This is the last week in Ordinary Time. The first reading each day this week is from the Book of Daniel, and the responsorial psalm for each day is from a hymn in the Book of Daniel. It's as though the Church wants us to learn from the Book of Daniel as we close out the liturgical year.
Daniel is the only "apocalyptic" book in the Old Testament. Two characteristics of apocalyptic books are: 1) they typically came out of times of tribulation, and 2) they addressed current events in symbolic terms.
The tribulation behind the Book of Daniel was the persecution of the Jewish people by the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes. While the action is set during the time of the Babylonian Exile — the mid-500s BC — its characters and events were meant to provide guidance for those under the rule of Antiochus in the mid-100s BC.
The book relates six episodes — including the memorable stories about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace, and Daniel in the lion's den. In each episode, the main characters get in trouble because they're faithful to God's law, and then they're rescued from trouble because of that same faithfulness. The lesson is clear: as external circumstances change, the one thing that ensures stability is faithfulness to God. If people are faithful to God and His law, they will triumph over their foes.
The book also relates four visions — including the vision of the Son of Man that becomes a central feature of Jesus' identity in the Gospels. The visions are highly symbolic — like many elements in the Book of Revelation. But their overall pattern is quite clear. Like the six episodes, they assure the faithful of the final victory of God and His people.
A recent release of new federal regulations — which expanded exemptions to the mandate that employers provide contraceptives in health care plans — is a good occasion to reflect on these patterns in our own times. Because we were faithful to God's law, as expressed in the teachings of the Church, we were persecuted. Rather than buckle under persecution, however, we remained faithful to God's law, and ultimately we've been vindicated.
First of all, then: Thanks be to God!
But, second: it's important for us to pay attention to the full pattern. This won't be the last such episode of trial and ultimate victory. Just as it did in the Book of Daniel — and in the history of Israel — the pattern will repeat over and over in our lives.
The lesson ties in nicely with Jesus' final words to us this week. It's the end of the liturgical year. All week long He's been speaking of the end times. He concludes by saying: "Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man."
As we learn from the book of Daniel, faith gives us that strength. The only things that provide ultimate stability in the ups and downs of history are God's faithfulness to us, and our faithfulness to Him.