Sunday Scriptures

Death Does Not Have the Last Word

By Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz

If many people find the Apocalypse of John – also known as the Book of Revelation – to be the most mystifying book in the Bible, then the Book of Daniel, from which Sunday’s first reading is taken, runs a close second.

The Book of Daniel is divided into two main parts. Chapters 1 to 6 has stories about a sage named Daniel who was among the Judeans who were exiled to Babylon. Resisting every temptation to give in to the ways of the Babylonians, Daniel remains faithful in his observance of God’s commandments, and so he rises to prominence in the court of the Babylonian king. It is Daniel, the faithful Jew, and not the king’s own sages and diviners, who successfully interprets the famous “handwriting on the wall” in chapter 5.

Chapters 7 to 12 are remarkably different as Daniel is recounting his own dreams and visions. Scholars refer to this as the apocalyptic section of Daniel, recognizing the literary kinship of its language and imagery with the Apocalypse of John.

The Book of Daniel captured the imagination of early Christians, so much so that we find re-use of imagery from Daniel in the New Testament, including this week’s reading from Mark’s Gospel. With its spectacular images of monsters and earthquakes, of combat in heaven and plagues unleashed on earth, apocalyptic literature, like Daniel 7 to 12 and the Revelation to John, can be as terrifying as it is mysterious. For this reason, it is important to avoid any literal interpretation of the Bible’s apocalyptic literature. Such interpretations would lead to misreading Daniel and John’s Apocalypse as though they were scripts for the end of the world.

So what is an apocalypse and why shouldn’t apocalyptic literature frighten us so badly? The truth is this: Apocalypses were written in order to provide hope for people whose world seemed to be falling apart.

Chapters 7 to 12 of the Book of Daniel were written when faithful Jews were suffering persecution. 2 Maccabees 6:2 tells us that the king, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, sought to “force the Jews to abandon the laws of their ancestors and live no longer by the laws of God.”

In 167 BC, the Temple in Jerusalem was profaned by being rededicated to the Greek god Zeus by order of the king. Jews were forbidden from observing the Sabbath and forced to participate in the festival of the Greek god Dionysus – a practice that was blatantly idolatrous. For those who dared to resist, the consequences were grim. 2 Maccabees 7 tells of the arrest, torture and execution of a Jewish mother and her seven sons for their refusal to violate sacred law by eating pork. For Jews who sought to be faithful to God’s covenant by observing the commandments, this was a “time unsurpassed in distress.”

Where was God as people suffered for their steadfast commitment to the covenant? If death was to be the ultimate outcome of obedience, what cruel and pointless burdens would the commandments have been! The message of the apocalyptic chapters of Daniel is that death does not have the last word. The death-dealing power of king Antiochus is as nothing in the face of the sovereign power of almighty God, whose faithful love is even more powerful than death!

While some other texts (like Ezekiel 37 and Hosea 6:2) speak of life after death as a metaphor for God’s restoration of Israel, this Sunday’s reading from Daniel presents the first clear, unambiguous reference to resurrection in the Bible: “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.” (Daniel 12:2-3).

For those who ran the risk of dying for refusing to compromise their faith, this divine assurance of a reckoning beyond the grave strengthened their resolve. Confidence in God’s life-giving and life-restoring power leads the Jewish mother in 2 Maccabees 7 to reassure her sons as they faced death that the God who created the universe and humankind will “in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life, because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of his law.” (2 Maccabees 7:22-23)

The ‘Little Apocalypse’

Biblical scholars call this Sunday’s reading from Mark’s Gospel the “little apocalypse” because it employs symbolism drawn from Daniel. Like Daniel, it is meant to encourage believers to remain faithful without compromise in the face of adversity. Drawing on written and oral traditions that circulated after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Mark’s Gospel was written not long after 70 AD.

So what is Jesus talking about? Speaking to His disciples, He warns, “Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” With Jesus’ own ministry set in a land subjugated under the military boot of the Roman Empire, and Jesus himself nailed to a Roman cross, the time of tribulation in Judea came to its worst with the Judean revolt against Rome (66-70 AD). That revolt ended with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD by the Roman legions. For those who experienced those events, the world as they knew it seemed to have come to an end.

Just as the death-dealing King Antiochus did not have the last word, neither did the Roman emperor and neither do the death-dealing powers of our era. Jesus assures His disciples, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

In every age and every sort of adversity, these are words of hope – the kind of hope that strengthened the likes of St. Óscar Romero, Blessed Stanley Rother and Blessed Leonella Sgorbati, to name a few modern-day martyrs. May the prayers of these witnesses to the life-giving and death-defeating power of our ever-faithful God sustain our own hope!

Readings for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time        
Daniel 12: 1-3
Psalm 16; 5, 8, 9-10, 11
Hebrews 10: 11-14, 18
Mark 13: 24-32

Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University.
Share this article with a friend.