33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Putting God First

Majestas, detail from the High Altar at St. Cyprian’s (London),
Ninian Comper, c. 1903, from Art in the Christian Tradition.
Original source: Flickr

“And then they will see
‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’
with great power and glory,
Mark 13:26

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Book of Daniel 12:1-3
November 14, 2021

This commentary was written 3 years ago, the last time this reading was used at Sunday Mass. If you are reading it for the first time, it will give a rather wide historical view of growth of the Jews’ self-understanding. If reading it again, it may provide a chance to test how your own understanding of the importance of the Old Testament has helped you to better know and love the New.

Hear then, Israel, and be careful to observe them,
that you may grow and prosper the more,
in keeping with the promise of the LORD,
the God of your fathers,
to give you a land flowing with milk and honey.

(Deuteronomy 6:3)

The above quote reflected the self-understanding of the Jewish people from Solomon to the reestablishment of the temple in Jerusalem after the exile: roughly from 900 to 500 BC. When they obeyed the law of God they prospered, when they disobeyed, they faltered. This provided a clear focus and much wisdom, but the world was changing rapidly. The Persian empire would be overthrown by Alexander the Great and his empire would soon be divided among his generals. These were not the relatively simple power plays between northern and southern opponents in the Middle East but represented truly international, indeed, intercontinental forces. We see in the book of Daniel the emergence of a wider view of history and a key doctrine for both Christians and Jews today.

The section we read today occurs at the end of a description of the rise and fall of empires for 300 years. It is written in a rather cryptic style but would have been understood by everyone who read it. We can check its reliability with pagan sources, and it is quite accurate. The common thread is that trading one overlord for another, however benign or even well-meaning, does not ensure political or religious freedom. We must look elsewhere.

This history concludes with Antiochus IV. A truly despicable man who had solidified power in Palestine about 200 BC and decided that he could make a considerable fortune by selling off Jewish religious offices including the high priesthood to the most generous bidder. Eventually he gave up all pretense of recognizing anything resembling historical Judaism and in 169 BC sacked the temple and installed the worship of a pagan god in place of the Lord of Israel. This was so traumatic that it was referred to as the “Abomination of Desolation”. At first, he tried to convince the Jews to convert to this religion by offering them positions at court and many did succumb but in 167 BC he outlawed Judaism entirely.

The Jews faced a severe problem. Should they submit or revolt and what would revolt mean? Many of the rich and well connected submitted and joined Antiochus. The books of the Maccabees detail the exploits of those who became the armed resistance. The Book of Daniel, however, reflects those who did not take up swords and spears but who sought cultural resistance. It can be accurately dated to 165 BC.

If you decide to read though the historical section of Daniel (Chapters 7 to 12), I suggest that you do so with a Bible with very good footnotes. The New American Bible is excellent despite its truly tiny print. You will also need considerable patience. It is a tough slog, but a picture of social process clearly emerges. Whatever the rulers and others who benefited from the system said or perhaps even thought their commitment to their own high position and pleasure in using it was the most important factor in their lives. We see this with the #metoo movement. Some of the men implicated in sexual harassment professed, even to themselves, the most progressive sentiments but abused, nonetheless. Once this is permitted, it knows no boundaries and its capacity for evil is limitless. This is clearly seen in the American Catholic Church. The institutional dynamics of privilege without accountability were like other hierarchical groups. Yet because of our belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and that the priest acts In Persona Christi, in the very person of Jesus, the abuse by priests especially against the young became our Abomination of Desolation. Disparity of power without checks and balances inevitably ends in betraying our highest ideas and for religious people in blasphemy.

Some scholars contrast the Book of Daniel with the Books of Maccabees, which relate events of the same period. Daniel is thought to be a cultural and non-violent reaction to Antiochus, Maccabees a militaristic and violent one. There is some truth to this, but it might be better said that having reviewed history, both world and national, the author of Daniel is skeptical about the ability of anyone to resist the temptations of power without what we have come to call conversion: a change of heart. The Maccabees and those who followed them showed great courage and even piety but ultimately fell into the same traps as all the leaders before them. There is no merely administrative fix to the will to and misuse of power.

To use a modern analogy, the system of checks and balances found in the American Constitution are the most effective means of controlling the power of potential demagogues. Yet we have seen it is barely acknowledged much less used in our current national situation. The author of Daniel, although he would not have understood checks and balances, understood the dangers it addresses as well as any political scientist today. Yet he brought a different perspective to this and one from which we could learn. He was looking at God and his actions and prerogatives. Simply if God is all just and all powerful, then that justice must be seen and experienced by all, good and bad, ancient and modern. Otherwise it has no human meaning. His goodness and presence must be vindicated. The vagaries of the historical moment make that impossible in this world therefore it requires another dimension. After acknowledging that his was a time a great and particular horror reflected in the “Abomination of desolation”, he writes:

Many of those who sleep
in the dust of the earth shall awake;
some shall live forever,
others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.

(Daniel 12:2)

This is the first time that the resurrection of the dead is mentioned in Scripture. It is important to notice not only the relatively late date but the context. It is not that we are to be rewarded for our good behavior, but that God is being shown to be true to his word. It is most important that we see this from a God-ward perspective. God always comes first. If we lose sight of this, we no longer are worshipping God and no matter how pious our talk our actions will reveal that our primary desire is to make a world for ourselves not submit to the one God has made for us.