The first reading for today—April Fools’ Day!–is taken from the Book of Daniel and tells the fantastic story of the three Israelites, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who heroically resist the demand of the wicked Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar to worship a golden statue. If, when they hear the “sound of the trumpet, flute, lyre, harp, psaltery, bagpipe, and all the other musical instruments,” they still refuse to worship the idol, then they are to be thrown into a roaring fiery furnace. When this royal ensemble plays its tune, the three still refuse and are thrown into the roaring flames. But miraculously the three Israelites are spared by the power of God—leading the mighty king of Babylon to praise the God of Israel! “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego!”
This marvelous story of heroism and God’s protection of his people was crafted centuries after the exile of Israel to Babylon but also during a period of great suffering. The Jews were under the thumb of the Seleucid empire, a Greek dynasty created in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Middle East. One of rulers of this dynasty, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (167–164 B.C.) was exceptionally cruel. The story from the Book of Daniel both urges Israelites to remain faithful amid suffering and assures them of God’s protective care.
The gospel selection today is from the Gospel of John and there is also here a threat of violence, as Jesus’ opponents, the religious authorities, bitterly criticize him. But Jesus offers words of comfort to “the Jews who believed in him:” ‘If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
I checked the internet and learned that there are many explanations about the origin of this day. One that struck me as plausible was a connection with the end of the winter solstice and the fact that the weather at this time of the year changes rapidly and fools us all.
Who could have predicted the “climate” we all are in now—with the threat of the Coronavirus seeming to turn upside down almost every aspect of our normal lives? One refrain I keep hearing from thoughtful people in this moment is the paradox that, as we are forced to separate from each other (“social distancing”), we are also realizing how connected with each other we truly are and how much we need each other. That conviction, in fact, is at the heart of our Christian faith. The belief that we are all daughters and sons of God and that we are responsible for each other. The heart of Jesus’ teaching (and the example of his life) was precisely this: Jesus taught that the “greatest commandment was to love God with all our heart and soul, and our neighbors as ourselves.” That is the truth that sets us free and will help us persevere through this present threat.
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.