We often fail to take account of the advantages we enjoy as Christians. For we have been extremely blessed and should enjoy our status as Christians—an advantage when we ponder the situations of hopelessness experienced by the major players in our biblical readings today.
We read, in the prophet Daniel, about the tremendous losses suffered by the ancient Jews, consisting of assets which they previously enjoyed, but which they have lost at the hands of their opponents who have destroyed all they depended on to offer compensation acceptable to God. And this was primarily carried out in the beauty of their magnificent temple and the worship offered there. The temple’s beauty won acclaim for its architecture far and wide. Also, the elegance of its prayer forms and ritual was the envy of others. But, as the prophet Daniel grieves, this has become a thing of the past because, as he says to God on behalf of the Jews: “we have sinned and transgressed by departing from you and we have done every kind of evil”. Consequently, God allowed them to be overrun by their enemies, and they sadly complain: “…we are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation, brought low everywhere…” But the heart of their miserable situation is: “We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader, no burnt offerings, sacrifice, oblation, or incense, no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you.” Their religious practices have been demolished.
There is no longer any religious ritual left to them in which they can engage to placate God. So they are left to their own devices to approach God, without any supporting temple worship or priesthood. All they have left to rely on is their lowly, humble prayer: “But with contrite heart and humble spirit let us be received, as though it were burnt offerings of rams and bulls, or tens of thousands of fat lambs,…” Here they reminisce on the good old days when they had a regal priesthood, a magnificent temple and a beautiful ritual. That’s all gone, and they are left to their own devices to placate an angry God upset with the way they live. They are like a debtor owing his creditor a huge amount of money he cannot possibly repay, and who begs for mercy at the hands of his creditor, and receives it, but then turns around and inflicts similar punishment on one of his debtors owing him just a pittance of what he himself had owed. When caught in this act of cruelty, he is handed over to the torturers until he pays back everything. Here we see a man bereft of any resource, left with nothing on which to fall back to escape the punishment coming upon him.
In both these stories we come face to face with our own pitiable resources on which to fall back, to satisfy, so to speak, our standing with God. It is an impossible task. There is no way to equalize our standing with or before God. If we were face to face with this impossibility, we would appreciate what we have at hand in such marvelous sacraments as that of reconciliation and eucharist. Access to such sacraments are the equalizers in our life, enabling us to level the playing field on which we live out our lives. It is only when we would be bereft of such wonderful enhancements that we would painfully realize we have nothing left to level the playing field between God and ourselves.
There are times in our lives when we think we can do it on our own, but there may come a point where this confidence and self-reliance evaporates, leaving us with nothing to make it on our own. The Jews of old realized this when they lost their temple worship. And we today must come to terms with this when we find ourselves in situations where, for one reason or another, the sacraments might not be available to us any longer. But they are our lifeline. When we’re surfing with ease and grace, we feel we can make it on our own, but when we find ourselves alone in choppy waters, we’ll welcome any rope thrown out our way.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist Community in Louisville, Kentucky.