The Church may have to take refuge in the desert for a time, but all Satan's attacks will eventually end with the triumph of God's power, said Pope John Paul II.
At his March 14 general audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall, he drew lessons for the Church from the passage in the book of Revelation in which a woman is about to give birth and a dragon waits to devour her child.
The dragon's monstrous energy of violence and lies seems invincible, but the woman in her apparent weakness follows the way of God to salvation and glory.
The woman in the story represents Mary, but more primarily she stands for the Church, which “frequently feels the weight of history and is besieged by evil.” Even though the way of love, truth and justice that she follows seems powerless and ineffective, “at the end there will be deliverance and the hour of glory,” said the Pope. Indeed we already see in Mary an “icon of the liberty and liberation of humanity and the cosmos.”
We began our meeting hearing one of the most well-known pages of John's Apocalypse. In the pregnant woman, who gives birth to a son, in front of a blood-red dragon that rages against her and against the one to whom she gave birth, Christian liturgical and artistic tradition has seen the image of Mary, the Mother of Christ. However, according to the primary intention of the sacred author, if the birth of the baby represents the advent of the Messiah, the woman obviously personifies the people of God, whether biblical Israel or the Church. The Marian interpretation is not opposed to the ecclesial meaning of the text, since Mary is a “figure of the Church” (Lumen Gentium, 63; see St. Ambrose, Expos. Luke, II, 7).
Therefore, against the backdrop of the faithful community, the profile of the Mother of the Messiah is perceived. The dragon, who evokes Satan and evil, rises against Mary and the Church, as already indicated in the symbolism of the Old Testament; red is the sign of war, slaughter, spilt blood; the “seven heads” with crowns indicate a tremendous power, while the “ten horns” recall the impressive strength of the beast described by the prophet Daniel (see 7:7), also the image of the deceiver's power that rages in history.
Fleeing to the Desert
Thus, good and evil confront one another. Mary, her Son and the Church represent the apparent weakness and littleness of love, truth and justice. Against them is unleashed the monstrous and devastating energy of violence, falsehood and injustice. However, the song that completes the passage reminds us that the final verdict is entrusted to “the salvation, strength, the Kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ” (Revelation 12:10).
Certainly, on her journey through time and history, the Church can be obliged to seek refuge in the desert, as ancient Israel did on the journey to the promised land. Among other things, the desert is a traditional shelter for the persecuted, it is the secret and tranquil place where divine protection is offered (see Genesis 21:14-19; 1 Kings 19:4-7). However, the woman remains in this shelter, as Revelation underlines (see 12:6,14), only for a limited period. The time of anguish, of persecution, of trial is not, therefore, indefinite: In the end there will be deliverance and the hour of glory will come.
Contemplating this mystery from a Marian perspective, we can affirm that “Mary, next to her Son, is the most perfect icon of the liberty and liberation of humanity and the cosmos. It is to her that the Church, of which she is mother and model, must look to understand the meaning of its mission in its fullness” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Libertatis conscientia, March, 22, 1986, No. 97; see Redemptoris Mater, No. 37).
A Woman Shows the Way
Let us fix our gaze, then, on Mary, icon of the Church as a pilgrim in the desert of history, but looking forward to the glorious goal of the heavenly Jerusalem where it will shine as the Bride of the Lamb, Christ the Lord. As the Eastern Church celebrates her, the Mother of God is the Odighitria, she who “shows the way,” namely Christ, the only mediator to lead us fully to the Father. A French poet sees in her “the creature in her first honor and final flowering, as she came from God on the morning of her original splendor” (P. Claudel, La Vierge à Midi, ed. Pléiade, p. 540).
In her Immaculate Conception, Mary is the perfect model of the human creature who, full from the beginning of that divine grace that sustains and transfigures the creature (see Luke 1:28) always freely chooses God's way. In her glorious assumption to heaven, Mary is, instead, the image of the creature called by the risen Christ to reach the fullness of communion with God in the resurrection to a blessed eternity at the end of history. For the Church, which often feels the weight of her journey through history and the assault of evil, the Mother of Christ is the luminous emblem of humanity redeemed and clothed in saving grace.
The dragon, who evokes Satan and evil, rises against Mary and the Church
The ultimate goal of human events will take place when “God may be everything to every one” (1 Corinthians 15:28) and, as the book of Revelation announces, the “sea will be no more” (21:1) — meaning that the sign of destructive chaos and of evil will finally be eliminated. Then the Church will present herself to Christ as a “Bride adorned for her Husband” (Revelation 21:2). That will be the moment of intimacy and flawless love. However, already now, by looking at the Virgin taken up to heaven, the Church has a foretaste of the joy that will be given to it in fullness at the end of time.
No Church Without Mary
On its pilgrimage of faith throughout history, Mary accompanies the Church as the “model of ecclesial communion in faith, love and union with Christ. Eternally present in the mystery of Christ, she remains, in the midst of the Apostles, in the very heart of the infant Church, and of the Church of all times.
In fact, the Church was gathered in the upper room of the cenacle with Mary, who was Jesus' mother, and with his brothers. Therefore, one cannot speak of the Church if Mary, the Mother of the Lord, is not present in it with his brothers” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Communionis notio, May 28, 1992, No. 19; see Cromazio di Aquileia, Sermon 30,1).
Let us then sing our hymn of praise to Mary, the image of redeemed humanity and the sign of the Church living in faith and love, anticipating the fullness of the heavenly Jerusalem. “The poetic genius of St. Ephrem of Syria, who is called ‘the harp of the Holy Spirit,’ has tirelessly sung of Mary, leaving an impression that is still alive on the entire tradition of the Syrian Church” (Redemptoris Mater, No. 31). He represents Mary as the icon of beauty: “She is holy in her body, beautiful in her spirit, pure in her thoughts, honest in her intelligence, perfect in her feelings, chaste, firm in her resolutions, immaculate in her heart, eminent, filled with all the virtues” (Hymns to the Virgin Mary 1,4; ed. Th. J. Lamy, Hymns of Blessed Mary, Malines 1886, t. 2, col. 520).
May this image shine at the center of every ecclesial community as a perfect reflection of Christ and may it be like a sign raised among the people, like a “city set on a mountain” and “a lamp on a lampstand, to give light to all” (see Matthew 5:14-15).
[Translation by Zenit and Register]