The language can sound so otherworldly—eternal life, the multitude gathered around the lamb on the throne praising him day and night. Such talk seems to be vulnerable to the secularist's mocking use of the phrase, “pie in the sky, by and by” to satirize a perceived Christian preoccupation with the next world. Well, of course there is a next world, and resurrection faith helps keep that reality alive for us. But a careful hearing of this Sunday's readings soon brings us back to earth, with our feet firmly planted on the ground and with a strong sense of direction.
Easter would make evangelizers of us all.
First, the vision of Revelation 7 comes as part of a remarkable re-vision. In the first half of this chapter, the seer had spoken of an audition (that's right, an audition, something heard rather than seen) of 144,000 people, comprising 12,000 “from every tribe of the Israelites.” The enumeration of the “servants of our God” comes across as a rather specific census, so specific in fact that the passage has spooked some Christians into thinking that the number of those who experience salvation will be limited precisely to 144,000.
But this audition is immediately followed by a vision (something seen) of “a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.” Thus we have an audition about a numbered group (144,000) of Israelites and a vision about a numberless group of people from every nation. Are these two groups? No. They are two presentations of the same group. The audition announces them as the end-time Israel, which was a common early Christian way of referring to the Church. And the vision presents them in more literal terms (but with a literary allusion to the language of Daniel 7), as an enormous group including all nations and races. This double-take of the same subject should not surprise the careful reader, who would already have encountered the same phenomenon in chapter 5, in a similar audition/vision sequence where the risen Jesus is first announced as “the lion of the tribe of Judah” and then appears as “a lamb, that seemed to have been slain” (Rev 5:6). Attention to this set of images should expand considerably most Christians' sense of God's plan of salvation. It also reminds us that in our Easter joy we rally around a crucified Messiah who was a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.
A similar revision of vision occurs in the Gospe. Jesus' statement about giving eternal life to his sheep occurs at a celebration of the feast of Dedication, i.e., Hanukkah, which commemorates the Maccabees' successful revolution against the Syrian tyrant Antiochus IV, around 194 BCE. The evangelist says some of the people celebrating that feast were asking Jesus whether he was the Messiah. The context suggests that they were thinking of a Messiah along the militaristic lines of David the warrior and the Judah the Hammer. Jesus' answer implies that he provides ultimate security (“eternal life”) in another way, as shepherd of the flock the Father leads to him. And the rest of the Fourth Gospel helps us understand that one gains access to eternal life by accepting Jesus as sent by the Father and by laying down one's life for one's friends.
It is the episode from Acts, however, that best illustrates the earthly action prompted by Easter faith. Paul and Barnabas have been evangelizing their fellow Jews in a synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia. Meeting rejection from some of their co-religionists, they turn to the Gentiles. They justify this move with a telling use of Scripture: “So the Lord has commanded us, I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may he an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth” (cf. Is 49:6).
Notice that here Paul and Barnabas apply to themselves the very passage from Isaiah that Luke applies to Jesus in the Presentation account: Simeon alludes to this part of Isaiah when he holds the baby Jesus and refers to him as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk 2:31). In today's reading from Acts (First Reading) we learn just how it is that Jesus becomes a light to the nations: he is risen Lord and works through his evangelizing disciples. Paul will take up this theme again when he explains to Herod Agrippa that the Messiah had to suffer and “as the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:23).
Dennis Hamm, SJ