, than married men or women in our liturgical calendar.

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