As I was writing my post for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels the other day, I was struck by something in the text from the Apocalypse that had slipped past my notice in previous readings. In the dense symbolic language of its genre, the text describes a battle between warring factions in heaven. But, to my surprise, it quickly turns away from a violent, “Holy War” trajectory. Satan and his allies are defeated but not through violence:
But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. (v.11)
We might expect the Apocalypse to have picked up on the strong image of the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Rev. 5.5, cf. Hosea 5.14), but instead it confounds our expectations, and offers us the Lamb who was slain. The key to victory is not divine violence, but the humble way of Jesus. The angelic forces “did not cling to life even in the face of death.” These words are reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching about the wheat that bears its fruit in dying (Jn 12.24), about giving up your life so you might find it (Mt 10.39), and taking up the cross (Mt 16.24). It is also reminiscent of Jesus’ own self-emptying life:
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Phil. 2.6-8)
This perhaps surprising pacifist streak in the Apocalypse is picked up again a couple chapters later:
Let anyone who has an ear listen:
If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go;
if you kill with the sword,with the sword you must be killed.
Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (13:9-10)
Evil begets evil. Violence begets violence. When we retaliate — whether our violence is physical, mental, or spiritual — there are now two evils where there was once only one. On and on it goes, multiplying like a virus. The only way to stop it is to stop it in its tracks, to stop playing the game by the rules of ‘this world.’
This is exactly what the Jesus story is all about: rejecting the rules of this world’s deceptive games. Only when we do this will we, like Jesus, “see Satan fall like lightning” (Lk 10.18).
The word ‘satan’ means “deceiver.” The word diabolos, from which we get ‘devil’, refers not only to deception but also to sowing doubt and confusion, to distraction. The ‘devil’ in this sense is the ultimate scheister, conman, or flimflam artist, always trying to get us off course, getting us to “look over there” while he steals our wallet, to sow enough doubt in our minds to get us to shake off inconvenient truths, or to distract us with someone else’s imperfections so we can deflect just criticism of our own behaviour (the ‘devil’ is the master of ‘but-what-about…-ism’).
As tempting and easy as it is to fight fire with fire, this isn’t the way of Jesus.
Where the world distracts, Jesus calls us to the heart of things.
Where the world confuses, Jesus calls us to clarity.
Where the world deceives, Jesus calls us to the truth.
Where the world tells us to blame others, Jesus calls us to look at the planks in our own eyes.
Where the world tells us to condemn others, Jesus calls us to examine our own life (“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”).
Where the world tells us to hit back harder, Jesus calls us to turn the other cheek.
Where the world tells us to take all that we can get, Jesus calls us to lose our life in order to find it.
The world won’t like it and will definitely strike back. But this is “the word of our testimony” which casts down the devils from their thrones. This is how we too will see them “fall like lightning.”