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Musical Musings: Easter
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Easter Revelation

by Gary D. Penkala

Ever since the Three-Year Lectionary was promulgated after Vatican II I've loved Eastertide of Year C. That's when the Second Readings come from the Book of Revelation (the Apocalypse). Perhaps it's the science-fiction / fantasy-literature fan in me, but I'm powerfully drawn to the vivid imagery and symbolism of these readings. As a musician, I'm also attracted by the many lyrical poems: hymns being sung by the elders, the martyrs, the saints around the Throne. G.F. Handel in the libretto for Messiah borrowed from the Book of Revelation:

  • Chorus
    Hallelujah: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. [Revelation 19:6c]
    The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ;
    and he shall reign for ever and ever. [Revelation 11:15b]
    King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. [Revelation 19:16b]
  • Chorus
    Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, (and hath redeemed us to God by his blood,) to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory and blessing. Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen. [Revelation 12b,13b,14b]

The Sundays of the Easter season are unique in the liturgical year in that all three of the readings come from the New Testament. The First Reading, normally from one of the books of the Old Testament, is now taken from I Peter (Year A), I John (Year B), or Revelation (Year C), except on Pentecost Sunday.

The Book of Revelation is apocalyptic writing, like the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. From Daniel, as well as from Ezekiel and Zechariah, it draws allegorical language and symbolic allusions. This type of literature, written in veiled prosody and generally as a response to a current crisis, was popular for 200 years before and after the birth of Christ. The author, who calls himself John, is thought by some to be the Evangelist exiled on the island of Patmos. Others see a disparity in the style, vocabulary and grammar between the fourth Gospel and Revelation, and assign authorship to perhaps one of the students of the Evangelist. In no way should the symbolic imagery be interpretted literally. The theme is eschatological, referring to the end of the world, strengthening the early Christians against the persecutions of secular Rome.

The Second Readings in Year C (2nd Sunday through 7th Sunday of Easter) follow thusly:

  1. Rev 1:9-11a, 12-13; 17-19

    The first vision of the Apocalypse describes Christ in his heavenly glory, "one like the Son of Man," dressed as a high priest, surrounded by seven golden lampstands. In his unworthiness, John falls as if dead at the feet of Christ, who raises him and instructs him to write down all he sees.

  2. Rev 5:11-14

    The Lamb, slain for the salvation of the world, the true Pasch of God, is seen as the center of worship in the heavenly court. He is surrounded in majesty, and the four living creatures, the elders, the angels, and myriads and thousands of saints sing a celestial hymn to the Christ. "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches ... Amen." This text closes Handel's masterpiece, Messiah.

  3. Rev 7:9, 14b-17

    This is a marvelous picture of the saints in heaven, clothed in white robes and carrying palm branches in their hands. These are the elect whose robes have been washed white in the blood of the Lamb. On this Good Shepherd Sunday, we hear that "the Lamb on the throne will shepherd them; he will lead them to springs of life-giving water."

  4. Rev 21:1-5a

    "A new heaven and a new earth" are described. The holy city Jerusalem is likened to a bride (the Church) ready to greet her husband (Christ). A great voice from the throne says, "Behold, the dwelling of God is with men," a text oft repeated on church façades and in the Liturgy of the Dedication of a Church. The same voice says, "Behold, I make all things new."

  5. Rev 21:10-14, 22-23

    Here the "holy city Jerusalem" is described, coming down from heaven. We can see in this an allegory of the Church, the elect of God, the bride of Christ. The glory of God illumines the city which thus has no need of sun or moon. "The Lamb is the light of the city of God," as the refrain reads for Kathleen Thomerson's hymn, I Want to Walk As a Child of the Light.

  6. Rev 22:12-14, 16-17, 20

    This reading is rich in familiar quotes. Jesus refers to himself as "the Alpha and Omega, the first and last, the beginning and the end." He calls himself, "the root and offpsring of David, the bright morning star," which inspired themes in the Great O Antiphons of Advent, particularly O Oriens. The thirsty are invited to come and receive life-giving water, an allusion to the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John's Gospel. Finally, we have the testimony, "'Yes, I am coming soon.' Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!" which closes the Book of Revelation and the entire Bible.

In these Eastertide readings, the Church shows us a glimpse of the glory of heaven, the glory that can be ours because of Christ's salvific death and triumphant resurrection. We are carried by this hope of glory through our earthly life, awaiting the Second Coming and our reunion with the myriads and thousands of the elect. A palm branch awaits. "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!"


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