This Sunday will be the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year. The mood of today’s readings reflects this climactic moment in the Church’s reflection on time and history.
Ever wake up from a strange and perhaps disturbing dream and feel relief when you realized it was, in fact, only a dream? That is what I thought of in considering the two very different dimensions of history as seen through the eyes of faith that stand out in today’s scripture passages. One, found in the first reading from the Book of Daniel, sees history as filled with chaos and threat. This biblical selection is, in fact, presented as a dream sequence. Daniel sees a disturbing vision of wild and threatening beasts unleased in the chaos of history. This is what is called “apocalyptic” literature, a style of ancient writing that communicates its message in the form of visionary experiences and the use of wild and disturbing imagery. Daniel’s message reflects the many assaults that Israel had to endure throughout its history from various enemies that devastated the country.
But the conclusion of the passage ushers in a different dimension. The violent and threatening beasts are subdued by the power of “the Ancient One”—the saving power of God. Also introduced into the vision is a mysterious figure, “one like a son of man, coming on the clouds of heaven”. In Daniel’s dream, God empowers this “son of man” with “dominion, glory, and kingship; nations and peoples of every language serve him…his kingship shall not be destroyed.” The early Christians saw in this mysterious triumphant figure the image of Jesus himself—the “Son of Man” who would defeat death and bring everlasting peace and joy to God’s people.
The psalm response— “Give glory and eternal praise to him!”—is also from the Book of Daniel, but lifts up the mood of triumph and praise. This exultant text presents all of nature as praising God: “Everything growing from the earth, bless the Lord.” This beautiful hymn of praise is recited in the church’s morning prayer for each Sunday.
Note how the gospel selection from Luke picks up both moods in today’s end-of-the-year liturgy. Towards the very end of his life, Jesus warns the disciples to be alert to the signs of the times. But he also assures them that his words of justice and peace and his acts of abiding love will not pass away: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
Stepping back from the vivid details of these readings, we discover an enduring message of the Scriptures and of our Christian faith. As Christians we are encouraged to view the world and its history with open eyes, recognizing its beauty and accomplishments but also its moments of chaos and violence. But beyond this realism is another conviction that is absolutely true from the perspective of faith; namely, that God’s love is stronger than death. No matter what the future may bring, we trust that God’s love will have the last word about our destiny as human beings and children of God.
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.