Breaking Open the Word: Revelation Ch. 17-18

The Fall of Babylon

Medieval [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, December 23rd, 2018 – Revelation Chapters 17 and 18

               Today’s chapters focus on the infamous “Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth.” (17:5) While anti-Catholic interpreters often eagerly associate this figure with the Catholic Church, scholars generally agree that it is an image for the city of Rome and the Roman empire, the great persecutor of the early Church. However, several exegetes (among them Scott Hahn and Brant Pitre) have put forward a different and intriguing interpretation: the “great harlot” is the city of Jerusalem, unfaithful to her Divine Spouse, while the beast she rides is Rome, the great conqueror and destroyer. While we do not have the space here to give all the reasons for this view, several Sisters have remarked how it illuminates the passage more clearly. For instance: unlike the more mainstream position, it does not merge the harlot and the beast into a single symbol.  Thus it is able to account for passages like 17:16-17, which describes the beast turning on the harlot, much as Rome (which once ruled over Jerusalem and protected it) turned on Jerusalem and destroyed it in 70 A.D., after the Jewish Revolt. Even the “seven hills,” which seem to unquestionably point to Rome, could apply to Jerusalem, as one rabbinic tradition holds that the Holy City was built on seven hills.

               Regardless of how you interpret the historical meaning of the harlot and the beast, the lesson is clear: riches and power corrupt. One Sister was particularly struck by the contrast between the flashy, wealthy, affluent life offered by the world and the simple, humble, quiet life to which God calls us. In fact, this is a lesson very closely tied to the great solemnity of Christmas we are now celebrating; God Himself is incarnate as a tiny child, in a poor family, with none of the glory and magnificence that are His by right. He Himself gives us the example we are to follow!

He emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave
— Phil. 2:7

               Another Sister also found a connection between these chapters and the mystery of Christmas. In Chapter 18, the kings and merchants of the earth all mourn for the fall of Babylon, but their “love” stands in stark contrast to the true love of God shown in the Incarnation. These false lovers are more concerned about the damage to themselves (“there will be no more markets for their cargo” (18:11-12)) than to Babylon herself, and they also “keep their distance for fear of the torment inflicted on her” (18:10). God, on the other hand, was willing to give up everything for His Bride, and He entered right into her sufferings in order to save her. Even though His people are constantly unfaithful to Him, He is the ever-faithful Bridegroom.

               Finally, we discussed how the symbols in these chapters are not limited to the first century A.D. As with all of Scripture, they have meaning for us today, and there have been many world powers throughout history to which they could be applied. Any time wealth becomes a society’s god, or a government begins persecuting the Church, or a nation is more concerned with power than with humility before God, we can see the looming images of the harlot and the beast. Yet we can also remember that the story doesn’t end there: “the Lamb will conquer them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with Him are called, chosen, and faithful.” (17:14)

               We’re nearing the end of the Book of Revelation – only four more chapters to go! Next week we discuss the Lamb’s victory in Chapters 19-20. And from all of us here at St. Joseph’s Monastery, we wish you and your families a blessed and merry Christmas!