Monday, 14 November 2011

The Unveiling

The Apocalypse ("Unveiling") has long been a challenge to exegetes. In fact it is one of the most mysterious works of the inspired imagination known to humanity. It is more than a vision of the End Times, with the great battles and judgments depicted in paintings throughout the Middle Ages. It is a vision of the underlying structures of the cosmos, and the reality of the spiritual life. The City that descends out of heaven in the final chapters of that great book is the City of the human soul, redeemed and purified, and of the community of eternals – a human and angelic society that is the goal and fulfilment of history. Permeated with
number symbolism, the book is best read in the light of the great mystical Jewish and Pythagorean wisdom tradition, forgotten and despised in an age of materialism. (Though Isaac Newton spent as much time trying to unravel its esoteric meaning as he did laying the foundations of modern physics.)

The Apocalypse was designed to have a certain effect on its hearers when read aloud, and it was to be read ecclesially, in the communion of faith. It should not be treated as a mere book-end, nor dismissed as the eccentric indulgence of an overheated imagination. It has to be received into the soul; it should make a difference to the hearer; it should be taken seriously. The first half of my book was written to explore how John’s extraordinary cascade of images might help to "unveil" the whole Christian tradition for us. I wanted to demonstrate how – with the eyes of faith – the Apocalypse can be seen as a compendium of the Christian mysteries.

As a layman trying to understand the Book of Revelation, some of the texts I found most helpful were by Ian Boxall, Richard Bauckham, and Austin Farrer. Scott Hahn, who sees the Apocalypse as a liturgical commentary, was also an influence on this section, as was Margaret Barker, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and of course Pope Benedict XVI, who for me exemplifies the most balanced ("post-critical") approach to biblical interpretation – a subject we will return to very soon.

In general I avoid the kind of literalistic and often lurid interpretations that take John's prophecies to be a coded description of some very particular historical reality – even though our own period, with its wars and famines, plagues and earthquakes, and the collapsing towers of the worldly city, "Babylon the Great", seems to lend itself to such an approach. I take the prophecies as applicable to any time, and as spiritually applicable to each of us in particular. Readers who want to study more "sensational" aspects might refer to Emmett O'Regan's recent book Unveiling the Apocalypse, which relates the Apocalypse not only to recent historical events but to apparitions and prophecies of Our Lady at Fatima and La Salette. It also has some interesting sections on Gematria, a topic I also touch on and will be discussing in this column later.

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