Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Like the stars forever

The lessons from the Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time:

  • Daniel 12:1-3
  • Psalm 16:5, 8, 9-10, 11
  • Hebrews 10:11-14, 18
  • Mark 13:24-32
Just a brief reflection this time. It's that time, both of the natural year, the Church year, and my own life -- autumn. Even here in the San Joqaquin Valley, leaves are turning color -- and because of the fast change of temperature, some very nice colors for once. This past weekend was also the last Sunday in ordinary time -- next week will be the feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the year. And I am much to close to 50 for comfort, so the days are getting short in several different ways. The lessons involve prophecy, the last days, and what Jesus has already done about it.

Biblical prophecy is terribly misunderstood in this country -- just look at the Left Behind books. To me, you interpret prophetic passages the same way you handle any other piece of scripture, you begin with the literal sense of the words, in their historical context. Embarking on an excurstion to find some equivalent of a secret treasure map that can be used to fortell the future in some magical way is not what interpreting biblical prophecy is about.

All (dangerous word) prophetic scripture is aimed by its writer at an immediate situation, and you can generally see a specific pattern to such writings:
  • warning - the prophet warns the people of God of coming troubles, often caused by the unfaithfulness of those same people;
  • exhortation - the people of God are exhorted and encouraged to stand fast and remain faithful to what they have been taught, despite troubled times;
  • promise - a promise is given to the people of God's continued love, and that he will deliver them from the coming troubles, if they will keep their faith.
Any particular piece of prophetic scripture may show only one or more parts of the pattern.

The immediate context of the book of Daniel is the threat of the Hellenistic world to Judaism. The early Roman persecutions and the coming destruction of Israel as a political unit is the context of the prophecies in the Gospel of Mark. In both cases, not only did the tribulations come as warned, rooted in the unfairthfulness of the people, but God did fulfill his promise to preserve those same people.

The reason these writings are in Scripture is that they are still applicable in an allegorical sense to the new Israel, the Church, both in her present situation, and in her ultimate destiny. There will always be tribulations and the Church will be in crisis all the way to the end of time. And the answer is alwyas the same, to hold fast as the Body of Christ to what we know and to do justly as we have been taught.

There is a personal side to this as well. For those of us "of a certain age", we know that our own personal tribulations may be on the way. It is easy to become worried, angry and bitter as you get older and struggle with health and financial issues -- I feel that temptation many days. But we too as individuals must stand fast to what we have been taught, because there is a promise to hold onto, even in the worst days.

The promise of these selections is not that God will be nice to us and make us feel better when things get bad. No, we are assured that by the sacrifice that Jesus offered for our sins we will be made perfect. God declares that he will not abandon those he loves but with power and glory gather them in "from the end of the earth to the end of the sky." And, as Daniel reports, God promises:
But the wise shall shine brightly
like the spendor of the firmament,
and those who lead the many to justice
shall be like the stars forever.
Something to hold onto while you watch the leaves fall.