Like many students of the Bible, I have long been intrigued by Austin Farrer’s treatise on the Apocalypse, A Rebirth of Images,1 in which he indulges his taste for gematria and other number symbolism. The most impressive feature of the book, however, is the rich use Farrer makes of the Hebrew Bible, and especially of its liturgical calendar. Monsignor Nusca’s approach is different; as his title indicates, he focuses on the figure of Jesus and does so in a manner that not only honours the genius of the book itself but also rescues it from a fixation on its portrayal of plagues and disasters that has distracted many readers from its central messianic message: it is “God-centered and Christ-centered” (p. 14).
Nevertheless, he shares with Farrer an awareness that the Book of Revelation reveals Jesus as the Messiah, long predicted and awaited by the Jews. Consequently, its image of Christ is to be seen as being in continuity with the entire history of salvation. Nusca honours this fact in a text that bristles with references that move cross the entire Bible. More specifically, in chapter one he provides a survey of “The Faces of Jesus in the New Testament” in which he briefly summarizes the messianism of Matthew, the mystery of Mark, the universalism of Luke and the sublimity of John. These are traits of Jesus that recur in the spectacular images of the “all-powerful, glorious, radian, cosmic Christ” (p. 11) in that the Jesus of the Apocalypse makes explicit what is implied in the earlier writings of the New Testament, not excluding Paul.
The essence of Saint John’s message is nothing less than an alternative world view in that the reader, or rather, the hearer—for the book was designed to be read aloud at Christian assemblies (Rev 1.3)—is invited to view the trials of the present in the light of the transcendent activity of God in the world through Jesus Christ. Thus is the hearer, ancient or modern, brought to recognize the hand of God in the situation of the individual Christian and the Christian community in an antagonistic society. Nusca impressively traces the progress of Jesus as “the glorified Angel” through the seven churches. Those opening chapters of the Apocalypse Nusca interprets as a profound and reassuring restatement of “the Father and I are one.”2 The discussion of the “Letters to the Churches” is resumed at length in the closing chapters, in which the contemporary reader is equally called to account.
The second section, on Jesus as the Lion/Lamb, points to the privilege of the Christian to share, even now, through the door opening into heaven,3 the glorious destiny of those who are faithful to the exhortation of the opening chapters. The activity of the messianic Lion/Lamb makes available to readers the fruits of his victory over the world in what must be recognized as a cosmic, a heavenly liturgy. Here, as throughout, one is pleasantly impressed by Nusca’s familiarity with and effective use of the Catholic Tradition; for not only is Scripture abundantly referenced, but the saints and thinkers of the past—whether as well known as Teresa of Avila or Augustine or as (relatively) obscure as Victorinus of Patau (p. 46)—are recognized as insightful expositors of the sacred text.
Given the widespread, often fanciful, interest in Armageddon nowadays, Nusca’s examination of Christ as “the divine warrior” is of particular interest and importance. The point is that this “holy war” is waged “not by violence but by suffering” in that the faithful are not described as “exercising an active role in the defeat of the enemies portrayed in the book” (pp. 71-72). It is a war in which the images of Roman military power are employed to describe a spiritual war “whose field of battle is cosmic in scope and proportion” (p. 73), but a war that is also waged in the vast inner regions of the human soul. This whole section is a sensitive and insightful examination of a spiritual struggle for the salvation of the world, which climaxes in “the battle that is not described,” viz., the marriage feats of the Lamb.
On the dust jacket is a reproduction of an Andrei Rublev icon that portrays the visit of three angels to Abraham at the oak of Mamre, an image that Nusca uses to introduce the final part of his book. He works from the generally accepted opinion that the icon uses “inverse perspective,” i.e., that the vanishing point lies in front of instead of behind the painting. In this manner is the viewer included in the picture, as a fourth participant in the (eucharistic) meal portrayed. This insight is then employed to establish that the reader of the Apocalypse is the “fourth face of Christ,” a complement to images of Christ as the glorified Angel, the messianic Lion/Lamb of God and the Divine Warrior that have been examined in the opening chapters of the book.
Remarkable is the range of readers envisaged by the author. The sophisticated reader will delight in the numerous and well-documented references to modern, mediæval and patristic thinkers, while the ordinary person will profit from an engaging presentation of the major themes of the Apocalypse and their meaning and significance for Christians today. The result is a widening of perspective, in which the Book of Revelation is rescued from neglect on the part of Catholics and Orthodox and from an overly zealous literalism by sectarian Protestants. The violence of the plagues and natural disasters is placed in its proper context, as witnessing to the moral struggle between good and evil, virtue and vice. Brilliant attention is given to the contemporary importance of the book, “John’s masterpiece,” and nowhere more effectively than in the final chapters, in which the reader is confronted with the Christ of the Apocalypse in the here and now; for the message of John to beleaguered Christians of the first century resonates strongly with the situation of believers today, who live in “an era of posts”: “postmodern, post-colonial, post-Christian, and, most recently, post-truth” (p. 204).
Monsignor Nusca’s vast learning is effortlessly and effectively on display, as the names and thought of the shapers of modern secularism parade before the reader, like the emperor in his new clothes. They “have been weighed and found wanting.”4 In the gaze of the Christ the inadequacy of the Enlightenment and its atheistic progeny is laid bare, for man cannot live without an opening to the transcendent. And, paradoxically, it is by entering the inner universe of his own psyche that man can escape the narrow confines of a secularized society:
The heart itself is but a small vessel, but there are also dragons and there are lions there. . . . there are precipices. But there is also God and also the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the Apostles, the treasures of grace— there are all things.5
The Christ of the Apocaplyse is a compilation and reworking of a series of spiritual conferences Monsignor Nusca delivered in Canada and America. It follows that there is no discussion of the thorny question of authorship or of the caution of the Orthodox Church as to the book’s interpretation and its canonical status. These are hardly drawbacks in a book that is directed to those readers who will gain access to the compelling message of the Apocalypse for its original audience and the continuing value of that message for Christians today.
1. Austin Farrer, A Rebirth of Images: The Making of St. John's Apocalypse (Westminster: Dacre Press, 1949).
2. Jn 10:30.
3. Rev. 4:1
4. Rev. 3:2
5. Pseudo Macarius, quoted on page 95.
By: Father Daniel Callam, CSB