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from issue no. 01/02 - 2011

Archive of 30Giorni

The Woman of Revelation and the Antichrist

We repropose, for its surprising relevance, an article by Ignace de la Potterie that we published in number 10, 1995, of 30Giorni

by Ignace de la Potterie

The beast that arises from the sea, one of the scenes from the <I>Book of Revelation</I> in a fresco of Giusto de’ Menabuoi in the apse of the Baptistry of Padua

The beast that arises from the sea, one of the scenes from the Book of Revelation in a fresco of Giusto de’ Menabuoi in the apse of the Baptistry of Padua


Two occasions offer reason for continuing the reflection on Revelation begun in the last issue1; the 1,900th anniversary of the composition of the Bible’s last book, celebrated on the Greek island of Patmos on the initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople; but, above all, the fact that Revelation was at the center of the interests of two great exegetes neglected by the academic establishment but whom 30Days rightly thought to reintroduce to its readers in recent issues: Erik Peterson (1890-1960)2 and Heinrich Schlier (1900-1978)3.
According to these two German theologians – both of them converts from Protestantism – the visions recounted in Revelation portray the terrible and, at the same time, real battle taking place in history between the Redeemer and his eschatological enemy. The two exegetes consider the Antichrist as an actor in Revelation, represented in the symbols of the dragon and of the two beasts. In his 1938 study of the Apocalypse Peterson speaks of the beast that comes from the land and identifies it with “the false prophet whom one may also call the theologian of the Antichrist”. More than 20 years later Schlier wrote an entire article on the Antichrist concentrating solely on chapter 13 of Revelation, in which he finds the whole symbolism of the cult of the emperor. In his interpretation the Antichrist is identified with the Roman empire and, more generally, with the wordly powers that persecute the Church.
Over the centuries many, both inside and outside the Church, have given an exclusively political interpretation of the signs of Revelation. All persecutors and all the tragic and negative historical figures down to Hitler and Stalin have been seen as personifications of the Antichrist. Luther even attributed the features of the Antichrist to the pope of Rome.
Such an abundance of antichrists is likely to cause misunderstanding, hence it is worthwhile having another look at what John, the disciple who spoke of the Antichrist, meant by it.
First of all one should note that though many commentaries bring together Antichrist and Revelation, the expression “Antichrist” never explicitly occurs in the book John wrote on Patmos. Certainly there are the terrible figures of the two beasts and the dragon. But even here, if on the one hand the beast that comes from the sea can be identified with Rome and worldy kingdoms, the other beast, the one that comes from the land, represents – as Eugenio Corsini has shown in his book Apocalisse prima e dopo (Sei, Torino 1980) – religious power embodied in the Jewish priestly caste (the prostitute). The religious beast is dangerous since it is a tool of the Evil One, just as the great worldly powers are.
If we want to know what the Antichrist means to John, we must look at his first two epistles rather than at Revelation. It is there that the term antichrist, coined by John, appears for the first time: it means: “he who is against Chris t” or rather “he who claims that Jesus is not the Christ” (I John 2, 22). The fundamental passage comes a little before: “Children, this is the final hour; you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, and now many antichrists have already come; from this we know that it is the final hour. They have gone from among us, but they never really belonged to us; if they belonged to us, they would have stayed with us. But this was to prove that not one of them belonged to us” (I John 2, 18-19). This then is the first characteristic of the coming of the Antichrist: it is a Church event rather than a political one.The Antichrist as a mysterious figure, still undefined, whose coming is also described by Paul (II Thes 2, 7-8) as one of the signs of the latter days, takes on precise historical features in John’s epistles. It coincides with the manifestation of the first painful split within the bosom of the Christian community. The antichrists are the first heretics, such as the Gnostics, those, that is, who broke the unity of the community around Christ. Their sin is the most grievous, what John calls the “sin of iniquity”: being against Jesus Christ, that of not recognizing Christ come in the flesh and hence, as the second epistle also explains, wanting to go beyond: “If anybody does not remain in the teaching of Christ but goes beyond it, he does not have God with him” (II John 9). In the first letter the figure of the Antichrist is mentioned along with the two other two adversaries of the Christians: the Evil One (“I have written to you, young people ... and you have overcome the Evil One”, I John 2, 13), and the world (“Do not love the world or what is in the world”, I John 2, 15). There is a close tie between these three items: the individual people, defined, antichrists, who in denying Jesus Christ have caused the split in the community, represent a collective power, the world, which has shut itself off from the love of the Father but which is inspired by the power of the Evil One. In this sense the Antichrist, since he is inspired by the Evil One, Satan, reveals its essential, eschatological dimension leading us back to Revelation. The Church event of heretical schism is revealed in all its drama as an eschatological event: behind the crime of the antichrists lies the action of the Evil One in his struggle against the Messianic kingdom. It is opposition doomed to failure because the Evil One knows that the Lord has already won. But precisely the approach of the definitive revelation of victory makes the devil more angry in his persecution of the disciples of Jesus throughout history: “So let the heavens rejoice and all who live there; but for you, earth and sea, disaster is coming – because the devil has gone down to you in a rage, knowing that he has little time left” (Rev  12, 12).

The woman clothed with the sun and the dragon who attempts to devour her child, one of the scenes from the <I>Book of Revelation</I> in a fresco of Giusto de’ Menabuoi in the apse of the Baptistry of Padua

The woman clothed with the sun and the dragon who attempts to devour her child, one of the scenes from the Book of Revelation in a fresco of Giusto de’ Menabuoi in the apse of the Baptistry of Padua

The whole second part of Revelation (chapters 12-22) is devoted to the Church’s lot of persecution throughout history until the final victory in the new Jerusalem which descends from heaven. At the start of this section the persecuted Church is described by the symbol of the struggle between the Woman and the dragon. Apart from the interpretation of the Fathers, who saw an image of the Church in her, there has been a Marian reading since the Middle Ages which has widely influenced the iconographical and liturgical tradition. In fact the early Christians, and in particular the Johannine community, could hardly not – given the filial relationship of John with Mary begun on Calvary – refer the image of the Woman of Revelation to the concrete woman of whom the Gospel speaks, the mother of Jesus whom he himself calls “woman” before the marriage feast of Cana (John 2, 4) and again when she is with John beneath the Cross (“Woman, this is your son... This is your mother”, John 19, 26-27). One can suggest various considerations that confirm the legitimacy of the double interpretation. The Woman is clothed in the sun, with the moon beneath her feet. She cries out with the pangs of childbirth and the son to whom she gives birth is besieged as she by the dragon. All these are symbols attributable both to Mary and the Church. For example, the painful birth, which cannot be a reference to Jesus’ birth from Mary (there the birth was virginal and painless: Pius XlI’s encyclical Mediator Dei, in its summary of the whole of tradition, describes it as “happy birth”), symbolizes instead the Easter event with the birth of the Church. An event that took place precisely at the foot of the Cross: Mary and John at the feet of the crucified Redeemer are the nascent Church. And it was there that the mother of Jesus became mother of all the disciples, those disciples on whom, as Revelation again tells us, the anger of the dragon will be turned: “Then the dragon was enraged with the woman and went away to make war on the rest of her children, who obey God’s commandments and have in themselves the witness of Jesus” (Rev 12, 17).
If it is therefore legitimate to see Mary in the Woman of Revelation, here we want to get at the real meaning of the struggle between the woman Mary and the dragon. Or, in other words, the opposition between Mary and that symbol of eschatological evil which, as we have seen, for John emerged historically from the abandonment of the Church by the first heretics. There is a splendid antiphon which occurred on the feasts of Mary in the past and which liturgical reform has eliminated both from the breviary and from the missal: “Gaude, Maria Virgo, cunctas haereses tu sola interemisti in universo mundo” (Rejoice, Virgin Mary, you alone have destroyed all the heresies of the entire world). It is not that Mary did anything in her lifetime against heresies. But certainly the recognition of Mary in the Marian dogmas is a symptom and bulwark of the steadfastness of the faith. In his book-interview4 with Vittorio Messori, also Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger stresses that “Mary triumphs over all heresies”. If one grants to Mary the place allowed her in tradition and dogma then one truly finds oneself at the heart of the Church’s Christology. The early dogmas, concerning her perpetual virginity and divine motherhood, but even the more recent ones (the Immaculate Conception and the bodily Assumption into heavenly glory) are the secure base of the Christian faith in the Incarnation of the Son of God. But faith in the living God, who can intervene in the world and on matter, as faith regarding the ultimate realities (resurrection of the flesh and, hence, transfiguration of the material world) is implicitly declared in ackowledgement of the Marian dogmas. Not least for this reason one may hope for the success of the project to reinstate – perhaps on the feast of the bodily Assumption of Mary into heaven on August 15 – the splendid antiphon shelved by the liturgical reform.



1 Cf. I. de la Potterie, The Apocalypse has already happened, in 30Days, n. 9, September 1995, pp. 56-67.     
2 Cf. L. Cappelletti, State-less Theologian, in 30Days, n. 7/8, July/ August 1995, pp. 52-55; Like Lambs to the Wolves, edited by L. Cappelletti, ibid., pp. 55-57; I. de la Potterie, The Israel of God, in 30Days, n. 11, November 1995, pp. 24-27; Election is always by grace, edited by G. Valente, ibid., pp. 28-32.
3 Cf. L. Cappelletti, Revelation, a history for our times, in 30Days, n. 6, June 1995, pp. 62-64; Christus vincit, edited by di L. Cappelletti, ibid., pp. 65-68.
4 V. Messori – J. Ratzinger, Rapporto sulla fede, San Paolo Edizioni, Cinisello Balsamo 1985.

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