This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news
APOCALYPSE IN DR CONGO
6Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!’ 2I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer.
3 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature call out, ‘Come!’ 4And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword.
5 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature call out, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, 6and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!’
7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, ‘Come!’ 8I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.
9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; 10they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’ 11They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow-servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.
The seals stand for the secret purposes of God which are revealed and implemented by the Lamb, that is, by Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Only the Lamb is worthy to unveil the purposes of God. This means that the supreme “Apocalypse” is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. That’s a vital difference between this writing and all other apocalypses; and it’s not merely an add-on; it is the structural principle of the entire book. All the usual apocalyptic motifs are re-interpreted in the light of Christ.
The four horsemen may be the invention of this author. They are very vivid and have continued to inspire artists through the ages. Conquest, Violence (blood-thirst), Famine and Death are personifications of human evil and natural disaster, permitted to ravage the earth as long as human beings let them.
Those who might stop them, the servants of the Lamb, have been slaughtered because of their loyalty to the Lamb and their opposition to evil. They are “under the altar” because their sacrifice has been added the sacrifice of the Lamb. Their prayers which are in effect their lives are a plea for God’s justice. They are asked to share God’s patience as evil runs its course on earth.
This is the world of the big battalions and world empires who ride roughshod over whole generations of peaceful people, spreading violence and death rather than attending to the problems of hunger and disease posed by nature. It is civilisation as we have known it. It’s the story of humanity which occupies most of the history books ever written. At primary school in Scotland I learnt the dates of the Battle of Stirling Bridge (1297) and Bannockburn (1314) long before I heard anything about St. Ninian. About this world, the writer of The Revelation is wholly negative. It is the world of the four horsemen and the sacrifice of those who follow the Lamb.
Among historians Edward Gibbon is the most eloquent antagonist to this criticism. From his point of view, which is shared by most modern historians, the Roman Empire was a supreme civilising power and the Christian church which dissolved it was the return of barbarism. This more positive view of Rome was not absent in the early church and was one of the reasons why The Revelation was the last book to be accepted into the canon, the official list, of the Bible. If Gibbons view can be fairly characterised as coming from those who share the benefits of world empire; the negative view can be characterised as coming from those who are oppressed or excluded, who have always been the vast majority of human beings. For most people, even today, the four horsemen are a daily presence.