Thursday of Week 34 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Revelation 18:1-2, 21-23; 19:1-3, 9

Our reading is in two parts today. In the first part, 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’, i.e. Rome, the centre of the empire and the source of so much persecution for the Christians.

The image of the coming destruction of 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 into the second part (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 commentary 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!

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