Interpreting the Living Word of God
In the readings during the 50 days of the Easter Season, we continue to read about and reflect upon the growth of the early Church through the experiences which the apostles and disciples were having of the Risen Jesus and the activity of the Holy Spirit.
Other Christian denominations often criticize the Catholic Church for not reading or preaching about The Book of Revelation to John. If you’ve followed the readings recently, you will know the criticism of us ignoring the last book of the bible is unfounded, although it is somewhat true that we don’t often focus our preaching on its content. Part of the reason for that, in our Church, is that this book is one of the most difficult to understand because it abounds in unfamiliar and extravagant symbolism, which at best appears unusual to the modern reader. And, because this book is an outstanding example of apocalyptic literature, full of symbolic language, it is exceedingly difficult to preach from, without relying on a great deal of speculation as to the meanings. If anyone, who has not had a direct experience from God, who revealed the meanings, tells you that they know what it all means… that person has overstepped the bounds of the purely human ability to understand.
From the introduction to the Book of Revelations we learn that the author of the book calls himself John (Rev 1:1, 4, 9; 22:8), who because of his faith has been exiled to the rocky Island of Patmos, a Roman penal colony. Traditionally we understand that this John is the disciple whom Jesus loved, the one at the foot of the Cross with Mary. The date of the book in its present form is probably near the end of the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81–96), a fierce persecutor of the Christians. What we can reasonably ascertain about the content is that to be able to comprehensibly share his mystical experience with the community of his time, John made use of the symbolic and allegorical language which was very likely extensively borrowed from the Old Testament, especially Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Daniel.
The symbolic descriptions are not necessarily nor always to be taken as literal descriptions. The author used these images to suggest Christ’s universal (seven) power (horns) and knowledge (eyes). A significant feature of apocalyptic writing is the use of symbolic colors, metals, garments (Rev 1:13–16; 3:18; 4:4; 6:1–8; 17:4; 19:8), and numbers (four signifies the world, six imperfection, seven totality or perfection, twelve Israel’s tribes or the apostles, one thousand immensity). Finally the vindictive language in the book (Rev 6:9–10; 18:1–19:4) is also to be understood symbolically and not literally. The cries for vengeance on the lips of Christian martyrs that sound so harsh are in fact literary devices the author employed to evoke in the reader and hearer a feeling of horror for apostasy and rebellion that will be severely punished by God.
The Book of Revelation cannot be adequately understood except against the historical background that occasioned its writing. It was composed in response to God, first and foremost to meet a crisis in the Church at the time. The book itself suggests that the crisis was persecution of the early church by the Roman authorities; the harlot Babylon symbolizes pagan Rome, the city on seven hills (Rev 17:9). The book is, then, an exhortation and admonition to Christians of the first century to stand firm in the faith and to avoid compromise with paganism, despite the threat of adversity and martyrdom; they are to patiently wait for the fulfillment of God’s promises.
Though the perspective is eschatological—ultimate salvation and victory are said to take place at the end of the present age when Christ will come in glory at the parousia—the book presents the decisive struggle of Christ and his followers against Satan and his cohorts as already over. Christ’s overwhelming defeat of the kingdom of Satan ushered in the everlasting reign of God (Rev 11:15; 12:10). Even the forces of evil unwittingly carry out the divine plan (Rev 17:17), for God is the sovereign Lord of history.
The Book of Revelation had its origin in a time of crisis, but it remains valid and meaningful for Christians of all time. In the face of apparently insuperable evil, either from within or from without, all Christians are called to trust in Jesus’ promise, “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). Those who remain steadfast in their faith and confidence in the risen Lord need have no fear. Suffering, persecution, even death by martyrdom, though remaining impenetrable mysteries of evil, do not comprise an absurd dead end. No matter what adversity or sacrifice Christians may endure, they will in the end triumph over Satan and his forces because of their fidelity to Christ the victor. This is the enduring message of the book; it is a message of hope and consolation and challenge for all who dare to believe.
The Gospel reading today also comes from John who, recognizes the presence and work of the Father and the Son and so is impelled to cry out: “It is the Lord!”
Although, as noted above, the “disciple whom Jesus loves” is identified with John we can in the context of this Easter Season, understand it to also apply to all the children of God universally. In the symbolism of the gospels, the boat and those in it represent the church, and the fish ‘caught’ as the members of the Church.
It is good to recall that when John is writing this account, there is much to be concerned about among the disciples of Christ. At this time, Peter is already dead. In fact, all the Apostles except for John have been martyred. As well, John has been subject to three Popes and is about to have his fourth! In fact, most of the early Church members have died or like John are nearing the end of their lives. This was no small issue, since Jesus had yet to return and the Church seemed to be struggling against many enemies and false understandings about Jesus, the Church and the practice of the faith. Many of those struggles are detailed for us in the letters of Paul.
The Gospel of John was most likely written in Ephesus, and the final editing of the gospel and arrangement in its present form dates from between A.D. 90 and 100, although it is very likely that it was completed prior to his imprisonment at Patmos. One of John's themes in all his New Testament writings, is the power of the Church to grow and to endure even through difficult times, and violent persecutions.
This account of the third resurrection experience of the Apostles and disciples, is full of symbolism and imagery. John is very much giving a lesson about the Messiah, the Church, faith, challenges, and expectations. Consider the number of fish, 153 – thought to be the complete number of types of fish, which we take to symbolize the universal call to the heart of Christ through receiving the Good News of Salvation. Interestingly, it’s also the number of Hail Mary’s in a full Rosary!
After a whole night’s fishing, they had caught absolutely nothing. They had forgotten the words of Jesus: “Without me, you can do nothing.” Just as he had 3 years before, Jesus, engineers a miraculous catch of fish. When they come ashore, Jesus has fish already, a fire burning, bread – this also recalls the feeding of the five thousand and turns our hearts to recognize the Eucharistic overtones.
The image of a fishing net full of fish - an analogy for the Church that appears more than once in the Gospels. John, rather than using the imagery of the boat for the Church he uses the net in which the fish were caught and does not break. It is filled with believers whom Christ gathers out of the ocean of time and history through the ministry of Peter and his successors, the popes. Peter is the one who hauls this supernatural community onto the shores of eternity at the end of time, where they will all feast with the Lord. Peter brought the overstuffed net onto the shore safely, in obedience to Christ who makes this possible.
Jesus then hands over to Peter and to his companions the mission he himself had been given by the Father. “Feed my sheep.” This is the responsibility of the Church and, as members of that Church, a responsibility that rests in varying degrees on every one of us. It is not just bishops, priests, religious who have this responsibility. It is also that of parents, teachers and simply as brothers and sisters to each other.
Despite sufferings, scandals and sins, as well as obstacles, challenges and persecutions, Christ's Church will continue to grow and expand under the ministry of Peter, and it will stay intact until it is brought safely home to heaven - Peter's net will not tear.
A Prayer to Live By
The words of a prayer of Cardinal John Henry Newman
Dear Jesus, help me to spread Your fragrance everywhere I go.
Flood my soul with Your spirit and life.
Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly,
That my life may only be a radiance of Yours.
Shine through me, and be so in me
That every soul I come in contact with
May feel Your presence in my soul.
Let them look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus!
Stay with me and then I shall begin to shine as You shine,
So to shine as to be a light to others;
The light, O Jesus will be all from You; none of it will be mine;
It will be you, shining on others through me.
Let me thus praise You the way You love best, by shining on those around me.
Let me preach You without preaching, not by words but by my example,
By the catching force of the sympathetic influence of what I do,
The evident fullness of the love my heart bears to You.
Fr. Blair Gaynes has been in the Diocese since 2008.