2d Sunday of EasterApril 7, 2013
Rev 1: 9-13, 17-19
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.
St. Timothy, Greenwich, Conn.
“I am the first and the last, the one who lives. I hold the keys to death and the netherworld” (Rev 1: 17, 18).
During the Easter season this year, our 2d readings will come from the book of Revelation, the strangest, least understood book of the New Testament. Obviously, in only 6 Sundays we can’t read much of its 22 chapters. You wouldn't want to read all 22 chapters in just 6 weeks, would you?
As the reading today hints, Revelation comes from a period of persecution of the Church: the author, John, “found [himself] on the island called Patmos because I proclaimed God’s word and gave testimony to Jesus” (1:9); he’s been exiled to a 13-square-mile island in the Aegean Sea, about 20 miles off the coast of Asia Minor (part of modern Turkey) for preaching the Gospel. This probably was in the last years of the 1st century. The revelation given to John (the vision that he sees, the words that he hears) is addressed to the 7 churches of Asia Minor—today we’d call them dioceses, but in the 1st century they were quite small, unlike dioceses today. Their names are listed in the half verse of v. 11 that our reading skipped over. The revelation is meant to encourage them to persevere in their faith in spite of the persecution. John’s directed to write down the vision and to share it with the churches.
The 7 churches evidently considered the revelation very important; they preserved it for future generations, and eventually the entire Catholic Church recognized it as inspired Scripture.
John begins by identifying himself with the 7 churches: he is their brother; he shares in the distress they’re going thru, he shares in the kingdom of God that they’re part of, he shares in their enduring faith in Jesus (1:9). The Church, as we profess every week, is a communion of saints, all of us linked together in Jesus Christ.
John receives the vision “on the Lord’s day,” on Sunday (1:10). It’s the day of the resurrection, the day of the new creation ordained by God when everything is made new, restored, brought back to life. It’s the day of our eternal hope, the reason why we persevere in faith, hoping to share forever in God’s kingdom.
The voice he hears is “loud as a trumpet” (1:10), clear, unmistakable, solemn. Trumpets accompany God’s presence at Mt. Sinai, so John clearly is having a heavenly vision.
When John has “turned to see whose voice it was that spoke” to him (1:12), the vision per se begins: “I saw 7 gold lampstands and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man” (1:12-13). The lampstands represent the 7 churches of Asia Minor, which bear the light of truth to the world, like the lamp that Jesus speaks of: “You are the light of the world…. A lamp is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house” (Matt 5:14-15).
“One like a son of man” is in the middle of the 7 lampstands. As you know, Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man, including at his trial. Based on the prophecies of the book of Daniel (ch. 7), the Son of Man is taken to be the Messiah; in John’s vision, it is evidently Jesus Christ, and he is present among the churches—these churches being persecuted, these churches shedding their light upon the pagan world of the 1st-century Roman Empire.
This Son of Man, John sees, is “wearing an ankle-length robe, with a gold sash around his chest” (1:13). The long robe is priestly garb; the sash is a sign of his authority. You’re quite familiar with our liturgical garments, aren’t you? Those performing priestly service at or near the altar wear ankle-length white robes, and those who are ordained wear sashes that we call stoles. Christ the priest is in our midst, interceding for us, offering sacrifice for us, and by his presence also making all of us a priestly people; we all share in this Eucharistic sacrifice, in the sacrifice of our entire lives offered to God, and in the praise we give to the Father thru Jesus.
The authority of the Son of Man will extend to judging individuals at the end of their lives, or at the end of history—the Last Judgment: “The Father … has given him authority to execute judgment because he is the Son of Man,” Jesus says in St. John’s Gospel. “The hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come out, those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation” (5:27-29). Michelangelo’s powerful representation of that judgment looms over the Sistine Chapel, as more than one cardinal remarked after last month’s conclave, reminding them that Christ will hold them accountable for their votes for the pastor of his Church. And so will he review the accounts of our words and deeds, our hopes and desires, our omissions, when we stand before him.
Seeing this heavenly personage, John “falls down at his feet as tho dead” (1:17). He’s overpowered, overwhelmed, perhaps terrified. It’s a common reaction to visions, especially in the Old Testament. But the Son of Man touches him—a gesture of comfort, reassurance, healing, so often done by Jesus during his earthly life—and says, “Do not be afraid” (1:17), repeating a phrase often on Jesus’ lips. He isn’t among us to terrify us or overawe us but to bring us salvation, healing, divine life.
And so he indicates: “I am the first and the last, the one who lives” (1:17-18). He is divine—“the first and the last”—and he is the one who has overcome death, rising from the grave, which he then emphasizes: “Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever.” Both of these assurances, his divinity and his resurrection to eternal life, are reasons for Christians not to be afraid—not afraid of God, not afraid of a world that hates and persecutes us.
Furthermore, Jesus says to John, “I hold the keys to death and the netherworld” (1:18). The netherworld, the underworld, hades in Greek, “hell” in Old English, is the realm of the dead. Jesus has been there—“he descended into hell,” we say in the Creed, not meaning the place or state of eternal damnation, but the world of the dead. But he’s got the keys, he’s opened the gates, he’s set the dead free—at least, all those who believe in him and who follow him. If we choose not to follow him, of course, then we choose not to go with him thru those open gates; we choose to stay dead—that’s eternal damnation.
Those are the same keys that Jesus gave to St. Peter: “I will give to you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. On you I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:19,18). Jesus is in the midst of his Church, he acts in his Church, he saves people from their sins and from eternal death thru his Church.
All that is more reason not to be afraid of the Son of Man; rather, to embrace him and to stick with him, even when we experience distress, and endurance is demanded of us. We may be distressed because of external persecution, like the 7 churches of Asia Minor, like Christians in many places and many times, even in our own times; we may be distressed because of discrimination and hardships aimed at the faithful in so-called “enlightened” cultures (like our own Western culture); we may be distressed because it’s hard work to resist evil and practice virtue, day in and day out, not only because of social pressures but also because of our inborn moral weaknesses, our original sinfulness. “No persecutor can defeat Jesus, nor can a persecutor defeat a disciple of Jesus”—no earthly persecutor, no demonic persecutor. Hell ain’t gonna prevail!
But Jesus stands with us. He has overcome the worst that men and demons can do, and he means to bring us with him into eternal life. “Do not be afraid,” then, of whatever worldly powers or worldly opinion may threaten; “do not be afraid” even of your own sins, because he forgives them when we allow him to do so, and when we persevere as his disciples. He is “alive forever and ever,” and his life he shares with us, especially in these sacred mysteries, the Eucharist and the other 6 sacraments.
 Margaret Nutting Ralph, Breaking Open the Lectionary: Cycle C (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist, 2006), p. 116.