Many modern Americans have the notion that St. John’s Apocalypse is primarily about terror over the loss of the American Way of Life. Admittedly, the Apocalypse encourages us to, shall we say, consider rather more circumspectly our worldly fortunes than we might otherwise what with plagues, famines and all dotting the landscape of that book. Yet the basic message of St. John is not “Beware a drop in the value of US currency”, but rather that this miserable world of death and pain is going to be rescued from its bondage to sin and magnificently transformed. This is why the readings for All Saint’s Day cry out: “Salvation is from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb.” So far from just being an itinerary of mass destruction, Revelation shows us mass salvation: people from “every nation, race, people and tongue” standing “before the throne and the Lamb, dressed in long white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.” To be sure, they have withstood a “great period of trial”, but the great thing for St. John is that “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Whatever they have suffered, they are, at the end of all things, blessed (that is, saints).
In contrast to this fundamentally hopeful view of things is the present mood of secular apocalypse that would have been unrecognizable to the earliest readers of St. John’s Apocalypse. For we modern Americans are not slaves groaning under the lash or persecuted Christians faced with the colossus of hostile Roman culture. Rather we are comfortable people with cell-phones and hot running water who dread the loss of American creature comforts. And so modern Last Days scenarios tend to portray an End of the World in which the surest sign of the Trump of Doom is an infringement on American Buying Power. Hence, many fundamentalists warn of the “Mark of the Beast” as a barcode on marketable goods or postulate as the ultimate evil some Vast International Economic Conspiracy aimed at harming American economic and political sovereignty.
The pernicious effect of this is twofold. First, it mistakes the American Way for the Kingdom of Heaven. Second, it tends to make people forgetful of the reality of evil (and our duty to fight it) in the here and now. When people ask of the latest downturn in the stock market, “Is this the beginning of the Great Tribulation?” they are implicitly saying that if it’s not the Great Tribulation then it doesn’t matter all that much.
But it is probably not much comfort to those who suffered in two World Wars, or under Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Ivan the Terrible, Henry VIII or Pol Pot that they did not suffer in the Great Tribulation, for they suffered just as much as if they had. Moreover, in a very real sense, they did suffer in the Great Tribulation, since that Tribulation is, in fact, the whole cosmic struggle between good and evil which Christ entered into on the Cross and which we are called to enter as well, with Christ’s help.
This is why the gospel is a much better guide to understanding our position in the grand scheme of things than modern prognostications about the European Economic Community, or second-guessing about the Antichrist du jour. Rather than pointing us to the future, our Lord directs us to what is now: our suffering poverty and his wealth of love at this very moment. Just as St. John says, “We are God’s children now,” so our Lord says not, “Blessed will be the poor” but “Blessed are the poor.” The beatitudes reveal a God who loves us in the present tense and does so forever. He blesses us, not with the aim of temporary happiness, but with same eternal joy he set before Christ: a joy for which he endured the Cross. In Christ, we find that our poverty and rejection by the dog-eat-dog world are not signs of divine disfavor, but the very means by which his glory is stamped upon his myriad obscure saints from “every nation, race, people and tongue.” They–we–are blessed now by the One whom the world did not recognize; One who has already felt in his flesh the complete failure of all human hopes and who allowed himself to be nailed to the End of the World and who rose again so that there will one day be a new heaven and a new earth.