A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for Sunday, April 21st, the Fourth Sunday of Easter | Carl E. Olson
• Acts 13:14, 43-52
• Ps 100:1-2, 3, 5
• Rev 7:9, 14b-17
• Jn 10:27-30
Pop quiz: which book of the Bible describes black helicopters, high-tech warfare involving Russia and China, and computer chips embedded in human flesh?
Hopefully you answered, “None.” But you may know that some Christians believe the Book of Revelation, or The Apocalypse, describes soon-to-transpire, end of the world events in harrowing detail. And most people—even many Catholics—believe that the final book of the Bible is an unremitting work of doom, gloom, and bloodshed.
John the Revelator’s book undoubtedly contains images of
doom and gloom, but not for those who stand for and with Christ. And while
there is plenty of bloodshed in the Book of Revelation, the good news is that
the blood of the Lamb, shed for the sins of the world, cleanses those who
faithfully follow the Shepherd.
In other words, today’s reading from The Apocalypse is filled with joy. It proclaims that God will not only overcome evil, He will—at the end of time as we know it—bring together all of those who love Him. The great multitude witnessed by John consists of those who have been saved through suffering, just as Savior, the slain Lamb (Rev. 5:6), brought salvation through suffering and death. “The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom,” explains the Catechism, “only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection” (CCC 677).
Those in the great multitude, from every nation, race, people, and tongue, are the Church. They make up the New Israel, which has gone through a New Exodus. While the first Exodus involved the people of Israel being saved from the tyranny of Egyptian slavery, this final Exodus consists of the people of the new covenant being saved eternally from the domination of sin and death. As Jesus states, in the reading from today’s Gospel, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish” (Jn. 10:28). The salvation of a multitude too large to be counted is a fulfillment of the great covenant made with Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation … All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you” (Gen. 12:2, 3; cf. Gal. 3:7, 29).
Overcoming death and establishing eternal life is a constant theme in The Apocalypse. This can be seen in the imagery throughout the book, which is bursting with allusions to the Old Testament, especially the Pentateuch and the Prophets. The idea of being made “white” through perseverance in faith is drawn from Daniel, a book used often by John: “Many shall purify themselves, and makes themselves white, and be refined” (Dan. 12:10). White robes symbolize holiness and endurance. Priests in the time of Christ were examined for purity; if they passed, they were dressed in white robes, as was the High Priest. In the new covenant, those who have been baptized into Christ, the High Priest, and who endure to the end will be saved through the sacrifice of the Lamb on the Cross.
The palm branches allude to the feast of Tabernacles (cf., Lev. 24:39-40), which celebrated the harvest of crops and commemorated God’s divine protection during the Exodus. Palm branches were also used as symbols of victory (1 Macc. 13:51; 2 Macc. 10:7). In The Apocalypse they stand for God’s victory over evil, His protection of the Church throughout the time of tribulation, and the restoration of right relationship with God, as evidenced by the songs of praise before the heavenly throne.
John’s vision is also filled with a liturgical and sacramental perspective. The great multitude worship God in His temple, which ultimately is the Person of Christ (cf., Jn 2:19-22). Being washed and made white suggests the bath of Baptism, and the lack of hunger or thirst is Eucharistic in its promise of complete joy in the presence of the Lamb.
Thus, in the end—The End!—the apocalyptic truths of the Book of Revelation don’t involve helicopters and top secret technology, but the salvation of God’s flock, His people, through the death and Resurrection of the Lamb.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the March 30, 2007, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)