INTRO Having explored the place of Mary in the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, her role in the public ministry of jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, and then her role in John’s Gospel,  we have now to explore the 12th Chapter of the Book of Revelation (the vision of the Woman giving birth to a male child and pursued by the dragon), Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat in Luke’s Gospel and her role in the infant Church after the Ascension of the Lord and at the Pentecost event. Today, let us examine the complex ‘Woman clothed in the sun, standing on the moon crowned with twelve stars’ (Revelation ch 12).

[1] We cannot come to any understanding of this strange vision without some understanding of the purpose and literary form of this most complex and puzzling book in the Bible. It is the most abused book of the Bible, with many bizarre interpretations and it being used to preach a vengeful and fearful God – which we do not find in the preaching of Jesus – as well as justifying predictions of the end of world in our time. This strange book goes by two titles – ‘Revelation’, referring to the visions of ‘John of Patmos’ described in its chapters; and ‘Apocalypse’, from the Greek word that means ‘unveiling’, and referring to that form of religious literature that purports to ‘unveil’ or reveal the things of heaven and their impact on history on earth. ‘Apocalyptic’ literature developed during the two or three centuries immediately before the coming of Christ and were common in the two hundred years after Christ. There are aspects of Apocalypse in the books of Daniel, Ezechiel, Zechariah and some Wisdom literature in the Old Testament. There is a large body of  so-called ‘apocryphal’ works which the Early Church did not include in the so-called ‘Canon’ of Scripture, many coming from heavily dualistic Gnostic sources. Gnostics claim to have special knowledge not known to others and see the world as in constant conflict between two powers Good and Evil, Light and Darkness. The Church has always rejected Gnosticism as contrary to the God of Love who has created all things ‘very good’ (Genesis 1). Apocalyptic literature was heavily influenced by Babylonian, Persian and Greek mythology, with their demons, astrology, and dualism. And of course the Christian Church grew up in these cultures, the Middle East being the cradle of Christianity. 

[2] What are the characteristics of ‘Apocalyptic’ Literature? Their background is the historical experience of conflict, persecution, social upheaval, and all the insecurities and dangers that communities experienced who endured these threatening events, speaking of God’s eventual deliverance of the faithful. God is pictured as having a ‘fixed plan’ so everything happens according to that plan and is moving towards the ‘end time’ when God is victorious and the faithful are vindicated. Apocalyptic writing therefore seeks to ‘explain’ the suffering, to ‘unveil’ the meaning through spectacular visions, with cosmic images of dragons, and demons and angels, with plagues and the stars and moon and sun being disrupted – Cosmic disasters! They use complex numbering systems – four, seven, twelve etc to depict eras in this cosmic conflict. There is usually a ‘seer’ the one who receives the revelations through  visions and dreams or angels. The ‘seer’ sees at the same time events in heaven and on earth and interprets their connection. The ‘seer’ also interprets events past, present and especially the future. Their visions include exuberant and grotesque imagery of women, animals, trumpets and vessels. All of these aspects are there in abundance in the Book of Revelation, the final book we find in our Bibles.

[3] So very clearly, the Book of Revelation cannot be interpreted literally and was never intended to be so used. This book finds in social background and origin in the Johannine communities of the ‘Asia Minor’ (modern Turkey) among the seven Churches mentioned in the first chapters. The Christians were experiencing fierce persecution from both Jews and the Roman Empire. They were living in the context of overwhelming Emperor Worship, and were suffering because they refused to worship a divine Emperor and burn incense before his statue (which was everywhere especially in the Eastern part of the Empire). The ‘seer’, named in the book as John of Patmos, is suffering exile on an Imperial prison island, barren with little vegetation or shelter, where most prisoners can expect an early death in the harsh conditions. It is possible that this ‘John’ had leadership responsibility for these beleaguered communities and seeks to encourage them in their suffering from the place of his own imprisonment. So this book is to strengthen the faith of a persecuted church, calling them to faithfulness and trust in the final victory of God’s purpose even if they are martyred in the process. It sees the Roman Empire as the new Babylon, the Emperor as the Beast, the servant of the Devil pictured as the dragon or serpent. The Christian communities are caught up in a cosmic battle (expressed by avenging angels pouring out plagues from vessels, stars falling from the sky and the sun and moon losing their brightness, oceans and rivers turning to blood etc) – but the faithful are servants of a new world emerging, a new order, for God’s plan will not be defeated. 

[4] So who is this Women of sun and moon and stars? (Revelation 12). The liturgy for  the Feast of Assumption of Mary uses this chapter and visual representations of Mary’s Assumption and also of the Immaculate Conception (in Western art) leans upon the imagery contained here. It is impossible to give an accurate and precise interpretation of these extraordinary ‘visions’. However, the pregnant woman giving birth is likely to symbolise both the true Israel that gave birth to the Messiah, Jesus, and the Church who is undergoing ‘labour pains’ of bringing Christ to birth in the first century world of  Roman persecution persecution. The dragon is certainly the ‘evil empire’ of Rome. Because Mary is so often expressed in the New Testament (especially in the Johannine literature) as representing the community of faith, the model of discipleship, it is understandable that this passage has been taken, over the centuries, to express Mary as well as the Church. Whether this was the intention of the author is unlikely as we have seen this book is so heavily reliant of apocalyptic imagery from non-Jewish and non-Christian mythology. Yet Mary is given to us a sign of God’s purpose to transform the world (as we will see when exploring the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary). The Woman, sister and mother, who walks the suffering Pilgrim path with the Church in every age, the one who comforts  and encourages us in our journey of faithfulness.

AFTERWORD The Book of Revelation challenges us to be a people who ‘listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches’; challenges us to be a People of Vision who see the world differently and recognise God’s design for our world that is this ‘New World’ of justice, equality, humanity, freedom and peace, living in communion with all creation. We are to bring Christ’s love and transforming life to birth in our world of today, whatever the cost to us. We are called to be a Pilgrim People of Faith, of Hope and of persevering Love, transforming the world around us – and not creating our own comfort bubble of religious piety disconnected from Mission. It is a call to an authentic spirituality that contributes to the shaping of the New World God desires.

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