November 18, 2018, 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
In a late time of persecution, a Jewish sage makes the Old Testament's first prediction of everlasting life for the faithful, and dreadful disgrace for their persecutors.
The letter to the Hebrews takes the theological stance that Jesus served as a priest who offers a sacrifice to God. This passage contrasts Jesus with the priests of Judaism.
In Mark's gospel, Jesus believes that, and emphatically states that, the world will pass away within the lifetimes of his followers.
Our Liturgical Setting: In the last weeks of the liturgical year, the Sunday gospels are about Jesus' statements concerning the last days of world history, and about his return in glory. So today we read Mark 13:24-32. In the Old Testament, the book of Daniel has similar passages, so it's a natural choice for the first reading today and next Sunday.
The Historical Situation: During a bitter persecution of the Jews in the second century B.C.E, an anonymous Jewish author penned the Book of Daniel, to bolster the faith of his compatriots. The book is set in the sixth century B.C.E., during the Captivity of the Jews in Babylon (the Exile). Historically-minded Jews would remember the Exile as one of their ancestors' darkest hours. This book's hero Daniel is a clever, faithful young exile, who, relying always on God, does well among his captors, and wins their admiration for himself and his fellow exiles.
The Theological and Literary Background: The book's audience believed God is active in history, guiding events for the long-term good of the People, even if persecutions and hardship reign in the short term. One expression of this faith is to predict mighty future acts of God, fantastic catastrophes in which the oppressors of God's people will be overthrown and judged, and the faithful will be vindicated at last. To veil their revolutionary content from the oppressors, these predictions were usually coded in symbolic language, and set in the indeterminate future. So they're known as "revelations," or, to use a word of Greek origin for the same idea, "apocalyptic" literature. The veiled language also emphasizes that only God really knows the future, and controls it.
Chapters 7-12 of Daniel contain many fine examples of apocalypse. Of special interest in today's passage is the prediction of the resurrection of the dead, some to eternal life and some to eternal horror and disgrace. Talk of resurrection was almost unprecedented among Jews even this late. And it was still very much in dispute in New Testament times; the gospels record this at Matthew 22:23-33, Mark 12:18-27, and Luke 20:27-38. Acts of the Apostles, chapter 23 depicts Saint Paul exploiting the sharp disagreement among Jewish factions over the question of resurrection.
Of interest, if of secondary importance, is the identity of "Michael, the great prince, guardian of your people." Named here and in chapter 10, this is an angel. In the prior chapter he is described as doing battle with the prince of Persia, also an angel, the guardian of a nation hostile to the Jews. But even these angels don't know the future that only God can bring about.
So How Shall you Proclaim This? Wonder and confidence should be evident in your voice. Confidence because that's what the original author meant to inspire in his readers. Wonder because the original author chose the wondrous, fantastic, apocalyptic style as the best vehicle for his message.
Stretch out the pronunciation of "since nations began until that time," to express the great length of time described. Emphasize the verb in "your people shall escape," since that's the first unexpected part of the drama. Then really emphasize "awake" and "forever" in the next sentence, for those ideas are even more startling.
The Historical Situation: The letter to the Hebrews was written for Jewish converts to Christ, in part to help them cope with the loss of the comforts they had enjoyed from the institutions of Judaism, from which they were now excommunicated. The author's logic is to show that Jesus, in our relationship with him, replaces those old institutions, and exceeds them.
The Theological Background: In today's passage, the institutions in question are priesthood and sacrifices. The author asserts that the old repetitious sacrifices were futile, while the one sacrifice of Jesus makes us perfect forever and wins the forgiveness of sin, making further sacrifice unnecessary. Furthermore, Jesus, the new and only necessary priest, has a seat at God's right hand, closer than any other priest has ever come.
Proclaiming It: Unfortunately, Jesus is not named in the text to be proclaimed today. So the congregation will need your help distinguishing Jesus from the priests he replaces. To that end, say the second sentence with these emphases: "But this one offered one sacrifice for sins, and took his seat forever at the right hand of God."
Old Orthodox Apocalipse Wall-painting from medieval Osogovo Monastery, Republic of Macedonia. It may contain scenes from the Apocalypse of Daniel. In any case, it's an interesting image, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, where the photographer puts it in the public domain.
Click here for more about the monastery and links to pages about other sites in Macedonia.
This page updated October 5, 2018