More than 14,000 people gathered in St. Peter's Square on March 31 for Pope John Paul II's last general audience in Lent. He continued with his teaching on the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours' evening prayer by focusing on Chapters 4 and 5 of the Book of Revelation.
Several verses in the chapters describe a “glorious and grandiose heavenly scene,” the Holy Father said. In the center, he said, God himself is sitting on the throne. Around them is a chorus of heavenly figures.
A scroll is introduced, which is sealed with seven seals, and no one can look at it. “Therefore, we are talking about a prophecy that is hidden from us,” John Paul said. “The scroll contains the series of God's decrees that need to occur as human history unfolds so that perfect justice may reign. If the scroll remains sealed, these decrees will not be known and will not be acted upon, and wickedness will continue to spread and oppress believers.”
It is Christ who makes known the contents of the scroll to us, the Pope said, as he reveals “God's hidden hand at work in history as it unfolds.
The canticle that we have just heard and that is the basis for today's meditation is part of the Liturgy of the Hours' evening prayer. One by one, we have been talking about these psalms during our weekly catechesis. As it is often the custom in the liturgy, some prayers are synthesized from fragments of the Bible that are part of a larger text.
In this case, several verses have been collected from Chapters 4 and 5 of Revelation in order to depict a glorious and grandiose heavenly scene. In the center, God himself is seated on the throne, although his name is not mentioned out of reverence (see Revelation 4:2). In a later passage, the Lamb sits on the throne, a symbol of the risen Christ. In fact, a “Lamb that seemed to have been slain” is mentioned, but he is “standing” alive and glorious (see Revelation 5:6).
The chorus of the heavenly court surrounds these two figures, represented by four “living creatures,” which perhaps represent, in turn, the angels of God's presence at the four cardinal points of the universe, and “24 elders” (presbyteroi in Greek), who are the leaders of the Christian community and whose number recalls the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 Apostles — a synthesis of the Old and New Covenants.
This assembly of God's people is singing a hymn to the Lord, exalting his “glory, honor and power,” which have been manifested through the creation of the universe (see Revelation 4:11). At this point, an important symbol is introduced, a (biblion in Greek), a scroll but which is totally inaccessible: seven seals, in fact, prevent anyone from reading it (see Revelation 5:1).
Therefore, we are talking about a prophecy that is hidden from us. The scroll contains the series of God's decrees that need to occur as human history unfolds so that perfect justice may reign. If the scroll remains sealed, these decrees will not be known and will not be acted upon, and wickedness will continue to spread and oppress believers. This is where authoritative intervention is needed: Indeed, the Lamb that is slain and that has risen will be the one who will intervene. He will be able “to receive the scroll and to break open its seals” (Revelation 5:9).
Christ is the great author and the Lord of unfolding history, the one who reveals God's hidden hand at work in history.
The hymn continues, showing us the basis for Christ's power over history. The basis for this is none other than the paschal mystery (see Revelation 5:9-10). Christ has been “slain” and by his blood he has “purchased” (or “ransomed”) mankind, rescuing it from the power of evil. The word “purchased” recalls the Exodus, Israel's deliverance from slavery in Egypt. According to ancient law, it was the closest relative's duty to ransom. In the case of this people, it was God himself since he called Israel his “firstborn” (Exodus 4:22).
Christ, therefore, accomplishes this for all mankind. His redemption not only ransoms us from our evil past but also heals our wounds and relieves our miseries. Christ gives us a new inner being that makes us kings and priests, thereby partaking in his very own dignity.
Referring the God's words that were proclaimed on Mount Sinai (see Exodus 19:6, Revelation 1:6), the hymn confirms that God's redeemed people are made up of kings and priests, who must guide and sanctify all of creation. This consecration is rooted in Christ's paschal mystery and is fulfilled in baptism (see Peter 2:9). From it flows forth a call to the Church to be aware of its dignity and its mission.
Lamb as Christ
Our Christian tradition has always held that the image of the paschal Lamb symbolizes Christ. Let us listen to the words that Meliton of Sardis, a second-century bishop from Asia Minor, wrote in this regard in his Easter Homily: “Christ came from heaven to earth out of love for mankind that was suffering, took on our human nature in the womb of the Virgin and was born a man. … Like a lamb he was carried away and slaughtered, and thereby ransomed us from the slavery of the world. … He is the One who delivers us from slavery into freedom, from darkness into light, from death to life, from oppression to eternal grandeur; he is the One who made us a new priest-hood and a chosen people forever. … He is the Lamb who is silent, the Lamb who has been slaughtered, the Son of Mary who was the sinless lamb. He was led from the flock to his death, slaughtered in the evening and entombed during the night” (Nos. 66-71: SC 123, p. 96-100).
At the end, Christ himself, the Lamb that was slain, beckons all his people: “Come, therefore, all you descendents of men who are caught up in the snare of sin and receive forgiveness for your sins. Indeed, I am your forgiveness, I am the Passover lamb of salvation, I am the lamb who has been slain for you, I am your ransom, I am your way, I am your resurrection, I am your light, I am your salvation, I am your king. I am the one who carries you to the heavens; I will show you the Father who is from all eternity; and I will resurrect you with my right hand” (No. 103: idem, p. 122).