Monday, 8 May 2017

Revelation (Apocalypse) 1:1-11 - Christ who is, who was, and is to come





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Today, the start of some notes on the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse) with the aid of St Bede's (and other Patristic sources).  The extracts from St Bede's commentary are from the Marshall translation except where otherwise indicated.


1-2 Apocalypsis Jesu Christi, quam dedit illi Deus palam facere servis suis, quæ oportet fieri cito: et significavit, mittens per angelum suum servo suo Joanni, qui testimonium perhibuit verbo Dei, et testimonium Jesu Christi, quæcumque vidit.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to make known to his servants the things which must shortly come to pass: and signified, sending by his angel to his servant John, Who hath given testimony to the word of God, and the testimony of Jesus Christ, what things soever he hath seen.

The Greek word apocalypse (ἀποκάλυψι)  literally means an uncovering or disclosure of knowledge, hence the modern English 'Revelation'.  St Bede relates the word to the struggles of the Church in the here and now, defining 'shortly' as meaning that which is 'to happen to the Church in the present time'.  On the word revelation he says:
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants.  When the Church was established by the apostles, it was proper that it be revealed by what course the church was to be extended and was to be perfected at the end, so that the preachers of the faith might be strengthened against the adversities of the world. And John refers the glory of the Son to the Father, and testifies that Jesus Christ received the revelation of this mystery from God. (trans Weinrich).
3
 
Beatus qui legit, et audit verba prophetiæ hujus, et servat ea, quæ in ea scripta sunt: tempus enim prope est.
3
 
Blessed is he, that readeth and heareth the words of this prophecy; and keepeth those things which are written in it; for the time is at hand.

St Bede here, in the opening pages of his very first completed work of exegesis, alludes to one of the key themes that runs through all of his work, namely the duty of all to study Scripture, and of those who have the ability to penetrate the deeper levels of understanding Scripture and doctrine - whether they be priests, religious or laypersons; male or female - to share their knowledge with others.  In this, he is arguably implementing the teaching of St Gregory the Great (whom he frequently quotes), with his wonderful analogy of the elephants swimming with the lambs: the lambs can walk standing up in their part of the shallows of the river, while the elephant swims in the depths:
Teachers and hearers are therefore blessed, because they who keep the Word of God find that a short time of labour is followed by everlasting joys.
His wording also seems to me to echo the other great influence on his work, the Rule of St Benedict, providing here a one line summary of three of the great themes of the Prologue, namely the importance of hearing (the word of God); working (putting the Gospel into practice), and striving to reach heaven.
4 -5 Joannes septem ecclesiis, quæ sunt in Asia. Gratia vobis, et pax ab eo, qui est, et qui erat, et qui venturus est: et a septem spiritibus qui in conspectu throni ejus sunt:et a Jesu Christo, qui est testis fidelis, primogenitus mortuorum, et princeps regum terræ, qui dilexit nos, et lavit nos a peccatis nostris in sanguine suo,4-5  John to the seven churches which are in Asia. Grace be unto you and peace from him that is, and that was, and that is to come, and from the seven spirits which are before his throne,And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth, who hath loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,
St Bede's comments on this verse, too, focus in on two themes of the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict, namely the need to seek both grace and peace from God:
Grace he desires for us, and peace from God, the eternal Father, and from the sevenfold Spirit, and from Jesus Christ, Who gave testimony to the Father in His Incarnation. 
The other key aspect of this verse is the number symbolism it employs.  Number are terribly important in Revelation, as they almost always convey key meanings that tend not to be obvious to us today.

St Bede's discussion of the important of the number seven suggests that it means first of all universality, so that here it is telling us that the work is addressed to the whole Church, because of the connection to the seven days of creation.  He also, though, alludes to the idea that history can be divided into seven 'world ages' connected to the seven days of creation, an idea expounded at length by St Augustine amongst others in various places:
By these seven churches he writes to every church, for universality is wont to be denoted by the number seven, in that all the time of this age is evolved from seven days.
The sixth century commentary on Revelation by Apringius of Beja draws out what St Bede is, I think, getting at in a little more detail:
First let us discuss the meaning of the number, because both the number six and the number seven are always used in the law with a mystical meaning.  "For God made heaven and earth in six days, and on the seventh day he rested from his works, and on it, " it says, "they shall enter into my rest."  The number seven, therefore, signifies the period of the present life, so that the apostle is not merely writing to seven churches or to that world in which he was then present, but it is understood that he is giving these writings to all future ages, even to the consummation of the world.  Therefore he mentions the number in a most holy manner, and he names Asia, which means "elevated" or "walking" indicating that celestial fatherland we call the catholic church.  For exalted by the Lord and the things that are above, it is the church that advances by spiritual exercises and is always desirous of the things of heaven. (trans Weinrich)
The reference to the seven spirits is generally taken by the Fathers as a reference to the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Victorinus, for example, wrote:
We read of a sevenfold spirit in Isaiah, — namely, the spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, of knowledge and of piety, and the spirit of the fear of the Lord.
6
 
et fecit nos regnum, et sacerdotes Deo et Patri suo: ipsi gloria et imperium in sæcula sæculorum. Amen.
6
 
And hath made us a kingdom, and priests to God and his Father, to him be glory and empire for ever and ever. Amen.

St Bede sees the reference to priests here, as being to the universal priesthood of believers:
Because the King of kings and heavenly Priest united us unto His own body by offering Himself for us, there is not one of the saints who has not spiritually the office of priesthood, in that he is a member of the eternal Priest.
7
 
Ecce venit cum nubibus, et videbit eum omnis oculus, et qui eum pupugerunt. Et plangent se super eum omnes tribus terræ. Etiam: amen.
7
 
Behold, he cometh with the clouds, and every eye shall see him, and they also that pierced him. And all the tribes of the earth shall bewail themselves because of him. Even so. Amen.

Verses 4-5 spoke of Christ's Passion and Resurrection, that reopened the way for us and created the Church.  This verse now takes us forward to the Second Coming:
He Who was concealed, when at the first He came to be judged, will be manifested at the time when He shall come to judge. He mentions this, that the Church which is now oppressed by enemies, but is then to reign with Christ, may be strengthened for the endurance of sufferings.
And there is a warning here, to repent before it is too late:
When they see Him as a Judge with power, in the same form in which they pierced Him as the least of all, they will mourn for themselves with a repentance that is too late.
8
 
Ego sum alpha et omega, principium et finis, dicit Dominus Deus: qui est, et qui erat, et qui venturus est, omnipotens.
8
 
I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, saith the Lord God, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.

St Bede comments:

 He is the beginning Whom no one precedes, the end Whom no one succeeds in His kingdom.
Who is. He had said this same thing of the Father, for God the Father came, as He also is to come, in the Son.
9-10
 
Ego Joannes frater vester, et particeps in tribulatione, et regno, et patientia in Christo Jesu: fui in insula, quæ appellatur Patmos, propter verbum Dei, et testimonium Jesu:fui in spiritu in dominica die, et audivi post me vocem magnam tamquam tubæ
9
 
I John, your brother and your partner in tribulation, and in the kingdom, and patience in Christ Jesus, was in the island, which is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet

St Bede points out that this verse 'indicates the person, the place, and the reason of the vision', and notes that the story behind Patmos is that:
John was banished to this island by the Emperor Domitian for the Gospel's sake, and it was fitly given him to penetrate the secrets of heaven, at a time when it was denied him to go beyond a certain spot on earth.
 He interprets the comment about being 'in the spirit' as meaning 'lest he should be supposed to have been deluded by fleshly apparition'.

The Lord's Day means Sunday.  St Bede points out that the time when things occur in Scripture is often significant:
He indicates also a fit time for a spiritual vision, for Scripture is wont to express the reason of things in terms, as, frequently, of the place, or the body, or the air, and in like manner, the time. The Angels, namely, visit Abraham at noon, Sodom in the evening; Adam after midday was afraid at the voice of the Lord, walking up and down; and Solomon received at night the wisdom which it was not to be his to retain.
11
 
dicentis: Quod vides, scribe in libro: et mitte septem ecclesiis, quæ sunt in Asia, Epheso, et Smyrnæ, et Pergamo, et Thyatiræ, et Sardis, et Philadelphiæ, et Laodiciæ.
11
 
Saying: What thou seest, write in a book, and send to the seven churches which are in Asia, to Ephesus, and to Smyrna, and to Pergamus, and to Thyatira, and to Sardis, and to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.

One of the key exegesis techniques that St Bede often uses is to focus on the meaning of a name, often drawing on St Jerome's work.  Here, for example, he comments on the meaning of Asia:
The Church of Christ was not at the time in these places alone, but all fulness is comprised in the number seven. Asia, which is interpreted elevation, denotes the proud exaltation of the world in which the Church is sojourning, and, as is the method of the divine mystery, the genus is contained in the species. 
He adds:
For the Apostle Paul also writes to seven churches, but not to the same as St. John. And although these seven churches are a sevenfold figure of the whole Church, still the things which he blames, or praises, came to pass in them one by one.

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