Pastor Column: Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, November 18, 2018
Msgr Joseph Tracy, St. Stanislaus Parish
Dear friends / Estimados amigos,
Each November, the Church, in its wisdom, reminds believers that our life on this Earth is transient, and that the world as we know it will be no more at a moment known only to God. While ours is far from a perfect world (couldn’t we all produce a lengthy list of problems, persons, failures and situations we could do without?) no one is particularly eager for it to end. On the contrary, there are many among us tending to go about as if there was all the time in the world. We fail to recognize that life is a fragile gift we borrow for only a short time before offering it back to God. Or, we waste our time on senseless worry about where, when, or how the end will come. But when we get to November on the calendar, the month brings with it a challenge to focus on our present, our commitment to God, to the Church, and to one another.
Clearly the 1st reading from the prophet Daniel and the Gospel of Mark are connected. In fact, it is practically impossible to understand them without an appreciation of a type of biblical writing called apocalyptic. The pages of a bible contain many different types of writing – letters, songs, gospels, legal norms, social critiques – as well as varying forms or genres. Knowing the genre of a biblical book is vital to understanding the author’s focus in writing it. For example, understanding the genre of the book of Jonah would preclude a reader from trying to find an explanation of how a person could live in the belly of a gigantic fish for a three-day period. Interpretation of a biblical book is dependent on the genre as well. The meanings and truths of some biblical literature are easily conveyed in a work that resembles fiction.
Consider this: in a poll taken in the early part of 1998 after the release of the movie Saving Private Ryan, veterans of D-Day were asked whether Saving Private Ryan or The Longest Day” (a film produced in the 1960s which was promoted as the historical record of what happened on those Normandy beaches during the Allied invasion) more meaningfully conveyed their experience of the events of June 6, 1944. Almost to a person, male and female vets who lived through those days answered Saving Private Ryan resonated with their experience of Omaha Beach. Interestingly however, there never was a historical Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) or a Private James Ryan (Matt Damon). It was a fictional account of an event. Based on that poll, fiction was apparently more meaningful and mirrored personal experiences better than history.
This is very important to remember when reading any type of apocalyptic literature, which is more an escape from history than actual history. That is not to say that the genre is not inspired by God. Symbols often take the place of many words in conveying truths. The most common trigger for such literature was persecution. Things are getting so bad for the Jews or Christians that they can only look for relief in the distant future. Authors frequently speak of that future in symbolic terms or use exotic images that only a few can understand, let alone interpret. Not trying to inspire optimism or false hope, they often casually mention things readers may know nothing about to convey the idea that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better again. The Christian Scriptures contain only two apocalyptic books: Daniel in the Old Testament, and Revelation in the New. Each of the three Synoptic Gospels contains apocalyptic sections, but they do not dominate. Christians seemed to have avoided conveying their faith in the genre. Rather, Christian writers seemed more interested to make certain their readers were familiar with the fundamental issues around which Jesus’ ministry revolved.
It is easy to get spooked by apocalyptic literature. Prophecies of coming persecutions, celestial battles, scourges inflicted on the people who remain, and the dead raising from their graves have a tendency to do that! Hope still exists for those who have died before that glorious day arrives, as long as their names are “written in the book.” If one wants to realize this promise of eternal life and “shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament,” the author says one must be just; i.e., he/she must have developed proper relationships with God and those around them. They will be safe in a liberated world.
As we approach the end of the liturgical year, the readings ask us to put our trust in God and not fear what may lie ahead. Much of the bible’s apocalyptic literature was written to encourage believers, especially in times of persecution and difficulties. Stripped down to its most basic, the message could be: “You’re on the winning side. Don’t switch sides now, no matter how bad things get.”