The reading from the Prophet Daniel today is filled with what might be considered mysterious and terrifying creatures. However, if we properly understand the symbolism that is at work in this passage, it does not seem to be so terrifying after all.
Last Tuesday we heard Daniel interpret a dream for King Nebuchadnezzar in which a great image made of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and tile was smashed by a small stone. Daniel’s interpretation of the dream revealed that the gold head of the statue represented the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, the silver chest represented a rule that would overtake his reign, followed by rulers who were represented by the bronze thighs and the iron and clay feet.
Today’s reading uses symbolic animals to depict those same kingdoms. The reign of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon used a lion with wings as its symbol. This would be followed by the Median Empire which is depicted as a ravenous bear. King Cyrus and the Persians would defeat the Median Empire swiftly and is represented by the leopard. The Persians would be defeated by the mightiest of all in human history, Alexander the Great. Toward the end of the passage, Daniel tells us that the human kings of these Empire will be overthrown by the power that will be given to God’s chosen people.
This type of literature in the Bible is called apocalyptic. It tends to be somewhat difficult to understand at times and can cause a little anxiety if it is not properly understood. Two things must always be kept in mind when reading apocalyptic literature, whether it is in the Hebrew or the Christian Scriptures.
1. Apocalyptic Literature is never about the future. Rather, it tends to describe the situation and the moment in which the sacred writer is living. These readings describe Daniel’s reality, not some future time or our reality.
2. Apocalyptic literature, whether from the Hebrew Scriptures or the Christian Scriptures, always has the same outcome. God always prevails. The inherent message in this type of literature, even though it may seem somewhat scary, is that God will triumph over all the kings and rulers of this earth, all the forces of evil, all human or political powers. God’s kingdom, unlike human kingdoms, shall never pass away.
Properly understood, there is nothing in these readings that should frighten us. Rather they should boost our morale. No matter what may be going on in our lives at the present time, whether that be illness or distress or pain or grief or turmoil of any kind, God will prevail.
Jesus is the clearest example of this. Though he was made to die on a cross, he rose from the dead and God highly exalted him so that now everyone shall recognize him as Lord.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator