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The vision of the Heavenly Liturgy

(Chs. 4-5)

St. John received the Revelation on "The Lord's Day," that is, on Sunday. One must surmise that on that day, as was the Apostles' custom, he performed "the breaking of bread," i.e., the Divine Liturgy, received Communion and therefore "was in a state of Grace," meaning he was in a special state of inspiration (Rev. 1:10). And so, the first thing that is revealed to him is the continuation of the Liturgy just performed by him, the Heavenly Divine Liturgy. It is this Heavenly Divine Liturgy that St. John describes in the fourth and fifth chapters of the Apocalypse. An Orthodox Christian recognizes here the familiar traits of the Sunday Liturgy and the most important attributes of the altar: the Holy of Holies, the seven-branched candelabrum, the censer with smoking incense, the golden chalice, etc. (These items were shown to Moses on Mount Sinai and were also used in the temple of the Old Testament.) The Sacrificial Lamb of God, as seen by the Apostle, reminds the faithful of Communion in the form of bread laid on the altar. The souls of those martyred for the Word of God, under the heavenly altar evoke the antimins, the special cloth placed in the middle of the altar and into which are sewn relics of the holy martyrs. The elders clad in white garments with golden crowns upon their heads are like an assembly of the clergy con-celebrating the Divine Liturgy. It should be noted that the very proclamations and prayers heard by the Apostle in Heaven express the quintessence of the exclamations and prayers which the clergy and the choir recite during the main part of the Liturgy - the Eucharistic Canon. The whitening of the garments of the pious by the "blood of the Lamb" (Ch. 7) alludes to the consecration of the souls of the faithful through the Sacrament of Communion. In this manner the Apostle begins the revelation of the fate of mankind with the description of the Heavenly Divine Liturgy by which he stresses the spiritual meaning of this Liturgy and the necessity of the saints' prayers for us.

Note: The words "Judah is a lion's whelp" refer to the Lord Jesus Christ and remind us of the prophecy of the Patriarch Jacob regarding the Messiah (Gen. 49:9-10). The "Seven Spirits of God" refer to the plenitude of God's blessed gifts of the Holy Spirit (Is. 11:2 and Zech. ch. 4). A multitude of eyes symbolizes omniscience. The twenty-four elders correspond to the twenty-four priestly successions established by King David for service in the temples, having two intercessors for each generation of the New Israel (1 Chron. 24:1-18). The four mysterious creatures surrounding the throne are similar to the creatures seen in a vision of the prophet Ezekiel (Ez. 1:5-19). They evidently are the creatures closest to God. These images are of a man, a lion, a calf, and an eagle, taken by the Church as symbols for the four Evangelists.

In the later description of the heavenly world, we encounter many things that are incomprehensible to us. In the Apocalypse we learn that the angelic world is extremely vast. The bodiless spirits, the angels, are created as man is by the wise Creator, possessing an intellect and a free will, although their spiritual capabilities far exceed ours. The angels are completely devoted to God and serve Him by prayer and fulfillment of His will. Thus, for example, they carry to the altar of God the prayers of the saints (Rev. 8:3), they assist the righteous in attaining salvation (Rev. 7:3, 14:6-10, 19:9), they sympathize with those who are suffering and with the persecuted (Rev. 8:13, 12:12), and following God's commands, they punish sinners (Rev. 8:7, 9:15, 15:6, 16:1). They are endowed with power and have sovereignty over nature and its elements (Rev. 10:1, 18:1). They wage war with satan and his demons (Rev. 12:7-10, 19:19, 20-2-3), and they take part in the judgment of God's enemies (Rev. 19:4).

The teaching of the Apocalypse regarding the angelic world basically pulls out by its roots the teaching of the ancient Gnostics, who accepted the presence of intermediaries (channelers) between the Absolute and the material world who were completely self-reliant and independent of Him who ruled the world.

Among the saints whom St. John sees in Heaven, two groups, or two "images," stand out. These are the martyrs and the virgins. Historically, martyrdom is the first order of holiness, and that is why the Apostle begins with the martyrs (Rev. 6:9-11). He sees their souls beneath the Heavenly Sacrificial Altar, which symbolizes the redemptive meaning of their suffering and death, by which they participate in Christ's sufferings and somehow complement them. The blood of the martyrs can be compared to the blood of the victims in the Old Testament that flowed under the sacrificial altar in the temple of Jerusalem. The history of Christianity testifies to the fact that the sufferings of the ancient martyrs served as a moral rejuvenation of the apathetic pagan world. The ancient writer Tertullian wrote that the blood of the martyrs serves as seed for new Christians. The persecution of the faithful will sometimes wane and sometimes flourish during the subsequent existence of the Church, which was the reason that it was revealed to the Seer that new martyrs will supplement the number of the early ones.

Later St. John sees an innumerable throng of people in Heaven, a number that no one is able to count, from all the tribes, generations, nations, and tongues. They stood in white garments holding palm branches (Rev. 7:9-17) in their hands. The common factor of this innumerable assembly of the righteous was that "they all came from great afflictions." For all these people the path to Paradise is the same - through sorrows. Christ is the first Sufferer, who took upon Himself the sins of the world as the Lamb of God. The palm branches are symbols of victory over the devil.

In a special vision the Seer describes the virgins, i.e., those people who denied themselves the solace of conjugal life for the sake of complete service to Christ. They are the voluntary "eunuchs" for the sake of the Heavenly Kingdom (Matt. 19:12, Rev. 14:1-5). In the Church this feat was usually achieved by following the monastic way of life. The Seer sees written upon the foreheads of the virgins the "name of the Father," which points to their moral beauty, reflecting the perfection of the Creator. The "new hymn" that they sing and that no one could repeat expresses the spiritual elevation that they attained through the feats of fasting, prayer, and chastity. This purity is unattainable to those living a worldly way of life.

The song of Moses that is sung by the pious in the next vision (Rev. 15:2-8) calls to mind the hymn of gratitude sung by the Israelites when, after crossing the Red Sea, they were saved from Egyptian bondage (Exodus, ch. 15). Likewise, the Israel of the New Testament is delivered from the rule and influence of the devil, having passed over into a state of grace by means of the Sacrament of Baptism. In the following visions, the Seer again describes the saints several times. The precious white flaxen garment that they wore is a symbol of their righteousness. In the nineteenth chapter of the Apocalypse the wedding song of the saved tells of the nearing of the "marriage" between the Lamb and the saints - of the coming of the closest communion between God and the righteous (Rev. 19:1-9, 21:3-4). The book of Revelation ends with the description of the blessed life of the saved peoples (Rev. 21:24-27, 22:12-14 and 17). These are the most glorious and joyful pages of the Bible, showing the Church triumphant in the Kingdom of Glory.

Thus, by gradual disclosure of the fate of the world, St. John's Apocalypse slowly directs the spiritual attention of the faithful towards the Heavenly Kingdom - to the ultimate goal of our earthly wanderings. He speaks of the gloomy events in the sinful world as if he is obliged to do so, and with unwillingness.

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