And I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. He held a little scroll open in his hand. Setting his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, he gave a great shout, like a lion roaring. (Rev 10:1-3)
“It’s apocalyptic,” a doctor told the New York Times yesterday, when 13 people died of COVID-19. That’s not a word that Americans use too often to describe their circumstances, but I expect to hear it more and more often as the disease takes more lives and spreads more fear. (Just now, I overheard Hoda Qotb open the Today show with that headline: “Apocalyptic.”)
Not surprisingly, there’s already a swell of doomsday prophecies swirling online, as some Christians interpret current events in terms of the Bible’s descriptions of the “end of days.” As in plague-stricken medieval Europe, I suspect that the Book of Revelation is about to become very popular again. So I was almost glad to see this week’s lectionary readings include selections from a book sometimes called the Apocalypse of John.
“The Revelation of John is a scary book,” acknowledges Virginia Stem Owens at the very beginning of her commentary in the Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible. “It may well be the least read and most feared book in the New Testament. Not only is it full of malicious monsters, but even the good guys strike us as bizarre creatures” — like, say, an angel with a sun-bright face, legs on fire, and a lion’s roar for a voice. If Mary was taken aback by Gabriel, what did John make of the angel holding a little scroll?
And what am I to make of John’s account today, centuries removed from the religious and political context in which it was written?
First, I shouldn’t make too much of it. That is, I shouldn’t start looking for direct analogies, as if this ancient text was intended to help me interpret what’s happening in the year of our Lord 2020. Catholic theologian Ulrich Lehner told CNN’s John Blake that whenever he “comes across a social media preacher warning that Covid-19 means the end of the world is near, he’s tempted to tweet back this response: ‘Matthew 24:36.'” (“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”) John might have needed to “prophesy again about many peoples and nations and languages and kings” (v 11), but I doubt anyone right now is called to proclaim the end of days.
I suspect that the most important result of reading Revelation is that we learn to recognize the limits of what God is revealing in it. Even within Revelation 10, John is told not to write down everything he hears (v 4) — “a point,” Owens observes, “often overlooked by those who claim to have solved ‘the mystery of God.'” For someone seeking to spend more time in relationship with God, Revelation is a reminder that there will be much about God that remains unknowable, at least in this life.
But if the first lesson is that I shouldn’t make too much of John’s account of this angel, the second is that I shouldn’t make too little of it. I tend to shy away from Revelation because it’s been so badly abused by false prophets down through the centuries, but even more so because what little I understand about it tends to be discomfiting. If, like John digesting the angel’s scroll, do attempt to eat this book, we’ll likely find it “sweet as honey” at first, but then bitter in the stomach (v 10).
“But when you open yourself to a vision,” Owens warns, “as John did on that barren, volcanic prison island of Patmos, you don’t get to choose its contents.”
None of us chose to see a vision of a world wrestling with pandemic, with adults’ and childrens’ lives alike turned upside down for the sake of limiting the death toll. But if not to warn of the end of the world, could it be that there is something apocalyptic — something “revealing” — about what we’re seeing?
Absolutely, wrote one Baptist seminarian a week ago. Joshua Sharp believed that COVID-19 would reveal “many significant and often unpleasant truths which we would rather not face… disabusing humanity of the notion we are in control” and displaying “the fear and selfishness that sits deep in humanity’s heart.” But it would also reveal our need for Jesus and the hope that he alone offers. It would make clearer for us that we can and should spend more time with God, pray for each other, and seek community (albeit “in unconventional ways”).
In that sense, yes: these days are absolutely apocalyptic.