“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great.
She has become a haunt for demons.
She is a cage for every unclean spirit,
a cage for every unclean bird,
a cage for every unclean and disgusting beast.” (Revelation 18, 1-2)
It’s very clear from our first reading today that John, the author of Revelation, doesn’t think much of the world he’s living in or that it’s worth saving. Babylon is his code word for Rome, the Roman empire. His message to the churches in Asia Minor, Ephesus, Sardis and the others, is that this world is going to end soon and there’s no hope for it.
Commentators say that John, possibly a disciple of John the apostle, writes this letter, which alternates between grim descriptions of the end of this world and beatific descriptions of the world beyond, for Christians experiencing fierce persecution under the Emperor Domitian (81-91) . John wants them to know that paradise awaits them if they remain loyal. So hold on. There’s going to be a great day.
But some commentators question whether Roman persecution is behind this letter. They claim that the persecutions under Domitian have been exaggerated and Christians in Asia Minor did very well during his reign as emperor. It was a prosperous time in that part of the world.
Rather, they see this letter as a warning to the Christians of Asia Minor who have become too comfortable in Roman society. They’re living like everybody else. This is due to an approach encouraged by the Pastoral Epistles of Paul, which told Christians to be law abiding citizens, to be at peace with your neighbors. To John, the churches of Asia Minor have become too worldly and are losing their zeal for the gospel. (cf. Revelation, Wilfrid J. Harrington, OP, Sacra Pagina, Liturgical Press 1993)
So John’s concern is not how Christians can build up the world they live in or how they can accommodate to their society. For him, Christ is primarily savior who calls us to a life beyond this one, not the savior who helps us through the day and teaches us how to get along in life. Christ calls us to life beyond this one.
It’s interesting the way the scriptures are paired these last two weeks of the year. The Book of Revelation is paired with the Gospel of Luke, which is much more optimistic about life in this world and the mercy of God. As Jesus goes on his way to Jerusalem he keeps calling sinners, even as he dies on the cross. He never looks at the world as unredeemable. He calls the tax collector, Zachaeus, but he never tells him to give up his job. He warns against burying your talent in the ground. He also said not to search into the time and day the Son of Man will come. Our cross is a daily cross. He also told us Jesus was coming again.
The best commentators on scripture are the scriptures themselves, St. Augustine taught, and so we read the Book of Revelation and the Gospel of Luke together.
This afternoon at our evening prayer we will be reading from the Book of Revelations again, we actually read it frequently during the Liturgy of the Hours, but not grim passages about the fall of Babylon. We will be reading those beautiful promises John makes about life beyond this. At the end of the day, as we go into the night, John tells us to listen to the songs they sing in heaven. There’s going to be a great day.