The Church’s first scripture is from the Old Testament Book of Daniel, one of the strangest texts in all of the Bible. The Book of Daniel is a mixture of prophecy, folktales and action adventure stories, all detailing the sojourn of an Israelite named Daniel, an exile, living in the aftermath of the fall of the kingdom of David and the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC.
Daniel manages, despite tremendous obstacles, to ascend to great importance in the court of the Babylonian monarch. Along with his cultural and political savvy, Daniel is gifted with fantastic visions which foreshadow a time when the God of the Israelites will act with great power to overthrow the tyranny of the Israelite’s enemies and restore them to their ancestral lands, as well return them to the glory they knew during the time of their greatest kings, David and Solomon.
Today we glimpse one of the prophet Daniel’s visions- he foresees a day when the archangel Michael will be sent into this world to fight on behalf of the beleaguered Israelites, and the revelation of Michael will precipitate the end of the world as we know it. Living and dead will be judged, and the wicked, which Daniel understands to be those who persecuted the Israelites, will be punished. It will be a time of great tribulation, but in the end, God’s purposes will be fulfilled and not only the Israelites, but all creation will be restored.
What are we to make of this?
The Bible presents over and over again that human beings are not the only movers and shapers of history. In fact, it is sin, hubris to be exact, that makes us think that we are solely in charge of this world and masters of God’s creation.
The prophets continually reminded the Israelites that humanity were actors in history, but God is in charge. The prophets insisted that God was acting in our lives when things were going right, but also when things went terribly wrong.
Our corruption, our willful desire for power, for wealth, for pleasure, for honors, necessitated time and time again for God to act in history, to set things right, and when that happened, our lives are often shattered and the world shaken to its foundation.
In Daniel’s vision, God sends the greatest of the heavenly powers to save his people, but this salvation is wrought with great peril and tribulation. It does not happen without a reckoning with our sins and it precipitates a great struggle with dark powers. God triumphs in the end, but the cost of victory will be great.
The ancient sages and saints of the Church interpreted Daniel’s vision is relation to the revelation of Christ, with Michael understood as a stand in for Christ. Christ comes into the world at a time of great desperation, and while his revelation brings hope, but it also brings judgement, a reckoning with our sins, and a resistance to his offer of grace. With his coming, lives are changed, and the world can never be the same.
Christ does not come to us as just a divine affirmation of our status quo, or to affirm us as we are, or to tell us what we want to hear. Christ is as upsetting as he is consoling. Discipleship exacts a cost and there is no love without sacrifice. He says to everyone that there is no way forward without repentance and upends all our expectations and plans. He insists that before there can be a new beginning for us, there is much in our lives that will have to end.
For the past few weeks the second reading for Sunday Mass has been an excerpt from the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews. The Letter to the Hebrews is about the relationship of the worship of the Israelites with the worship of the Church- the worship we experience in the Mass.
The meaning of today’s excerpt from the Letter to the Hebrews is to make the point that the divine gift that is offered to us in the Mass is given to us by Christ. It is not something that we do. The gift of the Mass is not created by our emotions or our procedures. The gift of the Mass is not our performance, as if the Mass is a theatrical experience or musical concert. The gift of the Mass is not the opportunity to volunteer. The gift of the Mass is not the chance to celebrate our ethnicity or diversity. The gift of the Mass is not the preaching of the homily or the feeling of community.
The gift of the Mass is the sacrifice that Christ offers through his Incarnation, a gift that reaches its fullest expression on the cross- and this gift is Christ himself, his divine life, which is given to us through our participation in the Blessed Sacrament. Holy Communion is his gift and this is not something we make for ourselves. Holy Communion is what Christ does for us.
And that is why the Mass offers us a reality we can’t receive elsewhere. That’s why the Mass is the way God wants his Church to worship. And this is why the Mass is always necessary and always important.
Christ’s words in his Gospel are ominous indeed! He speaks of tribulation, of catastrophe, of apocalypse, of the end.
We can understand his words as foreshadowing the end of all things, of the world being brought to its consummation and fulfillment and creation reaching its limit. One day this world and all that we know and love about it will not exist. It will pass away and we will too. This is enough to make us tremble.
But Christ is speaking in his Gospel, not just regarding the destruction of the planet, or the way towards which all finite things tend, but of his cross, and how through his cross, a great tribulation will seize hold of creation and the world as humanity had known it thus far would be brought to a terrifying end.
We might look upon representations of Christ’s death and see a pious symbol, but what happens on the cross is earth shattering and world ending. God’s offer of salvation in Christ, his offer of friendship is met with mockery, cruelty, torture and death. All this is imposed on God and all this God accepts so as to show forth his willingness to love and forgive us despite our refusals, despite unwillingness to love him.
In justice, God’s response to us should have been our destruction, but that is not what we have been given. Thus, the cross shows us forever the darkness within ourselves, and this darkness would be unbearable if not for the divine light that is revealed- a light of grace filled forgiveness that our darkness cannot overcome.
In the cross, we are judged, and what we deserve from that judgement is wrath, but what God in Christ imparts, inexplicably, is mercy. This is his grace, this is his gift. This is his revelation.
Christ, through the tribulation of his cross, takes what should have been our end, and makes of that end, a new beginning.