Today’s First Reading is a part of John’s Revelation that is difficult to decipher, because John communicates many things in the same set of symbols. John is speaking in symbols to the Christians of his time regarding the persecution of Rome; the “beast” here refers to Nero as much as it refers to the antichrist. The two prophets, in a context of Roman persecution, could be Saints Peter and Paul, who were both martyred there during the persecution of Nero. The symbolism of the olive tree and lamp stands means that they are martyrs (in Zechariah 4:8-14, olive trees refer to the anointed witnesses Joshua and Zerubbabel), not to mention their fate at the hands of the people’s incredulity and the beast who didn’t accept their message. Yet the passage is full of symbolism taken from the most miraculous prophets (Elijah), Moses (pronouncing plagues upon “Egypt”), and Enoch (who was taken up into Heaven). Rome is branded as “Sodom” and “Egypt” for its immorality and oppression of God’s people. Some scholars believe it refers to the Church as a whole, and Saint Peter and Paul are co-patrons of Rome and could easily represent the whole Church.
The fire that comes from their mouths could also be seen as a purifying fire: if you’re impure, you’ll simply be burned away, but the purity in you will be refined. This could represent the fire of truth: the Gospel. Everyone appreciates a fiery preacher, and they epitomize that quality because they’re preaching the unadulterated truth of the Gospel with fire and conviction. The two prophets seem to share the fate of all prophets: they rub their incredulous listeners the wrong way, and, eventually, are killed to silence the message they’re bearing. However, in this case it takes the epitome of lies and evil, the beast, to bring them down. It brings something new: the greatest calamity that could befall them (evil and death) are powerless in the light of eternal life. They’re not only restored to life, but taken up into Heaven. Until this point of salvation history being taken up was something either shrouded in mystery (as in the case of Enoch) or only witnessed by a faithful few (for example, Elijah and Our Lord himself at his Ascension). Now the wicked as well as the righteous see it, an allusion to the revelation of God’s designs now being manifest for all, something that will only happen in the end times.
When we’re faced with evil and death as the ultimate deterrents of this world we must follow the example of the two prophets in today’s readings and not shy away from preaching the Gospel with conviction. We are all those witnesses, and we’ll be rejected, scorned, and even killed for our belief, but in faith we know that evil and death will not have the last word
Readings: Revelation 11:4–12; Psalm 144:1–2, 9–10; Luke 20:27–40. See also 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C, 33rd Week in Ordinary Time, Saturday, and 9th Week in Ordinary Time, Wednesday.