Many interpreters have argued over the Book of Revelation over the years and more than a few are quick to read Marian doctrines into its twelfth chapter. As for myself, I believe the chapter serves a recapitulation of all redemption history. While what follows by no means serves as a definitive exegesis of the chapter, it leads me to believe that the woman clothed with the sun is a reference to the Church and not the Theotokos.
The Exegesis. Let’s open our Bibles and read along with the exegesis.
The chapter begins with “a woman clothed with the sun,” (Rev 12:1) which is Old Testament Israel (i.e. the Church) who before the coming of Christ may be described as follows: “[T]he path of the just is like the shining sun, that shines ever brighter unto the perfect day” (Prov 4:8) and “the righteous will shine forth as the sun” (Matt 13:43). “[T]he moon” is “under her feet,” “and on her head a garland of twelve stars” is a description of the woman being Israel, made up of twelve tribes. She (that is, Old Testament Israel) is less than the Church, because “the light of the moon will be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun will be sevenfold” (Is 30:26). This is a reference to how the fullness of revelation has been given to only Christians. The woman, standing on the moon, is brilliant but not as grand as the New Testament Church. She is “like the shining sun” or “as the light of the sun,” but not the seven-fold light of the Church.
Rev 12:2 is clearly not about the Virgin Mary, as “being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth.” We know by the authoritative tradition of the Church, and the correct understanding of the Scriptures such as Ezek 44:1-3, that when the Virgin gave birth she had no pain and she remained a virgin. The coming of the sinless one cannot defile anyone nor bring to the woman pain in childbearing, which is the curse of Eve’s sin. So, Rev 12:2 is clearly about Israel, who “having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise” (Heb 11:39) but endured painful persecution waiting for the coming of the Lord. In short, verse 2 is a reference to persecutions before the time of Christ.
In short, the first two verses of the chapter teach that it is through the suffering of Israelite prophets and martyrs Christ was foretold and they are His descendants.
Afterward, the chapter recapitulates all of salvation history. Rev 12:3-4 speaks of “another sign [that] appeared in heaven,” which in fact chronologically precedes Israel’s history: a fiery dragon who “drew a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth.” This is none other than Satan’s rebellion which caused the fall of angels and man. The Devil “stood before the woman” as he has done many times in Israel’s history. One example is when “Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel” (1 Chron 21:1) in the hope that Israel’s punishment would lead to complete annihilation. Likewise, through Herod, Satan attempted to destroy all the innocents, thereby “devour[ing] her Child as soon as it was born.” After all, Herod was aware due to the star the Magi followed that the Messiah was born. His plan was to wait until after the Magi were in Bethlehem to allegedly “worship” the Child–a ruse to destroy Him once ascertaining His exact location. How clear is it that while God is omniscient, that Satan is in darkness and ignorance–he did not even know the exact location of the Messiah’s birth?
Rev 12:5 speaks of a “She.” This would be the Theotokos, but the significance of this is not to expound upon Marian doctrines, but to speak of her role in history. She is the daughter of Israel who conceived the Messiah by the Holy Spirit (i.e. “bore a male Child,” that is Jesus Christ. ) “[W]ho was to rule all nations with a rod of iron,” is an obvious reference to Ps 2:9 which is Messianic. “And her Child was caught up to God and His throne,” speaks of Christ’s Ascension to the Father’s right hand (Acts 2:33).
Rev 12:6 speaks of “the woman,” but “the woman” is no longer the Theotokos, but rather the New Testament Church, because Christ has ascended. Her fleeing “into the wilderness” pertains to the persecutions the Church endures after the Ascension, the first being that of the stoning of the Protomartyr Stephen and the fleeing of Christians in Acts 8. “[S]he has a place prepared by God,” is a reference to God preserving His people through persecution (as Saint Bede observes). The Church being fed “one thousand two hundred and sixty days” is an indeterminate period of time (akin to those given in Dan 12:11-12) where God’s people are fed by the Eucharist to spiritually prepare for the Last Judgement.
The episode of Satan’s defeat at the hands of Michael the Archangel in Rev 12:7-12 is another account of Rev 12:1-2 and Rev 12:3-6. It also is an account of Rev 20, where Satan is bound “1,000 years” and then he is released for “a time.” It is easy to take this 1,000 years literally, but it appears that both Rev 12:7-9 and Rev 20 are simply a recounting of the episode given in Rev 12:1-6–the entirety of Christian history. New Martyr Daniel Sysoev concurs, locating the time of the events in verse 7 “immediately after creation” (Explanation of the Apocalypse, p. 166). Rev 12:10-12 speak of how the Church has victory over Satan, “by the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony,” which is the preaching of the Gospel in both words and the testimony of Christians’ martyrdom.
It is within the preceding context we must understand Rev 12:13, that Satan “persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male Child.” Clearly this is in reference to the Church, not specifically the Theotokos, as the Theotokos was not martyred nor overtly persecuted so that she would be considered a confessor. So, when “the woman was given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness to her place,” this again is a reference to the Church being preserved through trial, a promise given to Israel in Is 40:31, “[T]he Lord Shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles.” “[S]he is nourished” is, like Rev 12:6, a reference to the sacraments in the Church. “[F]or a time and times and half a time” is the period of time God’s people experience persecutions in Dan 7:25 and 12:7. Hence, we Christians should expect to be nourished and preserved, but experience crippling persecution all at the same time: “the holy people has been completely shattered” (Dan 12:7). So God both reassures us, but warns us, as He promises us many fold “houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions” (Mark 10:30).
The true Church of God has always been persecuted: by the Romans, Persians, Arabs, Turks, western schismatics, and Communist atheists. Christians were often persecuted “by their own” such as the Byzantine and Imperial Russian authorities. Persecution is the telltale sign that God is both preserving and sanctifying His Church. Only the Orthodox Catholic Church, popularly called the “Eastern Orthodox,” can boast of living up to this promise consistently over centuries. Demographers concur with such an analysis. One estimate puts it that there were 14 million martyrs up to the year 1900. The 20th century saw approximately 26 million more Christians die for their faith, 20 million of which were Orthodox Christians killed by the USSR and approximately another one million Greeks were killed by the Turks. All things told, by any measure Orthodox Christians have made up half of Christendom’s martyrs, when outnumbered by the rest of Christendom several fold.
When Satan spews “water out of his mouth” (Rev 12:15), Saint Victorinus concludes this is another reference to persecutions from his hand. The earth swallowing the floodwaters in Rev 12:16 is, according to Father Daniel Sysoev, a reference to the collapse of temporal authorities which upheld persecutions (Explanation of the Apocalypse, p. 172). I’d add that it may also be a reference to temporal authorities for periods of time being somewhat positive influences on the Church. The conversion of the Roman Empire, the policies of tolerance in Venice’s empire, and the reversion of governments to pro-Orthodox or religiously neutral policies (such as modern Greece, Russia, and etcetera) are notable examples.
The last passage of the chapter is perhaps the most difficult. “[T]he dragon was enraged with the woman and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring.” Who is the woman and who are “her offspring?” Father Sysoev views the woman as the Church’s faithful and her offspring as nominal Christians, those “who attempt to remain on good terms with the world” (Ibid., p. 173). It is probably not a reference to the Theotokos and her offspring (that being, the Church at large), as such a reading is inconsistent with the point of the whole chapter. It is best to emphasize the former interpretation. Nominal Christians who when called to task “keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ,” like the lukewarm who stiffen their resolve when persecuted, no longer remain nominal. The nominals who take the mark of the beast (Rev 14:11), or in other words, capitulate to pressure and take the mark, are let go and no longer suffer persecution. They are not made war against anymore, as Rev 12 would put it. Yet, those who “have the testimony,” or martyrdom, of Christ are warred against until their demise.
This seems like a negative note to end the chapter, but it in fact it is a promise. According to Father Sysoev:
Hence, when people say that at the end of time salvation will be impossible, this is a lie. Remember one can always be saved in the city [i.e. a life of worldliness] and in the villages likewise [i.e. the “wilderness” pious Christians flee to]–salvation depends not on one’s location, but on the condition of one’s heart (Ibid.).
So, if we repent before the end, we should expect to be saved from destruction. “Having torn up the handwriting of their sins” (Kontakian 12, Akathist to the Most Holy Theotokos, c.f. Col 2:14), Jesus Christ takes into no account our previous wrongdoing, but rather is pleased by the “broken and contrite spirit” of us who repent (Ps 50:17 LXX). May God grant us this repentance.
Conclusion. While I am aware that some Orthodox observers interpret the woman in Rev 12 as the Theotokos, I find this very difficult to do in light of verse 2. Further, when interpreting the rest of the chapter, it does not really seem to be talking about her at all. Lastly, the chapter appears to repeat the same stories and themes again and again, something the book itself does such as with the trumpets/bowls of wrath. So, I conclude, the chapter exists to teach us one main point: that we are to expect persecutions because the true Israel of God has always been persecuted. However, through it all, we should be assured of spiritual perseverance (particularly through the sacraments) and ultimately salvation.