Tuesday, May 16, 2006

I Hold the Keys

Brace yourself, for we’re about to embark on a little trip through the Book of Revelation. I’m reading it once again (as I regularly read all the books of the New Testament), and I expect to be writing a few posts on it. But don’t expect original interpretations of monsters and arcane symbols and end-time visions. I see this book more as a call to repentance, perseverance, and hope, and as a witness to the glory of heavenly worship, in which we are called to share.

The Book begins: “The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ…” Solemn indeed. “Apocalypse” simply means “revelation,” literally a lifting of the veil. All of Scripture is a “Book of Revelation” in a broad sense, for as the word of God it reveals his truth, his love, and his intentions for the salvation mankind. But the book that bears this specific title was written in a time of persecution and gives a glimpse of the victory of Christ’s faithful ones—in that age, in the present age, and in the age to come.

It begins with a vision of Christ granted to John (the author names himself as such in the book, and it is usually accepted that this is the Apostle John). Immediately he gives the context of the current struggle: “I…share with you in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance” (1:9). Then he describes his vision of the risen and glorified Christ, which you can read for yourself. I will mention, however, that I am not far from the truth if I think I hear the voice of God in the ocean waves whenever I go to the coast, for “his voice was like the sound of many waters” (v 15).

What is most important for this present reflection is what Jesus first said to John, once the latter recovered from the impact of this glorious vision, which left him prostrate: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the Living One; I died, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I hold the keys of Death and Hades. Now write what you see…”

It is noteworthy that in a book full of fearful imagery, a repeating refrain is “Fear not.” But it is only because of the presence of the Lord, the First and the Last, the eternal Word, the Lord of history and of the everlasting Kingdom, that we have grounds not to fear in the face of the tribulations and menaces of our troubled and evil age. He gives us more reasons still: first, that He is living and reigning in the power and glory of his Resurrection, having sacrificed Himself to take away the sins of the world—“I died, and behold, I am alive forevermore.” Finally, that He holds the keys of Death and Hades. Now that He is risen from the dead, death and the netherworld must submit to Him. This is important for the message of this book, because to the first readers of it (and to many down the ages), martyrdom was a real possibility. They needed to know that the threat of death could not separate them from Christ or in any way diminish their motivation to be faithful to the Lord.

The fact that Jesus “holds the keys” has a wider application still. His holding the keys means that nothing in this world escapes his notice or his authority. Nothing happens that He does not at least permit. Our lives are not random or subject to absurd or tragic twists of fate, for Jesus is the Lord. He is risen from the dead, his word is truth and law, his power shall be matched or usurped by no one.

This ought to be a source of consolation and hope and strength for us. Life is difficult; the enemies of righteousness are many; the world is often heartless, godless, and unfriendly. So we look to Him who died but lives forevermore, whose eyes are like a flame of fire, whose voice is like many waters, whose face shines like the sun. He alone holds the keys: to life, death, happiness, Heaven and Hell, and all the mysteries of God, here and hereafter. Let us keep our confidence and persevere with trust. “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (v 8). And along with the keys, He holds each of us in the palm of his hand.