VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The Book of Revelation should not be read as a frightening or enigmatic warning, but as an essentially encouraging vision of Christ's definitive victory over evil, Pope Benedict XVI said.
The pope noted that Revelation, also called the Apocalypse, had come to be mistakenly identified with the idea of an "imminent catastrophe" about to befall the world. Instead, he said, the text offers a clear expression of how the Christian faith makes ultimate sense of history.
The pontiff made the comments Aug. 23 at a general audience at the Vatican. He was applauded by some 7,000 enthusiastic pilgrims who packed the Paul VI audience hall.
The Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, is considered one of the most difficult to understand and interpret. The apocalyptic images recorded by the author, by tradition St. John the Apostle, have long inspired end-of-the-world scenarios, especially among Christian evangelicals.
The pope said the imagery should be seen in relation to Christ's sacrifice on the cross. He said, for example, that Revelation's key image of a slain lamb standing next to God represents the victory of the innocent Christ over evil and death, through his resurrection.
Likewise, he said, Revelation's vision of the struggle between a woman giving birth and a dragon refers to Mary, but also to the whole church, which participates in the triumph over evil.
"As one sees, John wants to instill in his readers an attitude of courageous trust. With his strong and sometimes difficult images, he certainly does not intend to propose enigmas to solve, but to suggest a path of certain hope," he said.
The pope said that while Revelation is permeated by continual references to sufferings and trials, it is equally marked by expressions of praise and exultation, which represent "the luminous side of history."
In this way, he said, the book exemplifies a Christian paradox: that suffering "is never perceived as the last word, but is seen as one point in the passage to happiness and, in fact, is itself already mysteriously infused with the joy that flows from hope."
The pope said some of the images of Revelation should be understood in the context of the dramatic suffering and persecution of the churches of Asia in the first century. For example, he said, at one point the author is described as crying at being unable to find anyone able to open the book of seven seals.
"Probably these tears express the distress of the Asiatic churches over the silence of God in the face of the persecution to which they were exposed," he said.
"This distress is not unlike our own dismay at the serious problems, misunderstanding and hostility that even today the church suffers in various parts of the world," he said.
"These are sufferings the church certainly does not deserve, just as Jesus himself did not deserve his torment," he said.
After his talk, the pope spent a long time greeting the sick, who were brought up one by one for a blessing. After mingling with the crowd, he returned by helicopter to the papal villa in Castel Gandolfo outside Rome, where he was spending most of the summer.
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The following is the Vatican text of Pope Benedict XVI's remarks in English at his weekly general audience Aug. 23:
Dear brothers and sisters,
Continuing our reflections on the teaching of the apostle John, we now consider the Book of Revelation. The seer of Patmos, identified with the apostle, is granted a series of visions meant to reassure the Christians of Asia amid the persecutions and trials of the end of the first century.
John's central vision is that of the lamb once slain, who now stands victoriously before God's throne, sharing in the father's kingship and power (5:6ff.). He alone is able to open the mysterious book closed with seven seals and to reveal, in the light of his own triumph over persecution and death, the ultimate meaning of history in God's providential plan.
The certain unfolding of God's victory is seen in John's visions of the woman who gives birth to a son destined to rule the nations (12:1ff.), the final defeat of the dragon and the heavenly Jerusalem, prepared as a bride adorned for the wedding feast (21:2ff.). As his book draws to an end, John invites Christians of every time and place to trust in the victory of the lamb and to hope for the coming of God's kingdom: "Come, lord Jesus!" (22:20).
I am happy to greet all the English-speaking visitors present at today's audience, including the pilgrims from Taiwan, Japan and the United States of America. May your visit to Rome renew your faith in the church, the bride of Christ, and may the lord's definitive victory over all evil fill you with hope and courage. I invoke upon you God's blessings of joy and peace.
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops