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Saints and Revelation: The multitudes

November 2, 2012

First published November 2, 2011

Yesterday we looked at the Book of Revelation and how it is a powerful reminder to those who too easily compromise their beliefs. This message is clear right from the beginning of the book with the letters to the seven churches.

After the letters to the seven churches, and after the first vision of the Throne Room of Heaven (Rev 4:5), we arrive at Chapter 5. There is a scroll and no one can open it, except the Lion of Judah (Rev 5:5). Anyone of Jewish origin at the time would have recognized the Lion of Judah to be the Messiah. But when John turns to see the Lion, all he sees is a Lamb (Rev 5:6). Again, I think that most Christians at the time would know who “the Lamb” is. The Lamb proceeds to open the seal and there are seven seals and the opening of each seal sets in motion a series of events that are described (Rev 6).

Just before the seventh seal is opened, we have this heavenly interlude, which is the first reading on the Solemnity of All Saints. All of the sudden we hear about these “servants” of God who will be marked with a seal on their foreheads (Rev 7:3). This is an echo of Ezekiel 9:4-8 where there is a similar marking to spare a group of people from death (not unlike the marking with the blood of the lamb on the doorposts for Passover in Exodus 12:7, 13). In Ezekiel, they are marked with the Hebrew letter “Tau”, which is very similar to the shape of a cross. It is possible that for early Christians, this comment in Revelation would have been clearly referring to those who are marked with the Sign of the Cross.

Then John hears the number of those sealed: 144,000 (Rev 7-4). That’s 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Those verses are usually omitted in yesterday’s reading, but verses 5-8 actually tell us from which tribes these people come. The twelve tribes are the army of Israel. That was the promise to Abraham. It’s possible that the number 1000 merely meant infinite, and so 12 x 12 x 1000 just meant to say an infinite number of the descendants of the tribes of Israel. It could also be 12 x 12 because there are twelve tribes of Israel and twelve apostles. Later on in Revelation we hear about the New Jerusalem: twelve gates with the names of the twelve tribes (Rev 21:12) and twelve courses of stones on which are inscribed the names of the twelve apostles (Rev 21:14). At any rate, it doesn’t mean that it’s a literal number of 144,000; it’s a prefigured number.

We know it’s not a literal number because John never sees 144,000 people. He hears about them and then he looks. What does he see? Not 144,000 people, but a great multitude that no one could count (Rev 7:9*). They are not from Israel, but from every nation. Not from just the twelve tribes, but from every tribe, and not just those who speak Hebrew, but from every language.

And who are these countless people? They are the saints. They are standing before the throne. They are robed in white -– white is the colour of joy and victory. (Note how many times this colour is mentioned in Revelation.) They have palm branches (an echo of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem?) and they are singing, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.” And then the angels (that we’ve been told are myriad) and the twelve elders (the apostles, perhaps?) and the four living creatures respond with seven acclamations (again the number seven): “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever!”

A very similar scene was described in Revelation 5:12. This is what happens in Heaven. This is the heavenly liturgy. And we are told who these people are: they are the ones who’ve come out of the great ordeal (Rev 7:14). It’s easy to conclude that these are the martyrs, but since they’ve “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb,” it could also be that they are merely all who have been baptized — all who have died in Christ (Rev.14:13); Those whose names are written in the book of Life (Rev 21:27); Those who are witnesses (Rev 6:9); Those who’ve been ransomed (Rev. 14:34);  Those for whom the Lamb was slain (Rev 5:9). That’s all of us. That’s all souls.

And this is good news. Seats are not limited in Heaven. Everyone is welcome. Later on we hear about these “servants” of God — the great and small (Rev 19:5). That means all can be servants of God. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, young or old, male or female. It doesn’t matter if you’re struggling with living a virtuous life. And all of them are blessed and invited to the wedding banquet of the Lamb (Rev 19:9). They are blessed! No one is perfect, but everyone is created to be blessed, to be holy. Everyone is created for sainthood.

There is one last tip that you need to know when reading the Book of Revelation. It could be read as a chronology of events — all these things happen sequentially. But perhaps a better way to read it is as if all these things happen simultaneously: the seals are opened at the same time that the plagues are sent. The letters are read as all of this is taking place. All the while, around the throne is the Lamb, who is God, surrounded by the twelve elders, the four living creatures and the myriads of angels and the countless multitudes of people like you and me, who worship continuously. And maybe this doesn’t describe what is to take place in the future for us, but something that happens right here, right now. The heavenly banquet is right here, right now. The wedding feast of the Lamb is right here, right now.

Every time we gather around the Eucharistic banquet, we gather around the throne, with all the souls in purgatory, with the multitudes from every nation, every tribe and people and language, and we say, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And every time we do so at Mass, the twelve elders, the four creatures and the myriads of angels fall on their faces and worship God singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

* Note: In the same way that John hears about the Lion of Judah and then sees the Lamb, here he hears about the 144,000, but he sees a multitude that no one can count. What he hears is the promise; what he sees is the fulfillment. One is not a replacement of the former, but rather a reinterpretation. Some scholars suggest that these two groups (the 144,000 and the great multitude) are a single group, which John sees from a different perspective.

From → English, Reflections

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