Below you will find an English translation of the address Pope Benedict gave this past Wednesday inside the Paul VI Audience Hall in the Vatican. In his catechesis, Pope Benedict continued his reflection on prayer, using the book of Revelation.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Last Wednesday I spoke about prayer in the first part of Revelation. Today we move on to the second part of the book; and whereas in the first part, prayer is oriented toward the Church’s inner life, in the second, attention is given to the entire world; the Church, in fact, journeys through history; she is part of it, in accordance with God’s plan.
The assembly that listened to John’s message presented by the reader rediscovered its duty to cooperate in the expansion of the Kingdom of God, as “priests of God and of Christ” (Revelation 20:6; cf. 1:5; 5:10) and it opens out to the world of men. And here, in the dialectical relationship that exists between them, two ways of living emerge: the first we may define as the “system of Christ,” to which the assembly is happy to belong; and the second, the “worldly systems opposed to the kingdom and the covenant and activated through the influence of the Evil One,” who by deceiving men wills to establish a world opposed to the one willed by Christ and by God (cf. Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Bible and Morality, Biblical Roots of Christian Conduct, 70). The assembly must therefore know how to interpret in depth the history it is living, by learning to discern events with faith in order to cooperate by its action in the growth of the Kingdom of God. And this work of interpretation and discernment, as well as action, is linked to prayer.
First, after the insistent appeal of Christ, who in the first part of Revelation said seven times: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the Church” (cf. Revelation 2:7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22), the assembly is invited to ascend to Heaven, to look upon reality through God’s eyes; and here we discover three symbols, reference points from which we may begin to interpret history: the throne of God, the Lamb and the book (cf. Revelation 4:1 – 5:14).
The first symbol is the throne, upon which there is seated a person John does not describe, for he surpasses every human representation. He is only able to note the sense of beauty and joy he experiences in His presence. This mysterious figure is God, God Almighty who did not remain enclosed within His heaven but who drew close to man, entering into a covenant with him; God who makes his voice — symbolized by thunder and lightning — heard in history, in a mysterious but real way. There are various elements that appear around the throne of God, such as the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures that unceasingly render praise to the one Lord of history.
The first symbol, then, is the throne. The second symbol is the book, which contains the plan of God for events and for men. It is hermetically sealed with seven seals, and no one is able to read it. Faced with man’s inability to scrutinize the plan of God, John experiences a deep sadness, which causes him to weep. But there is a remedy for man’s dismay before the mystery of history: there is one who is able to open the book and shed light on it.
And here the third symbol appears: Christ, the Lamb immolated in the sacrifice of the Cross, but who stands as a sign of his Resurrection. And it is the Lamb, Christ who died and rose, who gradually opens the seals and unveils the plan of God, the deep meaning of history.
What do these symbols tell us? They remind us of the path to knowing how to interpret the facts of history and of our own lives. By raising our gaze to God’s heaven in a constant relationship with Christ, by opening our hearts and our minds to him in personal and communal prayer, we learn to see things in a new way and to grasp their truest meaning. Prayer is like an open window that allows us to keep our gaze turned toward God, not only for the purpose of reminding us of the goal toward which we are directed, but also to allow the will of God to illumine our earthly journey and to help us to live it with intensity and commitment.
How does the Lord guide the Christian community to a deeper reading of history? First and foremost, by inviting it to consider with realism the present moment we are living. Therefore, the Lamb opens the four first seals of the book, and the Church sees the world in which it is inserted, a world in which various negative elements exist. There the evils that man commits, such as violence, which comes from the desire to possess, to prevail against one another to the point of killing one another (second seal); or injustice, as men fail to respect the laws that are given them (third seal). To these are added the evils that man must undergo, such as death, hunger and sickness (fourth seal). Faced with these oftentimes dramatic realities, the ecclesial community is invited to never lose hope, to believe firmly that the apparent omnipotence of the Evil One collides with the true omnipotence, which is God’s.
And the first seal the Lamb opens contains precisely this message. John narrates: “And I saw, and behold, a white horse, and its rider had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer” (Revelation 6:2). The power of God has entered into the history of man, [a power] which is not only capable of offsetting evil, but even of conquering it. The color white recalls the Resurrection: God drew so near to us that he descended into the darkness of death in order to illumine it with the splendor of his divine life: he took the world’s evil upon himself in order to purify it with the fire of his love.
How do we grow in this Christian understanding of reality? Revelation tells us that prayer nourishes this vision of light and profound hope in each one of us and in our communities: it invites us to not allow ourselves to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good, to look to the Crucified and Risen Christ, who associates us in his victory. The Church lives in history, she is not closed in on herself; but rather, she courageously faces her journey amid difficulties and suffering, by forcefully affirming that ultimately, evil does not conquer the good, darkness does not dim the splendor of God.
This is an important point for us; as Christians we can never be pessimists; we know well that along life’s journey we often encounter violence, falsehood, hate and persecution, but this does not discourage us. Above all, prayer teaches us to see the signs of God, of his presence and action; indeed, to be lights of goodness that spread hope and point out that the victory is God’s.
This perspective leads us to offer thanksgiving and praise to God and to the Lamb: the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures together sing the “new song” that celebrates the work of Christ the Lamb, who “makes all things new” (Revelation 21:5). But this renewal is first and foremost a gift we must ask for. And here we find another element that should characterize prayer: the earnest entreaty to the Lord that his Kingdom come, and that man may have a heart that is docile to God’s dominion, that it be his will that directs our lives and the life of the world.
In the vision contained in Revelation, this prayer of petition is represented by an important detail: “the twenty-four elders” and “the four living creatures” hold, together with the harp that accompanies their song, “golden bowls full of incense” (5:8b) that, as is then explained, “are the prayers of the saints” (5:8b); of those, that is, who have already reached God, but also of all of us who find ourselves on the journey.
And before the throne of God, we see an angel holding a golden censer in which he continually places grains of incense, i.e. our prayers, whose sweet aroma is offered together with the prayers that rise before God (Revelation 8:1-4). It is a symbolism that tells us how all of our prayers — with all the limits, difficulty, poverty, aridity and imperfections they may have — are as it were purified and reach the heart of God. We must be certain, therefore, that there are no superfluous, useless prayers; not one of them is lost. And they find a response — even if it is oftentimes mysterious — because God is Love and infinite Mercy. The angel — St. John writes — “took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on earth; and there were peals of thunder, loud noises, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (Revelation 8:5).
This image signifies that God is not indifferent to our prayers; he intervenes and makes his power felt and his voice heard on the earth, he makes the systems of Evil tremble and disrupts them. Often, when faced with evil, we feel incapable of doing anything, but prayer is the first and most effective response that we can give and that strengthens our daily commitment to spreading goodness. The power of God makes our weakness fruitful (cf. Romans 8:26-27).
I would like to conclude with some mention of the final dialogue (cf. Revelation 22:6-21). Jesus repeats several times: “Behold, I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:7,12). This statement does not merely indicate the future perspective of the end of time; it also speaks of the present: Jesus comes. He establishes his dwelling place in the one who believes in him and welcomes him. Then the assembly, guided by the Holy Spirit, repeats to Jesus the pressing invitation to come even closer: “Come” (Revelation 22:17a). It is like the “bride” (22:17) who ardently longs for the fullness of marriage. A third time the invocation is repeated: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (22:20b); and the reader concludes with an expression that manifests the meaning of this presence: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints” (22:21).
Revelation, despite the complexity of its symbolism, involves us in a very rich prayer. Therefore, we too listen, praise, give thanks and contemplate the Lord, and ask his forgiveness. Its structure as a great communal liturgical prayer is also a forceful reminder to rediscover the extraordinary and transforming power of the Eucharist; in particular I would like to urge you to be faithful to Holy Mass on Sunday, the Lord’s day, Sunday, the true center and heart of the week! The richness of prayer in Revelation makes us think of a diamond, which has a fascinating array of facets, but whose preciousness resides in the purity of its one central core. The evocative forms of prayer that we encounter in Revelation therefore make the unique and inexpressible preciousness of Jesus Christ shine forth. Thank you.
Pope Benedict XVI
Credit: CNS photo