When I accepted this assignment to All Saints Parish, my friends were incredulous. They asked, “You’re moving to Pinellas County? That’s at the end of the world.” I responded, “It’s not the end of the world but, admittedly, one see the end of the world from there.”
Today’s first reading refers to the end of the world. The book of Revelation is a typical example of biblical prophecy. The book of Revelation was composed by a man named John, but this was neither the John who wrote the eponymous Gospel nor the one who wrote the three Johannine letters. The John who composed Revelation was a visionary; today’s reading is a selection from one of the first visions recorded in the book.
Visions, like all prophecies, are not to be understood literally. In today’s first reading, John sees a vision of impending destruction followed by a vision of heavenly worship. The two visions are linked thematically; both are images that speak about the end of the world.
In secular culture, and in fundamentalist religion, the “end of the world” is understood in terms of cataclysm, tragedy, and destruction. In the Scriptures, however, the cataclysms, tragedies, and destruction associated with prophetic visions about the end of the world are metaphoric images that represent a truth ignored by secular culture and fundamentalist religion.
In the Scriptures, and in Catholicism, the “end of the world” is an end in the sense of a goal. When God created the universe, God had in mind an appropriate end or goal for Creation. Every created thing, from cosmic dust to human persons, exists in order to give God the praise that God deserves. The vision of heavenly worship in today’s first reading depicts the end (goal) of the universe when it describes “a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb’.” (Rv. 7:9-10)
The “great multitude” had endured a test to their faith but remained faithful to God despite their suffering. Consequently, they were rewarded by receiving the perfect end (goal) of human nature, namely, to praise God forever. The end or goal of this vision was to provide consolation and strength to a church congregation which was facing trouble and distress.
Prophetic visions often contain obscure and fantastical images, but the message of prophetic visions is always one of consolation. The message of this fantastical vision is simple: those who remain faithful despite their sufferings will receive the greatest happiness possible to human nature. The blessed state of the “great multitude” was intended to inspire hope in church members who were experiencing trouble.
Despite its other-worldly appearance, this passage from the book of Revelation speaks directly to our situation today. There are many people, both believers and non-believers, who are experiencing trouble, distress, and suffering. At present, there are multiple reasons that a person might experience herself or himself as distressed. A deadly pandemic, or political turmoil at home and abroad, or global economic uncertainty would each be sufficient in itself to cause distress; when combined, the effect could be devastating.
John the visionary wanted to help his congregation avoid a devastating loss of faith; his words can have the same effect today. The prophetic vision in the first reading reminds us of the nature of the end of the world. It is a vision of the triumph of those who remain faithful to God despite severe distress.
It’s easy enough to understand how some people can make mistaken judgements about world events. There is nothing surprising about worry or despair in the life of someone who has placed their trust in having an untroubled life, a political victory, or material wealth; all of these are destined to disappoint.
Despite the judgments made by some people, the pandemic, the outcome of the election, and the troubled economy do not portend the destruction of the world. These events might, however, point us toward the goal of the world if they inspire us to worship God with all our hearts.
The distress that we are experiencing is not the end of the world, but perhaps we can see the end of the world in them – if we are willing to keep faith, be hopeful, and give praise to God.