In those days, I Daniel,
heard this word of the Lord:
"At that time there shall arise
Michael, the great prince,
guardian of your people;
it shall be a time unsurpassed in distress
since nations began until that time.
At that time your people shall escape,
everyone who is found written in the book.
"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.
"But the wise shall shine brightly
like the splendor of the firmament,
and those who lead the many to justice
shall be like the stars forever."
Brothers and sisters:
Every priest stands daily at his ministry,
offering frequently those same sacrifices
that can never take away sins.
But this one offered one sacrifice for sins,
and took his seat forever at the right hand of God;
now he waits until his enemies are made his footstool.
For by one offering
he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated.
Where there is forgiveness of these,
there is no longer offering for sin.
Jesus said to his disciples:
"In those days after that tribulation
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from the sky,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
"And then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in the clouds'
with great power and glory,
and then he will send out the angels
and gather his elect from the four winds,
from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.
"Learn a lesson from the fig tree.
When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves,
you know that summer is near.
In the same way, when you see these things happening,
know that he is near, at the gates.
Amen, I say to you,
this generation will not pass away
until all these things have taken place.
Heaven and earth will pass away,
but my words will not pass away.
"But of that day or hour, no one knows,
neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."
Scholars remind us that one of the three basic changes in early Christianity was the switch from a short-term faith to a long-term faith. For one reason or another, Jesus’ earliest followers believed he would triumphantly return in a short period of time. Everyone would recognize his presence and those who imitated his dying and rising would share in his glory. We need only glance at chapter four of the earliest Christian writing we possess – I Thessalonians – to read a brief description of Jesus’ “Parousia.” According to Paul, Christ’s return will happen so soon that those unfortunate individuals who died before that glorious event will simply have to “tread water” in their graves until he comes back. The Apostle presumes he’ll still be alive when he returns.
But by the mid-80s, reality sets in. When Luke writes his gospel and Acts – more than 20 years after Paul’s martyrdom - he takes for granted he and his readers will live their whole natural lives and physically die before the Parousia. Either Christianity begins to plan for the long haul, or it becomes extinct. Jesus’ disciples have no choice but to be other Christs “for the duration.”
Mark writes at least 10 or 15 years before Luke. He’s still waiting for the Parousia when he composes today’s gospel pericope. Though he can click off all the preliminaries to the event, his Jesus still claims he doesn’t know its exact date. He simply states he’ll be around for it, and no matter what happens, his teachings will still be valid – forever. People just have to hang in there.
These first- and second-generation Christians often fell back on “apocalyptic” literature to help understand their situation. The authors of that particular genre – usually suffering persecution – constantly zeroed in on Yahweh’s guarantee to deliver them from their cruel treatment. That’s certainly what we find in today’s Daniel passage. With the help of Michael, Yahweh’s angelic champion, the faithful will not only be able to endure this terrific “distress,” they’ll actually conquer the evil that’s beating them down. If they keep the faith they’ll eventually “be like the stars forever.”
The Hebrew’s author doesn’t seem to be worried about a delayed Parousia, nor a persecution. He simply seems content to just reflect on the significance of having the risen Jesus in our midst. Employing an image foreign to Gentile Christians – the Jewish priesthood – he endeavors to point out that the historical Jesus did more than just imitate their ministry. What these functionaries accomplished daily for a limited group of people, Jesus accomplished once for everyone. Technically we no longer need to be forgiven. Jesus has already taken care of that. Our role is to just accept that forgiveness and offer it to others.
Reflecting on the crisis facing our church today, I presume we’re also going to have to experience some basic changes. If we don’t, like the first century church, we’ll also be in danger of becoming extinct. We can never forget, as our sacred authors insisted, that the risen Jesus is among us, even if he isn’t helping us in the ways we once took for granted he would. Like the earliest Christians, it’s up to us to change our ideas of his presence. If, as Pope Francis believes, clericalism is stopping us from carrying on Jesus’ ministry, we simply have to adapt, just as the gospel authors had to adapt to his delayed Parousia. Without a new image of church, Jesus’ words will never get through as he intended. I presume those words are immortal; but the way we proclaim them isn’t. Though we’re rarely called to be as courageous as our faith ancestors, this might be one of those times.