Beasts, Plagues, and the Apocalyptic Liturgy

The throne thunders and flickers with lightning. In front are seven torches and a sea of crystal. The occupant of the throne is unseen—at least not at first. All around the throne are four creatures. One looks like a lion. Another looks like an eagle. All of them have six wings covered with eyes.

The creatures are speaking about the holiness of God. Meanwhile, two dozen elders are bowing down before the thrown and throwing their crowns to the ground as they join in the chorus of praise.

Readers may recognize the scene as the opening of Revelation 5.

It’s also something every Catholic witnesses at the beginning of the Mass. It may not seem like it, but scholars say the scene described above corresponds to the procession from the sacristy to the altar while the entrance antiphon is sung.

 

It’s not just a freak instance, but one example of many parallels between the events recounted in fantastic detail in the Book of Revelation and the liturgy we experience. As incredible as it sounds, scholars say that this book about beasts, plagues, warring angels, falling stars and horse-like locusts is a commentary on the liturgy. More to the point, one could also say it’s a depiction of the heavenly liturgy itself in which our earthly liturgy participates.

The parallels are indeed striking. A version of the Gloria appears in Revelation 15:3-4, right before the four living creatures hand over bowls filled with divine fury to seven angels. The collect corresponds to the prayer of the elders. The book also recounts the Liturgy of the Word. It’s depicted in Revelation 5 where the seven-horned and seven-eyed slain lamb is the only one on heaven and earth who can read from the scroll. And then there’s Revelation 10, where a giant angel with a sun-bright face and feet like pillars of fire descends from heaven bearing a small scroll.

The same goes for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which can be seen in hidden manna (ch. 2), the bowls of divine fury (chs. 15 and 16), the worship of the Lamb of God (ch. 5), and the grapes that turn into a field of blood stretching out for two hundred miles (ch. 14). Also, the Sanctus sung before the consecration is mirrored in the song of the four living creatures in Revelation 4.

And that’s just a highly abbreviated list. One writer has compiled dozens of parallels between the liturgy and Eucharist. To see the full list—which matches each part of the Mass to the corresponding chapter and verse citation in Revelation—click here.

One might ask, why does it take a vision of beasts, a dragon, and the end of the world to explain what is happening at the Mass?

The answer is actually quite simple. At the Mass, we hear the very words of God Himself and then encounter His Real Presence under the figure of bread and wine. As awesome as the beasts, battles, and woes of Revelation are, nothing could be more awesome than such an encounter with God.

Revelation also tells us something more about the Mass itself. It depicts the liturgy as the center of cosmic history, as the chief battleground between God, Mary (see ch. 12), his saints and angels against Satan and his allies for the souls of mankind. In other words, the Mass, to paraphrase one theologian, is the working out of the Incarnation in time and space.

As the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology puts it, “Thus far in our study, we’ve seen how the Bible and the Mass were made for each other. The ‘destination’ that all of Scripture points to is the Mass. And the Mass is the Bible in action—right before our eyes the Scripture’s saving truths are ‘actualized,’ made actual or real.”

Want to learn more about Revelation and the liturgy? The St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology has a helpful study guide here. Also, check out Stratford Caldecott’s book, All Things Made New: the Mysteries of the World in Christ (available here). For those who don’t want to wait for the book, an abridged version is available here.

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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