As we reflect on Pentecost Day just passed, when the Church bursts into life through the lives and witness of the apostles and first disciples, and they and the Holy Spirit together proclaim Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, we invite you to consider thoughts from that sometimes perplexing but always essential writing, the last book of the New Testament and of Sacred Scripture, the Book of Revelation.
We are already familiar with the text which has become named by its opening word – Μακάριοί, Blessed in Greek – the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12; Luke 6:20-23). But many of us do not know that the Book of Revelation (or The Apocalypse, again named for its own opening Greek word) also offers a sequence of beatitudes, naming the blessed. Since the Spirit is the one speaking to the churches as Apocalypse opens, and is the one who speaks at the close of the book, calling all who would hear her voice (Apoc 22:17), these Pentecost days are a good moment to consider this blessedness, and how the Spirit leads us to this state of life.
Blessed the one who reads this prophecy, and blessed those who listen to him, if they treasure all that he says, because the Time is close.
From the very outset of the work we are told that this revelation comes from God, through Jesus Christ, and concerns the breaking in of the Kingdom of God in this time. The one who hears this and accepts it is blessed. So, blessedness is held out to the reader as the state of those who are open to the Word spoken by God for redemption and salvation. Blessedness therefore is something poorly described as “happiness”. This latter is an emotional response to the circumstances of our lives, and can be both passing and subject to alteration: it is governed by moods, highs and lows, is a subjective attitude. But blessedness is a state which is entirely different: it refers to the graced reality of the person, who not only hears and accepts God’s prophetic word, but is transformed by it, becoming not a different person but radically themselves. Hence Elizabeth’s words about herself and her own miraculous pregnancy: blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled (Luke 1:45). Blessedness here – and it is the same technical term used in Apocalypse – mirrors precisely this total acceptance in faith of the word given by God which transforms.
So, one of the first movements of the Holy Spirit is precisely to open the ear of the disciple’s heart to hear and accept the Word of God, Christ, the only and ever-creating and recreating Word:
The Lord God has given me a disciple’s tongue.
So that I may know how to reply to the wearied
He provides me with speech.
Each morning he wakes me to hear,
To listen like a disciple.
The Lord God has opened my ear.Isaiah 50:4-5
The disciple becomes prophet, indeed a prophetic word himself, bearing the kingdom in himself for others, becoming a word of conversion and reconciliation. This blessedness takes seriously the invitation to personal conversion – the paschaltide existence as dead to sin and alive to Christ – and so seeks a purity of heart which continually challenges, through grace, the presence of sin in one’s own life. Blessedness is the move away from lost image and likeness to conformity to Christ. It is already a new way of being and existing and living.
No wonder, then, that the writer of Apocalypse, as he addresses the early Church communities, recipients of this written prophecy, invites: If anyone has ears to hear, let him listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. And the churches are not abstract entities: they are the believers who form them, the ones who have accepted Jesus Christ and acknowledge him as risen Saviour. This is the first and indispensable step for those possessed by the Spirit of Christ: listen, hear, act!
Blessed are those who die in the Lord! Blessed indeed, the Spirit says: now they can rest forever after their work, since their good deeds go with them.
This beatitude is set in the midst of the announcement of the day of judgement, and hails those who have kept the commandments of God and faith in Jesus, calling them “the holy ones”. The challenge here is clear: those who follow Christ, who have heard his word and keep it, mark their lives by the good works which flow from life in the Spirit. The presence of good works in the lives of Christ’s disciples is beyond dispute: they remain proofs of the reality of grace in our lives, the automatic outpouring of charity towards our brothers and sisters, charity which should be palpable to us as God’s love dwelling in us. The Gospel of John focuses on this again and again: Christ’s ministry is one of word and works, and both have a sacramental effect in the life of those who have faith. For John the Apostle, belief and faith are already the beginning of eternal life for the disciple, leading ultimately to the fullness of life with God in eternity.
The reality of the death of the believer is confronted here: those who die in the Lord are named, those who are united with Christ in a death like his, as the funeral liturgy reminds us. The Book of the Apocalypse concerns itself precisely with this reality of death as the door and gateway to eternal life – judgement, as we shall see, is part of the experience of that moment of surrender to God, or the definitive decision which we might still make to turn away from him. Our works, our deeds worked in charity in this life, carry us, in some way, to that encounter, and become the fabric which reveals the tapestry of our earthly life: not so much in the catalogue of the individual works, but rather in the virtue of love which they reveal.
And John is clear about what we can expect in the life united to God for eternity: it is one of rest. This prize is already the proposal for this life in some dimension: the desire for purity of heart here and now finds expression in a multitude of different terms which try to express the renunciation of worldly things for the only thing which matters, an abiding Christ-centredness: rest, peace, tranquillity, stillness, complete emptying of oneself to be filled by God’s presence… all of these prefigure the life of heaven for those who desire it and allow that desire to become dynamic and transformational.
Blessed is the one who has stayed awake and not taken off his clothes so that he does not go out naked and expose his shame.
The sudden exhortation of keeping watch, staying awake, being vigilant is addressed to the believer. While we always associate this watching – and praying – with Christ’s own terrible vigil in Gethsemane as he enters into his Passion, and the inability of the disciples at that point to join him, and consequently our taking up that example of his, it is set now into the context of the Day of the Lord. We tend to consider this Day as the one of judgement, and indeed Sacred Scripture, in the prophets, reminds us of it (you might wish to spend a little time checking the following, sources of this Day of the Lord saying: Isaiah 2:12; 13:6,9; 22:5; 34:8; Jeremiah 46:10; Ezekiel 7:10; 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1,11; 3:4; 4:14; Amos 5:18-20; Obadiah 15; Zephaniah 1:7,8,14-18; Zechariah 14:1). But the Day is also, and especially in the Cistercian Fathers, the Great Sabbath, the day when Christ will present all creation to the Father for its complete recreation and perfection, the culmination of the command to love, and present to us even now, in some respect, as St Aelred reminds us:
“The greater the devotion, the more securely does the soul purified by this twin love (of self and neighbour) pass to the blissful embraces of the Lord’s divinity, so that, inflamed with the utmost desire, it goes beyond the veil of the flesh and, entering into that sanctuary where Christ is spirit before its face, it is thoroughly absorbed by that ineffable light and unaccustomed sweetness. All that is bodily, all that is sensible, and all that is mutable are reduced to silence. The soul fixes its clear-sighted gaze on what is and is so always and in itself: on the One. Being at leisure it sees that the Lord himself is God, and in the tender embrace of charity itself it keeps a sabbath, doubtless the Sabbath of sabbaths.”Aelred of Rievaulx, The Mirror of Charity
Watchfulness takes in both that far off day (and yet, so close!) and all that we undertake now. There can be no putting off until tomorrow the personal work which must be done now. In any case, John is clear – we should not be caught unawares, like one who has fallen asleep.
Equally, St Paul in the Letter to the Ephesians reminds us how we should be clothed for the battle which is taking place, and will culminate in the final humiliation of the dragon, beast and false prophet:
“Finally, grow strong in the Lord, with the strength of his power. Put God’s armour on so as to be able to resist the devil’s tactics. For it is not against human enemies that we have to struggle, but against the Sovereignties and the Powers who originate the darkness in this world, the spiritual army of evil in the heavens. That is why you must rely on God’s armour, or you will not be able to put up any resistance when the worst happens, or have enough resources to hold your ground.
So stand your ground, with truth buckled round your waist, and integrity for a breastplate, wearing for the shoes on your feet the eagerness to spread the gospel of peace and always carrying the shield of faith so that you can use it to put out the burning arrows of the evil one. And then you must accept salvation from God to be your helmet and receive the word of God from the Spirit to use as a sword”Ephesians 6:10-17
Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb.
For us, this phrase will have the most familiar resonance because we hear it as part of a composite text in the Communion Rite at Mass:
Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb. Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.
But the scriptural imagery at work here is vast, and finds it place very much in Christ’s mouth, since he, in the Gospels, continually offers us the image of the wedding feast, the relationship of the bride and bridegroom, the acceptance and refusal of the invitation, being prepared to come to the wedding feast by wearing the appropriate garment, or being ejected for not having it! Needless to say, the account of Jesus’ first sign, given at Cana in Galilee, in the very moment of a wedding celebration, reveals him as the Bridegroom in that moment: the steward takes the newly discovered fine wine to the Bridegroom for him to taste, and that one is clearly Christ himself.
Right here at this moment in Apocalypse the great battle has ended and the songs of victory are being sung by all the assembly of the saints in the presence of the Lamb. The moment of consummation has come: the marriage of the Lamb and his Bride, the Church, made ready for this moment and pure in the deeds of the saints. This is, of course, the great moment of eucharist, the culmination of the heavenly liturgy: the Lamb, slain as the price of our redemption, has shed his blood for the forgiveness of sins and become the sacrament of salvation. For us still here in this earthly existence, the celebration of the eucharistic liturgy is both foretaste and participation in the heavenly liturgy. This is part of the mystery of Apocalypse: it celebrates the liturgy carried on by the assembly of the People of God as a preparation in itself, but also a making real, of the heavenly liturgy which will mark the recreation of all that is and its presentation to the Father. This is an immensely important part of our own liturgical awareness: the liturgy which we celebrate is both here and now and a touching point with the eternal worship given to God in Christ through the Spirit. Thus, our own entry into the liturgical action cannot be lacking in preparation or performance – it demands a reverence which is specific to itself and fitting.
Hence the centrality of this beatitude: blessed indeed those who are called to full participation in the earthly eucharistic liturgy, because it foreshadows the blessedness which awaits us for eternity, participation in the divine life.
Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection; the second death cannot affect them but they will be priests of God and of Christ and reign with him for a thousand years.
This rather enigmatic beatitude leaves us wondering somewhat about the resurrection and who will be raised to life. The context here is the rising of all those who have suffered martyrdom for the sake of Jesus: the manner of their witness is such that they will pass to the fullness of life with Christ and participate in his priestly function in eternity. They will not suffer the second death. What can this be? Judgement, perhaps, which the rest of humankind must face toward in that moment of death.
Undoubtedly a difficult question rises for us here, and it is a difficulty which, inevitably, writing and our vocabulary and conceptualisation compounds: we are faced with the image of running time, chronologically successive moments, in the Apocalypse – a first and second resurrection, a second death, a reign of a thousand years, various periods of time in years and months and days, and so on. There is simply no way to express the experience of eternity – God’s Time, which, incidentally, was held out to us at the very opening of this book:
Happy the man who reads this prophecy, and happy those who listen to him, if they treasure all that it says, because the Time (ὁ Καιρὸς) is close.
This Kairos is always in contrast to the running chronos which is our measure of time. Kairos is God’s time, the simple and eternal present moment in which everything is held in existence without confusion, but in God’s perfect creative balance. Kairos is the fullness of God’s time, the moment in which he has always been. So, when we approach a text like this beatitude we are dealing specifically with God’s Kairos, God’s present moment, in which there is no successive passing of moments, but only present reality.
Needless to say, the thought of both universal and personal judgement enters in at this moment, that both must take place, and each of us will be personally responsible for the life which we have led and how it has led us to God, or away from him. In this sense, the moments of our lives lived now already lead us to the eternal moment of God present to us and our present to God. And rising with all those created in God’s image and likeness we, each of us, will know what it is, personally, to have been created thus. We will certainly all rise to judgement, and that judgement will be personal, just as our personhood is utterly individual and unrepeatable.
Blessed are those who treasure the prophetic message of this book
This is not a throw away beatitude. Indeed, it takes us right back to the opening lines of the book, as we saw in the previous beatitude. The writer warned us, as it were, at the outset, that we were to take seriously the contents of his visions, and to treasure them – and this treasuring is always in Scripture an invitation to ponder and to spend time wondering at what we have been told.
But what is the prophetic message of the book? It must exist, and does exist, on multiple levels, and they do not all pertain to what lies in the future. We recall at this moment that prophecy, first and foremost, is a means by which God’s will, dynamic in this moment, is revealed. Prophecy always relates to a declaring present, even partially, of God’s salvific action in our world and our lives, even when its fulfillment is not yet experienced entirely and lies in the future. And this is quite true of Apocalypse: the tumultuous battle which rages between good and evil, between the disciples of Christ and agents of Satan, is an ongoing reality, and our world is never short of evidence which shows this to be true, for those who will see it and read it. This is part of the invitation that Apocalypse makes to us: the war and combat is now, and we must decide to be part of it, one way or the other, and what side we wish to fight on.
From another point of view, Apocalypse undoubtedly links the earthly and the heavenly liturgy. The centrality of the Lamb – Christ Jesus, dead and risen and reigning in glory – is the hinge for all that happens in Apocalypse. The joining of the Bride with the Lamb – the Church with Christ – happens now, and is happening now, in the lives of believers, in prayer and worship, and in the life of charity. But how does it focus us on what lies ahead? This is a burning question for John the Writer. What we do now must be a foreshadowing of what will take place in eternity.
And the question of witness – martyrdom, after all – looms large in Apocalypse. This is the life of the Spirit fully blossoming, that those who are energised by the gifts and fruits of the Spirit in their lives will proclaim Christ Jesus, will have his name written on their foreheads for all to see, will be prepared to offer their very selves, not counting the cost, for him.
Blessed are those who will have washed their robes clean, so that they will have the right to feed on the tree of life and can come through the gates into the city.
The washing clean will have taken place in the river of life which rises from the throne of God and of the Lamb and flows crystal-clear down the middle of the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem. We should be careful here about misquotation – there is nothing in these verses about washing our robes clean in the blood of the Lamb! Rather, the writer wishes us to think about the great Temple vision which Ezekiel had and records in his own prophecy (Ezekiel 47). From the Christian point of view this makes its way into the Paschal context of baptism and incorporation into Christ. Water, for John, both in the Gospel and in the letters, is central, and signifies the new life of Christ rising up within the believer (see, for example, the encounter with the Samaritan woman, John 4). And certainly both water and blood flow from the pierced side of Christ – taken by the Fathers as the birth of the Church and the beginning of the sacraments – and are called, along with the Spirit, witnesses in 1 John 5:5-8, the call to all those who are disciples and who are saved by their belief in Jesus Christ.
So, these are those who have lived their baptism fully in the manner of believing discipleship and are now part of the eternally worshipping assembly before the throne of God and of the Lamb.
So to the question of baptism, and what it is, and what it brings, and what it behooves us. Undoubtedly, in the school of John the Evangelist baptism – the regeneration brought about by washing in water – was central in the life of the new believer. And this is precisely what baptism confirms: that one believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and has opened to us the promise of eternal life with the Father. For John, the role of water is intimately connected to the recognition of the new creation begun through the Word made flesh. This is a central tenet which begins from the very opening of the Gospel, the Prologue: here, John vividly reminds us of the Genesis creation and invites us to consider it now as new creation in Christ. And this teaching runs throughout the Gospel, even to the point of the extended image of garden, especially in the climactic final chapters – the Risen Jesus is mistaken for the gardener, in other words, the one who usually tends that earthly garden; but, in fact, he is truly The Gardener, the one in whom the Garden is recapitulated but in an altogether new way, not as garden only but as heavenly city, the apex of Apocalypse.
Baptism, then, is the dynamic energy linked to the life of the Spirit, which confirms the believer as one setting a foot on the road to eternal life already, a road which will finish with the fullness of the gift of Christ’s sanctifying Spirit, from the Cross – the tree of life – and in the room in that moment of the gift of peace, which Christ confirms by breathing upon his disciples, giving them the gift of his Spirit.
Again, with mention of the tree of life which draws its energy from the crystal water of the heavenly city we are once again in the midst of the primordial garden of God’s creation. Now, of course, an entirely new reality is revealed: the ones created in the image and likeness of God realise that existence and createdness by participating in the divine life, through the uniqure marriage with the Lamb.
Above all, the Apocalypse beatitudes ring out the Gospel message: repentance and conversion of life are necessary if we are to embrace discipleship and come to live fully the life which Christ offers us. It speaks to us of redemption and salvation; of the ongoing struggle between good and evil, not just cosmically and in all times, but in the microcosm of my life and times; but its confidence is overwhelming – the victory of the Lamb is assured, even if, for some time, Satan appears to have the upper hand.
The Spirit which we have received is the great bond which draws us into this world of both the immanent and the transcendent. The bond of love between the Father and the Son, the mark of ownership on all those who profess belief in Christ, and the dynamic energy which gives life to the liturgy celebrated by God’s people – the Spirit is all this, and more, as it bridges the gap between our lives here and the heavenly life waiting for us. In particular the life-giving celebration of the liturgy as the foretaste of the heavenly liturgy is held out to us: with every invocation of the Spirit’s presence, with every epiclesis, calling him down into the midst of our prayer, we experience something of the consecration which is made perfect in the love of the Father and the Son. This sanctification is entirely unearthly: no power on earth can suggest it, mimic it or replicate it – it is only possible by God’s gracious self-emptying. Perhaps above all we need to reclaim this as men and women of the miracle of Pentecost: our liturgical celebration is already a doorway into eternity, and the sanctification which it brings is the mark of our redemption in Christ.