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The Seven Beatitudes in the Book of Revelation

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Grace asks the following question: “Father, could you kindly explain the meanings of the Seven Beatitudes in the Book of Revelation?” Here is my reflection upon them.

Revelation 1:3“Blessed is the one who reads aloud and blessed are those who listen to this prophetic message and heed what is written in it, for the appointed time is near.”

Forming part of the greeting in this book of Scripture, it makes reference to God’s prophetic word that now is tthe appointed time.  The time is near when the Lord will appear in his glory. Like so much of this book, it strikes an apocalyptic tone. Harkening back to the Gospel message and the promises of Christ, it signifies that time is short, we must make ready for the coming of the Lord.

Revelation 14:13“I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ said the Spirit, ‘let them find rest from their labors, for their works accompany them.’”

The context here is the warning of three angels. Having admonished the pagan Romans to repent and worship the true God before it is too late; believers are consoled that if they remain faithful then their obedience or works will be a pleasing witness on their behalf before the divine tribunal.

Revelation 16:15“‘Behold, I am coming like a thief.’ Blessed is the one who watches and keeps his clothes ready, so that he may not go naked and people see him exposed.”

This beatitude is uttered at a more ominous part of the book. While there are certainly references to the persecution by pagan Rome, it has also been understood to point to a final reckoning. It is a time of false prophets and the infestation of demons. The antichrist wages war against the saints. After this blessing we are told that the kings will assemble in a place called Armageddon. True believers are urged to keep courage and know that even if all the powers of hell are waged against them and they only see death at every side, the Lord will come to save them. Christ has already conquered sin and death. But there will come a day when their effects will be undone. God’s people will not be abandoned.

The business about Christ coming as a thief at night is also often associated with our mortality.  Even if we are not personally alive at the end of the world, every death is the end of our mortal sojourn.  We need to be ready for our encounter before Christ and our particular judgment prior to the last or general judgment of all. 

Revelation makes allusions to the ancient plagues in Egypt at the time of Moses. But we have an even greater liberator in Jesus Christ.  We must be sentries for the Lord and stay awake. The reference to clothes is a reference to Genesis and the fall. After they had sinned, Adam and Eve hid themselves in shame because they realized they were naked. Apart from Christ we are all spiritually naked. As St. Paul tells us, we must be clothed in Christ. In the Lord there is no more shame or fear, just confidence and an ever-realized hope.

Revelation 19:9-10“Then the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who have been called to the wedding feast of the Lamb.’ And he said to me, ‘These words are true; they come from God.’ I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, ‘Don’t! I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brothers who bear witness to Jesus. Worship God. Witness to Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.’”

This beatitude is echoed in every Mass with the final elevation of the consecrated species; the priest says: “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.” A heavenly messenger is so filled with the divine presence that he must warn the visionary not to worship him. The scene is overwhelming. The previous verses speak of the bride who has been allowed to wear a clean linen garment, vesture which represents the “righteous deeds” or works of the holy ones or saints. This bride is the Church brought to perfection by her divine bridegroom, Christ. The wedding feast is the nuptial celebration of the heavenly kingdom. Christ is the Paschal Lamb who is now the Lamb of Victory. He has purchased the life of his bride with his own life. She has been washed clean by his blood. The angelic demand to worship God alone has been the faithful charge given the Church.

We are baptized into the spirit of prophecy, indeed we are reborn in the Spirit and anointed into Christ, priest, prophet and king. This theme of the marriage banquet and the Lamb of God is an integral element of Catholic worship. Our Lord made reference to himself as the Lamb of God, a truth realized between his Last Supper and the hill of Calvary. Every Mass is a celebration of the paschal mystery of Christ, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Again and again, we repeat these words every time we gather for worship. Jesus is made present and his sacrifice is realized or re-presented for believers today around the world. The mystery of Christ refuses to be locked in human history or any one place. It is a piece of eternity that intersects the linear time and world of mortal men, changing the meaning and direction of all salvation history.

Signified in his ministers, our Lord is the eternal High Priest and groom to his Church, his bride. Every Mass is a sacramental participation in the heavenly marriage banquet. The risen Christ comes to us in Holy Communion, giving us a share in the bounty from his table. One day sacred signs will pass, as will faith, and we will see face to face and know the one who has called us to share in his intimate everlasting love. This blessing is in regard to that union with God that Christ makes possible.

Revelation 20:6“Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over these; they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for [the] thousand years.”

There are a number of elements that make this book difficult to interpret. It is filled with symbolism and numerology. There are references to the old pagan Rome and also to the final judgment. Chronology is often confused by exegetes, particularly those who read it with a bias against Catholicism or because they want to connect modern-day figures or countries to the symbolic elements. Keeping all this in mind, what can we say about this blessing? First, there will be no literal thousand year earthly reign of Christ. The mention of a thousand years is not literal but signifies the extended period between the chaining of Satan (Christ’s resurrection and victory over sin and death) and the end of days or end of the world. We were reborn in baptism. We were granted a share in eternal life. Becoming temples of the Holy Spirit, Christ lives in us. At the end of the first millennium, many believers took the number literally and thought that Christ would then surely come. But the Lord comes in his own good time. Second, the Church would rejoice that many more souls might be conceived and come to faith in Jesus and have a share in his resurrected life. Just as Moses prophesied when he said that he would have a nation of priests, along with prophet, we are anointed with chrism as priests. Our baptismal priesthood joins us together as a nation of priests.

Verses seven to ten which follow speak of Satan being released: “When the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison. He will go out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. They invaded the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the holy ones and the beloved city. But fire came down from heaven and consumed them. The Devil who had led them astray was thrown into the pool of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”

There are been similar visions in the history of the Church.  Although the story circulated for years from Vatican staff to others, one of the more influential tales has to do with Pope Leo XIII.  Back on October 13, 1884, Pope Leo had concluded offering Mass. However, when he turned around, he sudden froze in place. Other authorities claimed he collapsed down the few steps and went into a death-like coma. He stayed this way for ten minutes or so. The attending clergy raced to his side in fear for his health. When he got moving again, apparently in some shock, they quickly took him to his private rooms. He sat down at his desk and wrote what has come to be called the Leonine Exorcism Prayer or the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel. He would mandate that this prayer be appended to the “Low Mass” (unsung) of the Roman Rite.

What did the Pope experience during his mystical ecstasy? On the level of legend now, it is said that he claimed he could hear the voices of Satan and Christ in front of the altar and tabernacle. He described the voice of Satan as raspy and deep. The other was manly but soft and gentle.

Here is one version of the supposed dialogue:

The gruff voice boasted, “I can destroy your Church.”

The Lord challenged, “You can? Then go ahead and do so.”

Satan responded, “To do so, I need more time and more power.”

Jesus asked, “How much time? How much power?”

The devil said, “Allow me seventy-five to a hundred years, and a greater influence over those who will surrender themselves to my service.”

Christ consented, “So be it. You have the time; you will have the power. Do with them what you will.”

It is said the Pope claimed to have been shown a vision of demons released from Hell and with the purpose to corrupt souls and destroy the Church. Some suggest that this was all he experienced and the accompanying dialogue was a later embellishment. Fr. Domenico Pechenino, a priest who witnessed the event said as much in the 1940’s. He spoke about the look of terror on the Pope’s face, which had lost all color.

Now relegated to private devotion, although modern Popes have suggested but not demanded it’s restoration to the reformed liturgy, here is the edited or short version of Pope Leo’s prayer in vogue today:

“St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle, be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil; may God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust (or cast) into hell Satan and (all) the other evil spirits who prowl (or wander or roam) about the world for the ruin of souls. Amen.”

What have we endured in the century since the vision? We have seen the devastation of the French Revolution, the rise and fall of European Communism, Hitler’s Germany and the extermination of six million Jews and millions of others besides, Communist dictatorships in Asia and the rise of radical militant Islam. We have seen the massive defection from faith and the eradication of Christian values from Western society. During this century homosexuality became a civil right and abortion became a legal choice. More people cohabitate and fornicate than coming to the marriage bed undefiled. Babylon has returned and the remnant of the saints is again persecuted.  While not underestimating man’s capacity for evil, it certainly seems that the demonic has had free reign to numb sconsciences and to corrupt souls. 

Revelation 22:7-9“‘Behold, I am coming soon.’ Blessed is the one who keeps the prophetic message of this book. It is I, John, who heard and saw these things, and when I heard and saw them I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me. But he said to me, ‘Don’t! I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brothers the prophets and of those who keep the message of this book. Worship God.’”

This blessing at the end of the book parallels similar beatitudes at the beginning and later in Revelation: 1:3 and 19:9-10. The message is essentially the same: this is a prophetic and spirit-filled message from God, it rests upon the authority of John, and an angel of God exhorts that all who receive this message abide in it seriously. The repeated stress on worship is not incidental. Along with the heavenly hosts, our very purpose and the general thrust of creation is to give glory to God. Such calls us to know, to love and to obey the Lord. Our worship in this world joins us to the communion of the saints and to the choirs of angels.

The principal activity in the heavenly kingdom is to give glory to God. Here we may find a hint to the deadly sin of Satan. He refused to bend the knee to the Son of God, the one who would be made incarnate. He could seek to slaughter the Lamb of God but he would never render worship. There is an old saying, “Pride goes before the fall.” True for men, it might have significance as well for the fallen angels or demons. And yet, the pride might not be so much between themselves as angelic creatures and the divine spirit as it is with the Second Person of the Trinity who would join himself to material creation. Knowing that angels are of a higher order or hierarchy in the created order, one could easily imagine that the devil would be incensed that an ensouled “animal” of flesh and blood should suddenly trump them and be so honored as to become God made man, reflecting the face of the Father in the Son. God became a man so that men by grace might share in divinity.

Revelation 22:12-15“‘Behold, I am coming soon. I bring with me the recompense I will give to each according to his deeds. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’ Blessed are they who wash their robes so as to have the right to the tree of life and enter the city through its gates. Outside are the dogs, the sorcerers, the unchaste, the murderers, the idol-worshipers, and all who love and practice deceit.”

While the reference to “dogs” was originally used by Jews about the Gentiles, here it means those outside the faith. We are called to be God’s children. “Sorcerers” are literally those seek to bypass divine providence and call upon the powers of the occult. The “unchaste” touches upon all those mentioned by St. Paul as excluded from the kingdom. Our Christianity demands a life of chaste and moderated love, safeguarding persons and not degrading others or ourselves with lust. Fornication, adultery, homosexual acts, etc. would fall into this category. “Murderers” refers to actual killers but also those who approve of taking innocent life, are passive to such acts. Those who betrayed Christians to the murderous persecution of Rome were murderers. Those who destroyed children as in abortion and infanticide (practiced by the pagans then and now) are also reckoned as murderers. The reference to “idol-worshippers” was a direct attack against the pagan religion of the Greeks and Romans. They could not worship idols of stone or the false deities they signified. Today, we would probably just argue that these deities did not exist in any form and that such worship was empty. However, it was the view of the ancient fathers that the deities of the pagans, while not gods, did have real existence as creatures, the demons. Thus, association with such false worship not only violated the Decalogue but placed one in bondage to Satan. The truth is also very important for the Church. Our Lord said that he came to testify to the truth. As for those who “love and practice deceit,” this is a stark warning to the believers of every age. We must be authentic. The word of a liar has no value. Just as the Lord keeps his promises, we must keep ours. God does not want part-time Christians. We must not simply go through the motions of discipleship. Every liar says with Peter in the courtyard of Caiaphas when asked about being a friend of Christ, “I tell you, I do not know the man!” Fortunately Peter had the opportunity to change his tune. Will we have time to do so?

As in the other beatitudes, we find the theme of Christ’s imminent return, judgment, reward to the just and punishment to evildoers. It has often amazed me that while some anti-Catholic apologists make so much of faith over works, the truth is that the two elements are intimately connected. It is not enough to say one believes. Faith needs to be realized with a movement of the will. There must be a genuine love of God that flows over into charity for neighbor. Christ is the eternal Word of God, the First and the Last. All creation must be consummated in him. The elect of God are depicted as in robes of white, washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. The damage of the old Adam has been healed by the new. Note that while original sin was connected to the forbidden fruit of a tree in the Garden, here too there is mention of a tree, the Tree of Life. This tree makes possible our return to a state of grace and communion with God. What is this Tree of Life? More recently Pope Benedict XVI has spoken about it as the saving Cross. Sin and death came into the world from a living tree; forgiveness and life were restored through the dead tree of the Cross. In other words, the saving work of Christ in his crucifixion has eternal consequences. Nothing will ever be the same. As pilgrims in this world, the fruits of that Living Tree are given to us as saving food in the Eucharist, rations from the banquet table of the Promised Shore and Kingdom. Immediately following the beatitude, there is an acknowledgment of those who are lost on the outside.

We are reminded of the foolish bridesmaids who in the parable allowed their oil to run out and were left outside the marriage banquet. We read in Matthew 25:11-13: “Afterwards the other virgins came and said, ‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’ But he said in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

There are also other teachings of Christ that refer to such judgment:

“I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven, but the children of the kingdom will be driven out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (Matthew 8:11-12).

“Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, ‘Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.’ He said in reply, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But the woman came and did him homage, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He said in reply, ‘It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.’ Then Jesus said to her in reply, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed from that hour” (Matthew 15:21-28).

This last quotation connects with the word “dogs,” following this beatitude, actually a word that might be translated even more crudely. It would remind us that even the dogs might come inside from the cold and share from the table, if there is genuine faith, love and obedience. But the time grows short and soon it may be too late. There is urgency throughout these blessings and they are weighed against the possible terrible consequences of the curse and judgment.

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