I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles' wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it. Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, "Arise, devour many bodies!" After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it.
After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth an was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.
As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened. I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
Jesus told a parable to his disciples: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away."
Today's first reading is typical of the style of late Old Testament apocalyptic literature, full of elaborate and even weird symbolism about what lies in the future for mankind and our world. The gospel addresses this question in plainer language. Just as from the budding fig tree we can know that summer is near, so there will be awesome signs when God's final kingdom draws near. Both Daniel and the gospel offer signs whose meaning is obscure, but the instinct of faith must be our guide as to what God is saying through the signs of our own times.
The symbolism in Daniel draws on a long, rich heritage that blends ritual and folklore, Israelite and foreign images. This kind of symbolism comes from a school of thought convinced that God's mystery is so transcendent and yet God is close to us, so creative of a new world order, that even the most menacing realities of the present time will not prevent the triumph of God's will upon the earth.
Daniel alludes to the four great empires of Israelite memory: Babylonian, Medes, Persian and Greek. The little horn that displaced three other horns would be Syria under Antiochus IV Epiphanes; of the four kingdoms into which Alexander's empire was divided, this one affected Israel most seriously. Now God is about to vindicate his persecuted saints so that they receive dominion, glory and kingship. A similar setting lies behind the Book of Revelation, when persecution by the Roman empire was in full swing and the church feels hounded on all sides. Both writers announced the collapse of the tyrant and a peaceful future for God's people.
The fig tree is in full bloom and the harvest is near, yet in our lives, of family and church, in our neighbourhood and world, we have to be realists. A strange recommendation: to be realists amid the weird symbols of the apocalyptic seers. Realists in digging beneath the surface and silently and perceptively listening to the mysterious message. This message will not go away, for it is the word of God, anticipating the new heavens and the new earth. Weird as it may seem right now, our world will be transformed into the beautiful Jerusalem, the lovely bride prepared to meet her husband.
We live in a world of rapid change. Many people find this constant change disconcerting and unsettling. We need at least some constants in our lives, and we find change easier to manage if some things remain the same. In order to come to terms with change, especially very significant change, we need some reliable stability. Jesus speaks about change, and not just on a small scale, but change on a cosmic scale, hugely significant change. He declares that heaven and earth will pass away; it is hard to imagine any more radical change than that. Yet he immediately names something that will never change.. 'my words will never pass away.'
In the midst of even the most radical changes, the word of the Lord remains, because the Lord himself remains constant and true. He is the rock that endures when all else passes. In the midst of disconcerting change we know that the Lord abides, and when everything else is shifting, he remains steady. Our connection with him, our relationship to him, will help to keep us steady when all else seems ready to fall apart. [MH]