The first reading for the Solemnity of All Saints is Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14; what has been omitted from this reading, verses 5-8, is simply the listing of the 12 tribes of Israel by name and the numeration of the 12,000 called from each tribe. The reading as it appears in the lectionary begins with, "I, John, saw." While the name of John does not appear in the Greek text here, only "I saw," it is not improper to add it here. Most ancient apocalypses are pseudonymous, attributed to a figure from the distant past, but written centuries later. Whoever our John is – John the Apostle, John the Elder, or some other anonymous (to us) John – he identifies himself and identifies with his fellow Christians. In 1:9, he writes, "I, John, your brother, who share with you the distress, the kingdom, and the endurance we have in Jesus, found myself on the island called Patmos because I proclaimed God's word and gave testimony to Jesus." He changes the nature of apocalyptic writing by placing himself in solidarity with his Christian brothers and sisters in the here and now and offering his visions not only for the hope of future deliverance, but for current endurance and present hope.
Most apocalypses present divine revelation occurring not only through prophetic inspiration, but through the mediation of angels, divine messengers. This, apart from the reality of John’s actual revelatory experiences, is designed to give us confidence in the authority of the information that is being passed on to us. Our passage begins with John’s vision of an angel from the East "holding the seal of the living God (7:2)," the seal being an image intended to lend credence to the authority not only of John, but the angel. The angel represents all of God’s authority.
The angel from the east directs "the four angels who were given power to damage the land and the sea" (7:2) to withhold their power "until we put the seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God" (7:3). The seal is a mark of God’s protection and love; images of God’s seal or mark of protection can be found in Genesis 4:15, Ezekiel 9:6, and, of course, in the Passover story of Exodus 11-12. Revelation is suffused with Old Testament images, which are often not cited, but simply a part of the life-force of the imagery, woven into the fabric of the text.
Who is saved by the "seal"? Revelation speaks of 144,000 or 12,000 for each of the 12 tribes of Israel (7:4), listed by name in verses 5-8. Twelve, of course, is a sign of the restoration of Israel, hence Jesus chose 12 apostles to symbolize this restoration. What is 12 times 12,000? I read it as the overflowing fullness of God’s protection and love of Israel and the faithful and superabundant response of the people of God. Should we read it as a literal number of the chosen? The symbolic nature of these numbers instructs us not to do it! Just say no! God’s love will not be limited by a number.
Nor will God’s love be limited by the choice only of his faithful servant Israel. John’s vision smashes through that limitation, for he had "a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: ’Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb’" (7:9-10). What an awesome vision – which I mean both in the sense of the traditional, theophanic power and glory expressed and the way the kids mean it today: Awesome! Those who worship God are of a number "which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue." This is both awesome and beautiful. It is an image of what will come, but also what was already then, and what is even now.
As the angels worship God with all of those from Israel and the nations (7:11), we see images (re)appear from the heavenly visions of Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1. The worship of God is eternal, and this worship is something in which both the saints in heaven and we here on earth participate in. Our liturgy is a joining together with the saints in heaven:
"Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving,
honor, power, and might
be to our God forever and ever. Amen" (7:12)
John is questioned by one of the elders as to who the faithful are, a question which John deflects back to the elder. They are identified as "the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb" (7:14). We know that many of our brothers and sisters, saints in heaven, did, indeed, confess their faith and were martyred for their faith, both in the ancient Church and at various times throughout history. We might never be called upon to be martyrs for the faith through great distress, but this side of heaven distress, temptation, and struggles do occur. We are asked to witness to the truth in whatever way God calls us. We are asked to remain in communion with the saints, to join with them in the worship of God, in which we participate now and for eternity. The eternal worship of God is that for which we have been made and to which we are called. This is expressed in a literary genre, apocalyptic, that lends power to the truth through symbolic vision. This is the vision of the end of the world, and I feel fine.
John W. Martens