In Evening Prayer today, the daily lectionary begins its course through the book of Revelation. Just as this book has an interesting place in the biblical canon, it also has an interesting place in the liturgical tradition.
Even in the Early Church there was widespread disagreement over how to interpret this book. Some theologians, especially in the East, took a largely preterist view, seeing the vast majority of its fulfillment in the first century. That being the case, there was little need to preserve it in the active canon of Scripture. To this day, the book of Revelation is barely ever read from in East Orthodox liturgy (though its several hymnic sections, I’m sure, deeply inform their hymnody). In the West, too, there was dispute on how to interpret this book, and although I cannot comment on its liturgical use through the medieval era, I can point out that the original Anglican daily lectionary omitted the book of Revelation.
Despite how modern Evangelicals love Bible-in-a-year plans, this was hardly scandalous at the time. It had long been understood that some parts of the Bible were more readily edifying than others. Most of the books of Leviticus and Numbers, and much of Ezekiel was left out of the original lectionary as well, along with 1 & 2 Chronicles. Genealogies, finicky Old Covenant Laws, and obscure Old Testament visions and prophecies, although all Scripture, are not as relevant to forming and informing the ordinary Christian life as other parts of the Bible. The book of Revelation was cast in the same light – much of it was obscure, controversial, and liable to stir up further controversy. Indeed, radicals and revolutionaries had a tendency to use images from writings like Revelation to bolster their crazy ideas… the time of the Reformation was tumultuous enough already.
Unfortunately this backfired. The lack of familiarity with the book of Revelation eventually gave rise to new and theologically dangerous interpretations of the book throughout the following centuries, most noteably that of Nelson Darby, who essentially invented the near-heretical Dispensationalist theology which rewrote the doctrine of the Church and sundered the entirety of Scripture between “Israel” and “the Church” in a new and complicated way that very nearly undoes the entire Gospel. Today’s popular doctrine of the Rapture rose to prominence through this false teaching, and the various End-Times views that populate the religious landscape right now are a testimony to how poorly-understood the book of Revelation has been.
Anglican lectionaries have since restored this book, always at the end of the year. Its eschatological and apocalyptic content lends itself perfectly to the mood and theme of the Advent season, and the culmination of the New Creation at the end of the book is matched (at least emotionally) by the arrival of Christmas. In the modern Sunday Communion lectionary, the book of Revelation shows up on a couple holy days here and there, but gets its most thorough treatment in the season of Easter in Year C (the year which has just begun). The context of the Easter season also befits this book, as it begins with an image of the resurrected (and ascended) Christ and looks ahead to his victory not only over death but over all evil. It takes Easter and projects it into all of time and space!
So as you begin reading Revelation tonight, try to keep in mind that although this is a mysterious book with a great deal of controversy about it, the context of Advent’s anticipation of the return of Christ can be a helpful benchmark for understanding this book. Also, try to take it in as a whole and tuck it into your memory, so that when Easter rolls around in a few months, and you hear parts of it read on Sundays for a few weeks, it’ll be more familiar to you.
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