Reading through the first reading and gospel for Sunday, one could legitimately, from a comfortable pew in an upscale church in the United States of America, ask the question, "How in the hell is this good news?" That question would probably come after a smirk and a smile for some, a chill of dystopian horror for others, as we dealt with our gut reaction to the deployment of the divine Übermensch who arrives to settle accounts for the Ancient of Days, and at whose arrival in the gospel verses the sun and stars go out while other omens fill the skies.
So here are just a couple of thoughts. First, about the apocalypse of Daniel and the "little apocalypse" of Mark. The word "apocalypse" means "behind the veil," and so an unveiling, a revelation. But it's important to keep in mind the context with these texts, like it is with any biblical writing. The kind of writing we describe as apocalyptic is analogous to an underground newspaper, or the subversive skits and cabaret acts of Hitler-era Berlin, or The Crucible and (maybe) High Noon in the McCarthy-era 1950s. When the political heat is on and open dissent is suppressed, sometimes it falls upon artists to sustain hope and identity by parodying the regime and expressing the values of the marginalized. In the case of the book of Daniel, the context is persecution of the emperor Antiochus IV (called Epiphanes, "God manifest") who precipitated the Maccabean revolt by the excesses of his cruelty and desecration of the temple. At the time the gospel of Mark was written, Judea was a hotbed of revolution and counter-revolutionary violence that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Titus, who may have been responsible (according to Josephus) for the deaths of a million Jews. And the apocalypse of John the Divine was an encoded condemnation of the Roman Empire under Vespasian and Domitian, though the "number of the beast" (666) seems to be a numerological play (gematria) on the name Nero.
The pericope we hear Sunday from Mark's gospel takes place on Tuesday of what we call Holy Week, as is so clearly and insightfully marked out in the Borg/Crossan book The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem, published in 2006. In God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now, Crossan describes Jesus's preaching about the already-present reign of God as the "divine cleanup of the world," but warns that this process in not to be violent; indeed, in Jesus, the divine cleanup is a process that is participatory, a way of life in which Jesus invites his followers to participate and bring others along. It is, in fact, ordered against the violence of empire, but is "not like an empire (kingdom) of this world," and is built on acts and strategies of peace and just living.
I like to think that this may be a way of understanding "Michael, the great prince," in the book of Daniel. The name Michael in Hebrew comes from words that mean "one who is like God," but is not a god, but a human being. The "divine cleanup" is to be the work of human beings who are "like God," that is, people who give themselves for others, people who love, people who "let the sun shine and the rain fall on good and bad alike."
So these nightmare-conjuring images from the first reading and gospel, how are they good news? It seems to me that part of the answer to that question is our point of view. Are we allies of the emperor, or are we part of the community of the oppressed? That's always the way it is. To the empire and its collaborators, any subversive activity, even if it's initiated by God, has to be perceived as a threat. When our way of being is shaped by habits of acquisition, economic imperialism, asset-protection, and, to put a term on it, entitlement, another point of view that says, "everyone, not just the elite, is entitled to have enough to be safe and happy," then a new Way, a gospel of shared resources, service, and interdependence, is a threat. And, to be honest, it's probably part of the reason I have a hard time sleeping at night!
Two others scriptural insights from Sunday may help us at this point. We're supposed to be upset, I think. Not frightened really, I don't think that's helpful, but shaken into a new awareness and a new resolve do something differently because what we're doing now isn't working for everybody, which is the only way we can tell if the empire of God is present. It has to work for everybody. We need to be awakened to who we are, to the reality of the lopsided, unfair world we've created so that we can be part of its recreation. So we can first look at the psalm 16, which declares, You will show me the path of life. The blueprint for the reign of God is right in the gospel. It's in the beatitudes, the Our Father, and in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, it's in the parables, it's in the life and works, the enemy-love and forgiveness and healing ministry of Jesus and the experience of the apostles. "You will show me the path of life." Not Donald Trump. Not the Pentagon. Not Google, Berkshire Hathaway, Exxon Mobil, or General Electric. You, the Abba of Jesus, through the one whom you sent, and by the indwelling of your Holy Spirit, You will show me the path of life.
No need to be afraid of that path, because, as the Entrance Antiphon for Sunday says, "I think thoughts of peace and not of affliction." The divine cleanup, the apocalypse, is not a nightmare scenario. It's a dream of peace and justice for everyone, not just the 1%, or the 10%, or the 30%. Everyone. It's a matter of waking up to it out of this nightmare in which we're already living.
Here's what we're singing this weekend:
Entrance: The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns or Thy Kingdom Come
Psalm 16: Path of Life (Dameans)
Presentation of Gifts: Trumpet in the Morning
Communion: I Am the Bread of Life
Recessional: Soon and Very Soon or Over My Head