Rev 12:1-6, Deut 1:29-33; Ps 2:7-9, Dan 7:13-14
As we approach chapter 12, which could be called the “inner shrine” of the Apocalypse, it is helpful to remember that our chapter divisions are not part of the originally signaled structure of the biblical books: the chapters were added in about the thirteenth century, and the verses later, in the sixteenth. Though this is convenient for those who want to easily confer on a particular portion, sometimes we may find that the dividers of the text have obscured rather than illumined the book’s structure. This may well be the case as we move from chapter 11 to 12. In Revelation 5, John is told about the Lion of Judah, and turns to see a Lamb; in Revelation 7, he observes as 144,000 servants of God are sealed, and immediately sees a “multitude that no one could number.” In chapter 11 we have, through John’s eyes, seen the “ark of the covenant” in heaven itself, and then in the very next verse (12:1) he sees the “great sign” of a woman in heaven. Just as the Lamb clarifies the Lion, and the great multitude fills out the meaning of the holy 144,000, so this shining woman may well amplify our understanding of the ark. Great things, and great drama, are afoot.
We know this, too, by the signals of structure that we have encountered as we read. We have just heard the sound of the seventh trumpet, knowing that the trumpet series has emerged from the opening of the seventh and final seal. We have seen that this part of the Apocalypse comes from John’s ingesting of a “little scroll” taken from the hand of the angel, and that it is both “bitter and sweet.” A bird’s eye view of the Apocalypse shows us a structure like that of nesting dolls, with mysteries enfolded within mysteries. The introduction in chapter 1 corresponds in imagery and language to the closing instructions given to John, like outer brackets of the whole book; within these bookends, the promises of the seven letters (chapter 3) correspond closely to the fulfillment of the New Jerusalem in chapters 21-22; within these frames, the seven seals and trumpets (chapters 4 through 9) will be brought to a conclusion in the seven bowls and the judgment of “Babylon” (chapters 15-20). And the inner part of the whole drama, the little scroll (chapters 10-15) now commands our attention. We are in the very center of things, about to understand our own destiny, and how it is intimately related with the Lion-Lamb. The fate, struggle, and glory of the woman are the great sign of that communion.
We will read only a few verses of this mystery, Rev 12:1-6, since there is a lot to unpack:
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. 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 give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to 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 she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.
Immediately we see the connection with what has gone before! The woman’s time of preparation, 1,260 days, or 42 months, is identical to the time in which the two witnesses prophesied and were scorned, and in which the holy city was trampled (11:2-3). Their shaming and their glory are both reflected in the figure of this noble lady, who both shines, and is harassed. She is the “trampled holy city” personified. Those of us who are aware of the tradition that the ark of the covenant prefigures the Holy Theotokos, the true Throne of Messiah, should not be surprised. Here is a woman who is blessed above all others, wearing the sun and the moon, studded by 12 stars (the tribes? the apostles?) who shine as God’s own people: yet she is scorned and oppressed by the godless. We see her glory in the heavens, but know the shame that she faced on earth.
The ancient commentators speak of this great sign as either the Theotokos herself, or as God’s people, whom she represents. She is born for greatness, but has trials to undergo, indeed trials brought by God’s great enemy, the dragon. His might is such that he can displace a third of God’s host, bringing them from heaven to earth. His malice is such that he hopes to devour the child “who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” If she is the personification of God’s people, then he is the epitome of the godless in every age. The language of their struggle brings to mind the Messianic Psalm, Psalm 2:
Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying
As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will tell of the decree:
The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
In Revelation 12, again we see the plotting and raging, on the part of the dragon and his hosts. Here we see the planned violence against God’s anointed one, who is set up by God not only on the holy earthly hill of Zion, but in the heaven of heavens! Here we see the triumph of the one who is to rule the whole earth with his scepter. He is NOT devoured by the dragon, but by a divine birth is exalted over all. In the strange dynamics of the vision, the birth of the Messiah and his glorious Ascension are joined together, showing God’s overall strategy for our rebellious and oppressed world.
But, you may ask, how can this visionary woman be Mary, since she suffered no “birth-pangs”? The answer is in the strange logic of visions. This vision is not simply about the birth of Messiah, King Herod’s search for the child, and the rescue of Jesus by God’s providence. It is about the overall enmity of Satan, and his thorough campaign against the Lord and His people. The Theotokos is not simply viewed here in natural childbirth, but as one who suffers the same agonies and hardships as her glorious Son, and as one who yearns for the spread of the gospel to all. Her woes are many, as we know from our hymns on Holy Friday: “ ‘Ah, my precious Springtime! Ah, my Son beloved! Ah, whither fades thy beauty?’….When she saw her Youngling on the Cross suspended, the Heifer wailed with grieving!” In her own person she shows forth the lamenting that we, God’s people, and her children, undergo, as we struggle for righteousness in a bitter-sweet time. “Every generation to Thy grave, comes bringing, dear Christ, its dirge of praises.” When we lament on Holy Friday we lament the ravages of sin and death, seen most clearly in the willing sacrifice of the God-Man.
Her double home is our home as well—bound for the heavens, and born of God, we are also in a wilderness, which is not yet the garden God has in store for us. Yet, we are told, this wilderness to which she flees, is also a place “prepared for her” (and us!) by God. Much can be braved, much can be won, much can be learned in the desert. Consider what Moses told God’s people Israel as they looked back on that time, as they were about to enter the Promised Land:
‘Do not be in dread or afraid of them. The LORD your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the LORD your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.’ Yet in spite of this word you did not believe the LORD your God, who went before you in the way to seek you out a place to pitch your tents, in fire by night and in the cloud by day, to show you by what way you should go. (Deut 1:29-33)
John’s vision, then, with all its horrors, awareness of our complex world, and sobriety, gives us a similar encouragement. Just as God carried Israel like a son into and through the desert, just as He went “before them” to show them where to go, so God has brought us to the wilderness. The Theotokos had her time of trial—what could be harder than seeing your son scorned and murdered—and so do we. But the time of trial is the time of preparation. God is forging us to be His very own pure people in the wilderness. The time, after all, is not seven full years, but only 3 ½, a time cut short, a time that will end, eventually, in glory.
We do not have to decide between the ancient commentators on our text, then, some of whom interpret the woman as God’s people (Hippolytus, Victorinus, Methodius, Tyconius), and some of whom speak of her as the Theotokos (Epiphanius, Oecumenius, and Arethas of Caesarea). As Andrew of Caesarea, our greatest Orthodox interpreter of the book, tells us, there are two interpretations in the Church regarding this section of Revelation. And why should this trouble us? In a vision, an image can point to more than one thing. Holy Mary in in herself a living icon, the clearest image, of Christ’s holy Church, is she not? What she has experienced, we hope also to know. We may think of our time in this wilderness as a trial—and so it is—but through this we are being nourished, John tells us.
And what about “the prince of darkness grim?” We will see much more of him before this chapter of Revelation (and this life!) are finished. But we have the sound of Psalm 2 ringing in our ears, and so, with one hymnodist, we can say, “The prince of darkness grim? We tremble not for him!” After all, God has had many would-be enemies. Another visionary prophet, Daniel, speaks in his seventh chapter of four such tyrants, the final one much like our great Dragon, which sought to devour and to destroy. But all of these enemies fold as mere beasts before God’s anointed one, the true Son of Man. Their frightening dominion is terminated in the Son’s ascending victory, just as the anointed is caught up to heaven in our vision here:
And behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed. (Dan 7:13-14)
Yes, we are, like our mother Mary was, in a bitter-sweet time. By our baptism, we know that our proper place is with the Lord, shining in heaven. The Dragon menaces. He has pretensions. Yet this beast has not ever won: he did not win over our LORD, he did not win over the Virgin Mary, he did not triumph over the early Church, and he cannot stand, even with the might of Hell, against what God has done, and is building. That kingdom “shall not be destroyed.” Through this great sign of the shining Lady, we are told, “have courage!” Like her, we will follow the Lamb wherever He goes, knowing that His very glory awaits us. “Then,” as the Master Himself assures us, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”