The sky grows darker yet and the sea rises higher

“The holy Fathers were making predictions about the last generation. They said ‘What have we ourselves done?’ One of them, the great Abba Ischyrion, replied, ‘We ourselves have fulfilled the commandments of God.’ The others replied, ‘And those who come after us, what will they do?’ He said, ‘They will struggle to achieve half our works.’ They said, ‘And to those who come after them, what will happen?’ He said, ‘the men of that generation will not accomplish any works at all and temptation will come upon them; and those who will be approved in that day will be greater than either us or our fathers.'”

Every year the culture of death grows more powerful and more grotesque. The perversions it advances become more audacious and even seeming victories, like the overthrow of Roe v Wade, show how deep its conquests have become, strengthening the electoral power of its servants as those whose lives have been built around the “right” to slay their offspring seek the protection of the politicians sworn to its cause. And yet, perhaps the sheer magnitude of this evil contains a sign of hope.

At the end of chapter 11 of the Book of Revelation — when the seven letters have been sent, the seven seals opened and the seven trumpets blown — the sanctuary of God in Heaven opens and the Ark of the Covenant is seen therein. And then, in chapter 12, another sign (or perhaps the same sign seen from a different vantage point): a woman clothed with the sun, standing upon the moon, with a crown of twelve stars upon her head.

“[S]he was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. And another portent appeared in heaven; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which to be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.”

(Apocoylpse 12:4–6)

Chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation is the centre of the text. It stands out with particular vividness in a book that is anyway the most symbolically vivid in all of scripture. One cannot help but feel that here in this chapter we see unveiled the very content of the scroll which only the triumphant and immolated Lamb could open. Chapter 12 of the Apocalypse seems almost to summarise the entire history of salvation. 

It is also of particular fascination for Catholics because of the central role of the Woman, in whom the tradition of the Church has always seen the Blessed Virgin. This is not at all in conflict with the suggestion that Chapter 12 is a figurative summary of salvation history, for Mary is the type and model of the Church. Her life is a prefigurement and encapsulation of the history of that people made one by the unity of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 

Indeed, St Thomas More suggested that at one point, at the foot of the Cross, she was identical with the Church Militant, alone preserving the light of faith in the darkness of the Passion:

“For yet stood still the light of faith in our Lady, of whom we read in the Gospel continual assistance to her sweetest Son, without fleeing or flitting. And in all others we find either fleeing from him one time or other or else doubt of his resurrection after his death — his dear mother only except. For the signification and remembrance whereof the Church yearly, in the Tenebrae lessons, leaveth her candle burning still … when all the remnant, that signifieth his apostles and disciples, be one by one put out.”

For we know that Our Lady felt no pangs of childbirth in the Nativity itself, and thus her cries of anguish in Chapter 12 of the Apocalypse are figurative twice over: symbolising the labours of the Church as she gives birth to her spiritual offspring throughout history, and also the sufferings of the Holy Virgin at the foot of the Cross as all the adoptive brethren of the Messiah, past present and future, are simultaneously brought forth in His blood. 

“A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me … Amen, Amen, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world. So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

(John 16:17–22)

But what of the dragon which stands before the woman “that he might devour her child when she brought it forth”? This obviously is the evil one who seeks to frustrate the salvation of the spiritual children of the Church by leading them away to ruin before their rebirth in Christ can be consummated by a holy death. Each time the will of the enemy is frustrated, another child of adoption is “caught up to God and to his throne” the number of the elect draws nearer to completion and the end of all things approaches nearer. 

Although this interpretation of the image pertains to the whole of human history, and is figurative, it is striking that, at two key moments, the assault of the evil one upon the potential members of Christ’s mystical body became very bodily indeed. Immediately prior to the revelation of the law, and immediately prior to the revelation of the gospel, the evil one — through his instruments, Pharaoh and Herod — sought physically to slay God’s messengers — Moses and His Son Our Lord Jesus Christ — through massacring the first born of the Hebrews and the innocents of Bethlehem. 

There were many signs which were to precede the end of all things and most of them have passed. The preaching of the Gospel to all nations (Mark 13:10), the recapture of Jerusalem by the Jewish people (Luke 21:24) and the passing of the last remnants of the Roman Empire (2 Thessalonians 2:1–7); all of these have been accomplished or are on the verge of accomplishment. When the Lord was walking the way of the Cross he warned the woman of Jerusalem of the terrible events that would accompany the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. 

“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never gave suck!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

(Luke 23:28–31)

Surely these terrible words refer, not just to the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century, but also to the end of things — two events that are frequently juxtaposed and identified by the Lord (Matthew 5:18). In those times, men said, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never gave suck,” because of the miseries that awaited the Jewish people, but in our times women voluntarily sterilise themselves and slay their own children in the womb, that they might serve Mammon more faithfully, or for fear of abandonment by their honourless menfolk. 

Once more, the dragon stands before the woman “that he might devour her child when she brought it forth”. Is it not reasonable to suspect that the third and final great upheaval in the saga of man’s wounded pilgrimage through the desert of this world approaches?

God told the Israelites that He had brought them to the Holy Mountain upon eagles wings (Exodus 19:4); likewise the woman of Revelation 12 is brought into the wilderness to a place of safety by two wings of a great eagle. Pharaoh and his armies were swept away by the waves of the Red Sea and a torrent flowed after the Woman from the mouth of the dragon but “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river which the dragon had poured from his mouth.”

Nature revolts against the corruptions of the enemy and grace rescues those whom the Lord makes to call upon Him. “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

The dragon takes his stand upon the sands of sea, the frontier between the faithful and the world; the hearts of the false brethren, for “a man’s foes will be those of his own household” (Matthew 10:36). But Revelation goes on to tell us that “every one whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain” (Revelation 13:8) will give in. Conversely therefore those who endure to the end will be saved (Matthew 24:13).

Let us trust in the Lord then and nature and grace will preserve us, as the Lord has promised:

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

(Isaiah 40:28-31)