By Pat Angiolillo
With the troublesome crises and conflicts erupting the world over, it may seem like something more than violence is brewing in today’s world. Without declaring that “the end is nigh,” I think it is evident to faithful persons of many stripes that evil forces are indeed at work in the world and become all the more apparent in times of war and conflict.
What may be fodder for fanatics and doomsdayers is, I think for the most of us, simple evidence of persistent hatred and violence in our broken human world. It should come as no surprise to anyone that such crises generated by political and religious strife have long been a staple in the human narrative. Ancient peoples record histories upon histories of violent conflict between political powers and, with less frequency, between religious ideologies. Indeed, the Bible itself is home to such histories—conflict between warring Hebrews and Canaanites, between Israelites and Philistines, between Hasmoneans and Hellenists.
We are thus only the most recent in a long line of humanity to face the travails of socio-religious and geopolitical conflict. It should come as no further surprise, then, that the many peoples who have come before us have not only recorded the problems of the past but have, in their own way, attempted to make sense of the crises of their own day.
No attempt at understanding religious and political turmoil is more relevant to our current crises than the Jewish, and early Christian, apocalyptic literature of the late Second Temple period.
The literary genre of apocalypse takes its name from the Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse to the Apostle John. Both apocalypse (from the Greek ἀποκάλυψις) and revelation (from the Latin revēlātiō) mean something “uncovered,” “revealed,” or disclosed.1 The genre, then, denotes literary pieces, like the Book of Revelation, which have as their starting point, the revelation of some hidden, usually divine or cosmological, secrets to a heroic or historically important figure through the mediation of an angelic or heavenly being.2 The point or purpose of the apocalypse, however, is much more interesting, and more relevant to our discussion than the actual literary structure of the genre.
To dispel any misconceptions, I will say forthrightly that an apocalypse is not a roadmap for the end of the world.
The apocalypse does not seek to provide its audience with a prognostic narrative of future events as they are to occur in historical detail. The apocalypse is rather much more poetic. Its illocutionary function, more often than not, is to comfort its audience, and in certain cases to offer instruction for life in the present world. As John J. Collins has aptly (and I think eloquently) pointed out, the language of the apocalypse is “not descriptive, referential, newspaper language, but the expressive language of poetry, which uses symbols and imagery to articulate a sense or feeling about the world.”3 Indeed, Collins adds that the apocalypse is “commissive in character; it commits us to a view of the world for the sake of the actions and attitudes that are entailed.”4
The apocalypse tells us that there is a problem; it admits the world is not right with things as they are; and indeed it delves into the problem headlong, probing deeply the crisis at hand or the (usually sinful) nature of things in the current world order.5
Moreover, the apocalypse does not propose an answer to the problem itself. It does not often satisfactorily answer the question “why?” Thus when Ezra inquires about God’s justice, and why Israel’s fate is to be oppressed despite its divinely chosen status (e.g., 4 Ezra 3:35-36), he is not given a direct answer to the question so much as provided a solution to the problem altogether. The angel of God (somewhat harshly) declares that “the world to come will bring joy to the few, but torment to the many” (7:47). This severity finds its context in the providence, the absolute power of the divine. Therefore, while Ezra’s apprehension and misunderstanding appears logical, his interlocutor responds not with rational argumentation, but rather with repeated revelations of God’s absolute sovereignty. This technique is integral to “the psychological process of calming fear and building trust” in Ezra.6 If we set aside the details of the apocalypse’s soteriology, we see that the larger function of the text is to comfort the visionary, to ensure him of God’s great power over the cosmos, over history, over the whole order of all things, and that this control will see to the rectification of things.
The point of the apocalypse, then, is, most significantly for our purposes, to comfort. The audience, it is presupposed, faces a crisis in faith. For Daniel, it was Hellenism (especially the Seleucid king Antiochus IV). For Ezra, it was the human situation in a post-70 CE world (a world after the fall of the Second Temple). For John (as well as many others), it was Rome (especially Nero, who becomes a sort of antichrist in Christian apocalyptic literature).
These problems are at the heart of the faithful people’s crisis. The faithful, in turn, want to understand the situation. The apocalypse does not propose an answer per se, but it does confidently declare that all as it is presently will not remain the way it is. God will intervene in the world, the present order will give way to a future order, and how things ought to be will be manifest in this world as well as the next.
In short, the apocalypse provides a hope for restitution and recompense, for reorder and re-creation. It looks to God in order to fit the current crisis into the cosmological order and the divine plan so as to understand the “how” and the “why” of the present time. It does not look to political authorities or religious institutions. It wonders and awes in the glory and power of the divine.
Perhaps we need an injection of the Holy Spirit’s gift of wonder and awe, and perhaps reading some apocalyptic literature can be just the prescription to deliver it. But at the same time, we should not expect the apocalypse to lay out a roadmap of the future as much as provide a framework for understanding the present (in view of the whole of history) and an imagination in which the future can be hoped for as a means for comforting the presently afflicted.
The sacred Book of Revelation, then, offers us a framework for understanding the phenomenon of persecution and oppression. John, the visionary who receives the revelation, witnesses the defeat of the Dragon, Satan, by Michael, the archangel (see esp. 12:7-9). Interestingly, the early Christian martyrs partake in this victory: “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (12:11, NRSV). The apocalypse here offers “an ethic for martyrdom” and explains how Christians can defeat Satan by following “the powerful example of Christ.”7 Similarly, Daniel 10–12 provides an account of “heroes in the time of persecution,”8 the wise teachers who fall by sword and flame (Daniel 11:35). These readings offer the audience not only a rationale for persecution, but a means for embracing—however difficultly—the sufferings of the present time. Not only will evil be overthrown, but those who held fast will be active participants in the glory of this victory.
The Gospels, too, provide us with material for understanding the future and finding consolation or hope in the eschaton. While the question of how “apocalyptic” are the Gospels remains debated, it is clear eschatological, soteriological, and apocalyptic overtones run deep in certain Gospel material, especially passages involving the “kingdom.” Indeed, Jesus repeatedly divulges information about heaven and hell (or Hades), the Son of Man, angels and demons, a coming judgment, and an eschatological meal in the kingdom of God. While the function of these sayings or discourses differ according to context, together they provide us with ways of grasping the history of salvation and can even comfort afflicted persons with the knowledge of retribution and rectification.
All of this is to say that when we are faced with a world of violence, hate, and destruction, we are also blessed with a well of spiritual literature that can support us in times of such tribulation. On a pastoral level, I would propose a special Mass for the intention of the persecuted,9 which would, I think, appropriately incorporate readings from our sacred apocalyptic literature, including the Book of Daniel (esp. 10-12), the Book of Revelation (e.g., 12:11, see above), and the Gospels (e.g., Matt 24:29-31 and ||’s; or Matt 25, the judgment scene). While it is at Pastor’s discretion which readings to select for this occasion,10 I think great care can be taken to incorporate the witness of the prophet Daniel, the apostle John, and any of the evangelists.
I do not mean to sketch at length a proposal for such a Mass (which would, indeed, include appropriate musical accompaniment as well), but I do suggest the potential for such a Mass, and do as well suggest priests take note of the great consoling power of the apocalypse (both within our sacred tradition and outside it). Perhaps the “apocalyptic cure”11 that served to comfort so many so long ago can serve to heal those suffering in today’s world as well.
1 See LSJ “ἀποκάλυψις.”
2 See J.J. Collins, ed., Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre (Semeia 14; Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1979).
3 The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (2d ed; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 282.
4 Ibid., 283.
5 Again, as Collins puts it so well: “the apocalypse deepens our perception of the problem before we can proceed tot eh solution” (Ibid., 210).
6 Ibid., 202; see also 195-212
7 Ibid., 276.
9 The Roman Missal allows for the interruption of the regular weekday lectionary for “some particular celebration” (General Instruction, §359). I am thus under the impression that a Mass for the persecuted, with appropriate readings culled from the lectionary, would be permissible.
10 Readings and psalms for persecuted Christians can be found in the Catholic Lectionary among the Masses for Various Needs and Occasions (§§877-81).
11 A phrase first employed by J.-C. Picard, “Observations sur l’Apocalypse grecque de Baruch” Semitica 20 (1970): 87-90; see also, Collins, Apocalypitc Imagination, esp. 52, 250.