The Apocalypse as a Key to Devotion

Of all the books in the New Testament, Revelation, with its many monsters, wonders, and sheer weirdness may seem the most remote from our lived experience as Christians. And yet this book provides the most solid biblical foundation for many of the devotional practices of Catholics today.

Consider the two pillars of the devotional life: the Eucharist and Mary.

Both are represented in Revelation in profound ways.

First, the Eucharist is alluded to in the very beginning as the ‘hidden manna.’ This alludes back to the manna of the Old Testament, which itself foreshadowed the Bread of Life Jesus offered in John 6. After this initial instance, the Eucharist continually recurs throughout. There is the small scroll that is eaten by John, reminding us that the Eucharist is the Word of God. There is the wine press that churns out blood. And there are also the bowls of blood and cup of wine near the end of the book.

The significance of these Eucharistic references is reinforced by the liturgical structure of Revelation, which many commentators have noted parallels the Mass—from the frequent appearance of the altar to the chanting of the Sanctus. (Here is one comprehensive list.)

What is particularly interesting about the above examples, however, is that they are not obviously situated in liturgical contexts. Likewise, today, we experience the Eucharist not only in the Mass but also through Eucharist adoration, processions, and any time we choose to pray where the host is reserved. The liturgy is meant to be lived outside the four walls of a church.

Revelation has also given us one of the most memorable images of Mary as Queen of Heaven:

A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars (Rev. 12:1).

And the book also confirms one of the great biblical themes of Marian theology: that she is the new ark of the covenant. This is subtly hinted at in the infancy narrative of Luke. But it is only here in the Book of ‘Revelation’ that the connected is plainly manifested.

This is significant for Marian theology for numerous reasons. Most notably, in the Old Testament the ark was vested with certain powers and it was object of worship. This provides a biblical basis for Catholic for veneration—not adoration—of Mary as a power Mediatrix on our behalf.

But that’s just the beginning of the many connections between Revelation and Catholic devotion today. Consider also these parallels:

The Sign of the Cross: In Revelation 7, those saved from a storm on earth and sea are marked with a sign. Later, John sees the saints with the ‘name’ of God on their forehead (Rev. 14:1, 22:4).

Devotion to the saints: Revelation 5:8 and 8:4 refer to the prayers of the saints. Although the passage is somewhat vague it is reasonable to infer that these are prayers on our behalf, given that the saints seemingly no longer have any needs of their own to offer up.

Patron saints of parishes: One of the many things that distinguishes Catholic churches from many evangelical Protestant ones is that parishes have a patron saint. One of my local parishes is named St. Joseph’s. Another is St. Sebastian’s. This may seem like a very late medieval accretion but it has roots in the beginning of Revelation, when John addresses letters not to the churches but to the angels who were patrons of the churches. (See Rev. 1 and 2.)

Lighting candles: Lampstands are mentioned throughout Revelation. Although these can be associated with the traditional candles on the altar, the texts could also generally point to the custom of lighting votive candles. (See Rev. 1, 2, and 11:4; one source on this is this writer.)

Why is Revelation so steeped in the images and acts of devotion?

Revelation so often comes across as otherworldly and far removed from the world of the gospels.

I think that’s whole point of the book.

Remember, Revelation was the last or nearly the last book written in the Old Testament, penned just years before 100 AD (see this timeline). It had been nearly 70 years since Christ had walked the earth. The point of Revelation is to show that the truth of the Incarnation would extend over time and space—spanning all history and encompassing the heavens and earth. He is, as Revelation puts it, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.

Christ had ascended but He remained with us, drawing us towards Himself as the end of all history. The Mass plays the pre-eminent role in making Christ’s climactic self-offering present to us, which is Revelation has so many liturgical motifs.

Our devotional acts also serve this same purpose making Christ present to us anew. Devotional practices such as praying the rosary, making the sign of the cross, and lighting a candle are the mystical cords that connect us to Christ across time and space.

*

Note: For further reading I recommend All Things Made New by Stratford Caldecott, to whom I credit my understanding of the relationship between Revelation and the Incarnation.

image: Worthy is the Lamb / Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP / Flickr

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • Tom W

    mm

  • jellojenna6

    This was a very interesting and illuminating article.

  • bwc

    Another very good aid as I explain to my RCIA groups about the Mass.

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