Rev 12:13-17; Deut 32:10-18, Psalm LXX 54:7-8 (MT 55:6-7)
Because Revelation 12 is the inner core of the book of Revelation, we have spent some concentrated time on it, and finally complete our reading in this third episode. We have seen already two interspliced scenes: verses 1 through 6 described the persecution of the Queen by the adversary of God; verses 7 through 12 detailed the conquest of that adversary by the blood of Christ, the heavenly hosts, and the faithfulness of the martyrs, so that he is cast out of heaven. Paradoxically, the victory over Satan means for joy in heaven, but woe on earth, for Satan is determined to take as many humans as he can down with him, just as he destroyed a third of the heavenly host. And so, in this third scene, we flash back to the devil’s pursuit of the woman, which morphs into a continuing satanic war against earth. This is appropriate, since the heavenly woman evokes images of both the Theotokos and the people of God, whether located in the Old Covenant or the New. We must hold in our minds the declaration of victory in verses 10 through 12, and the accomplished reign of Christ with his saints, even as we soberly observe the ongoing challenges for God’s people, in Rev 12:13-17. The war, though effectively won, continues, as though we are between a cosmic D-Day and blessed V-Day. Here is that dramatic passage:
And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.
So, in this continuing persecution of the heavenly woman, we see three great movements: she is rescued and flies to the wilderness for a three and a half year sojourn; Satan attempts to sweep her away but the very dryness of the earth proves a help to the woman; Satan turns his evil attention to “the rest of her offspring,” and stands waiting for backup to come from the sea.
What are we to make of this rescue to the wilderness? At first we may be confused, knowing that Deuteronomy 32: 10-18 speaks of God rescuing Israel, like a foundling child, from the wilderness, and flying with that infant nation, as though on eagle’s wings, to a land of plenty where Israel thrives. Here is that touching story, which turns into disappointment:
[The LORD] found him in a desert land,
and in the howling waste of the wilderness;
he encircled him, he cared for him,
he kept him as the apple of his eye.
Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
that flutters over its young,
spreading out its wings, catching them,
bearing them on its pinions,
the LORD alone guided him,
no foreign god was with him.
He made him ride on the high places of the land,
and he ate the produce of the field,
and he suckled him with honey out of the rock,
and oil out of the flinty rock.
Curds from the herd, and milk from the flock,
with fat of lambs,
rams of Bashan and goats,
with the very finest of the wheat—
and you drank foaming wine made from the blood of the grape.
But Jeshurun [that is, “little Israel”] grew fat, and kicked;
you grew fat, stout, and sleek;
then he forsook God who made him
and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.
They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods;
with abominations they provoked him to anger.
They sacrificed to demons that were no gods,
to gods they had never known,
to new gods that had come recently,
whom your fathers had never dreaded.
You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you,
and you forgot the God who gave you birth.
In Deuteronomy’s poem, God’s foundling child becomes cock-sure, and turns to idolatry, forgetting that God was both his creator, and his rescuer. The vision in Revelation calls to mind this original rescue “on eagle’s wings” from Egypt through the desert to the promised Land, with all the gratitude that this should evoke—plus the horror that God’s people then took this for granted, and were not faithful. In our vision, the woman herself is given eagle’s wings—God shares a sign of His power and divinity—and taken to dwell in the desert, without any mention at this point of a Promised Land. Some ancient commentators read this as referring specifically to Mary, to her flight to Egypt, with a winged angel warning Joseph to flee (sixth century Oecumenius), or even to her assumption into heaven at the end of her earthly life (fourth century Epiphanius). However, Mary’s fate is frequently seen as linked with the entire church, and so Oecumenius put it this way: “for [the dragon] knew that her child was too great to be captured, and he envied people their salvation from the Lord, for he could not tolerate such a change that while he had been expelled from heaven, people would ascend from earth to heaven through virtue” (Commentary on the Apocalypse 12.13–17). This commentary is a relatively new discovery, but is referred to numerous times by St. Andrew of Caesarea, whose reading of the book of Revelation has so influenced the Orthodox Church.
Why would this ancient writer speak about the development of God’s people through virtue, in looking at this passage? This is because the desert becomes, for us, a sign of ascetic struggle and separation from the evils of the world, with our tradition of the desert fathers. Frequently the mention of eagle’s wings and of the desert has led to readers looking sideways to one of the Psalms, which is a lament of a godly person in an evil environment: Psalm 54:7-8 (MT 55:6-7) cries out: “Oh, that I might have the wings of a dove! Who will give them to me? I would fly away and be at rest; yes, I would wander far away; I would lodge in the wilderness.” For it is in the desert that God can accomplish His most profound preparation of His people—the woman was sent there to be ‘nourished’ for three and a half years. Certainly God’s OT people learned much about dependence, obedience, and solidarity in the wilderness; the desert fathers, too, speak of its purging power, and the sweetness of being protected by God in remarkable ways. These stories color in the scene of our vision, reminding us that God uses hardship to make us all that we are meant to be. Yet the time in the desert is a sojourn, not our final destination—just as holy Mary’s pain over her Son’s death was swept away by the joy of Pascha, so the three and a half years are not the fullness of seven. They are a limited time, the same time that we saw the oppressed witness of the two martyrs in the previous chapter, or the trampling of the Holy City (three and a half is the same as 42 months and 1,260 days). God has in hand both the time of the wilderness and the effect of the desert upon us.
Even during this sojourn, however, there is danger. The woman in the desert is again threatened by the enemy, who tries to overwhelm her with a flood of water from his mouth. He tries to bring under his command the element of water, just as at the end of this passage he will stand expectantly by the sea for more power to accrue to him. And yet this evil torrent does not fulfil his murderous desire! The earth itself, parched in the desert sun, swallows up all that he directs towards her, and she is not harmed. Some ancient commentators suggest that this is because she is armed with the heavenly wings—the two testaments, or the love of God and neighbor, and so will not yield to the tempter. That is, the whole Church, when we cleave to God, cannot be harmed by the Devil’s designs. Andrew of Caesarea puts this in picturesque terms: “He sent out against her [a river,] a host of godless people and evil demons and all kinds of temptations that he might enslave her.” And the Venerable Bede likewise comments: “he worked to take from the apostles the confidence of their teaching, and this was as though he had given himself the task of taking the woman, that is, the whole church, from human affairs. But since he has failed to accomplish this, he fights against the faithful in every age” (Explanation of the Apocalypse 12.17–18).
By ascetic struggle and with the nourishing help of God, the woman, designed for nobility, is kept safe. This was true of the Theotokos, who escaped initially to Egypt with her son but had many trials to undergo during his suffering, and also for the whole of God’s people. Sojourn in the desert may be hard, but it is a preparation for the glory to come. As St. Paul puts it, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer Adam is wasting away, our inner Adam is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:16-17).
We find ourselves, then, in a paradoxical situation—rescued and protected, nourished by God; yet in the midst of struggle, where dragon waters can threaten, and hardship is clearly seen. St. John’s vision continues with the threat of the enemy, reminding us that, though some of our number, including our Mother Mary, are at rest, the Enemy is intent on waging war against “the rest of her offspring,” that is, us!
Let us pause again and wonder that we should be called the children, the offspring. It is by virtue of our link with God the Son that this is the case—and not only are we the children of Mary, but of the Father Himself. Consider the apostle’s assurances in Hebrews 2:10-12, “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers.” That same letter goes on to apply the amazing humility of the God-Man to us, reminding us that we, too, God’s legitimate children, must be prepared for the “nourishment” that comes to us through adversity, as we struggle against sin:
God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?… He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:5-11).
The devil tries to overwhelm, using many wiles to sweep us away. We should anticipate challenges from the post-Christian world around us. But some of the temptations and oppressions may come from unexpected places, even from within our own community. After all, Satan once was in God’s household, and Jesus himself fulfilled in his life the lament of the Psalmist: “it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me…. But it is you, my companion, my familiar friend” (Psalm 54:13-14; MT 55:12-13). We must be prepared. But our sojourn in the place prepared for us by God provides for us the divine means of rescue and strength—in all this, we are protected by God as by a mother eagle, we are nourished in the most unlikely of places, and the very severity of the desert can thwart the enemy’s designs. We are not to be like “Jeshurun” (the infant Israel) who grew fat and self-satisfied, but like Christ, our humble leader. Like the Lamb, who was seated on the throne but among His people, we have a double place—rejoicing with the saints and the Theotokos in the heavens, even while we soldier on in the harshness of war. This double position forges in us the virtues of joy and endurance. Always sounding in our mind is the declaration we heard from the heavens “now have come the salvation of our Christ,” even as we resist those things that would take us away from our path and away from our home with God. Assured of victory, we know that the war continues. And we are called to follow the Lamb wherever He goes.