At that time your people shall be delivered
The whole month of November, beginning as it does with All Saints and All Souls, is in some places dedicated to prayer for the holy souls departed. Every day that is a feria, i.e. not a feast day, a Requiem Mass is said. At the very least we should be sure that prayer for the dead is part of our daily prayers in this month. Of course the departed should always be included in our prayers all the time. If it is not, then this month is a good time to start. Otherwise you are neglecting a vast number of souls that God has given you the responsibility of praying for.
This is, I think, the reason that we have the reading from the Prophet Daniel right in the middle of this month. The Book of Daniel is something of an unread book in the lectionary for Sunday Mass and feast days. We hear a reading from Daniel only five times in the three year cycle of readings and it is probably not at the top of our list of favorite books of the Bible for devotional reading. The first half of it has really great stories and is easy to read: it is all about Daniel and the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and the interpretation of the King’s dream. The strange words: mene, mene, tekel, parsin. The second half consists of Daniel’s visions of God and is a bit harder read.
But the reading this Sunday comes from the final chapter of Daniel. This bit of Daniel is one of the readings which can be used at a Requiem Mass. The reason for that is it records a dramatic shift in Jewish thinking about life-after-death. It is sometimes said that the Jews early on did not believe in an after-life but it seems more accurate to say that they simply did not pay it much mind. The here and now was what concerned them. In any case today’s reading is the earliest, unmistakable reference to the resurrection of the dead in the Old Testament.
In fact we can recognize a great deal in this reading from Daniel that both influenced and anticipated the Christian understanding of the resurrection of the dead.
First of all, St. Michael the Archangel, the great prince who has charge of the people, appears. So he does as well in the traditional Mass for the dead in the offertory verse:
O Lord Jesus Christ, King of Majesty, deliver the souls of all the faithful departed from the hand of hell, . . . but let Michael, the holy standard-bearer, make speed to restore them to the brightness of glory.
Only God can raise the dead but by His design and command angels and men are also part of the resurrection of the dead. Because the Offertory goes on:
Sacrifice and prayer do we offer to thee, O Lord: do thou accept them for the souls departed.
This is a great mystery to be sure. We are not told how to calculate the exact way in which our prayers help the dead. But we realize that, if it is only with the protection of the angels and the strength of the prayers of others that we get through this world, then it will be also be only with the same protection and prayers that we will get into the world to come.
Secondly, the resurrection of the dead involves judgment by God: ‘some will awake to eternal life and some to everlasting contempt’. We are told so often that we must not judge that we begin to imagine that God himself will not judge. It is true that God judges and not us but what we do have to do is to choose. The problem with life here and now is not simply that we are always having to choose between good and evil. If that were true, then it would just be a choice between good and nothing, evil being not something but the absence of something, namely the good. The difficulty is that we have to choose between good and good. But the judgement of God consists of the choice between the capital "G" Good, the Goodness which is God Himself, both the source of all goodness and surpassing all goodness and our own idea of the good. I do not know how this goes yet before the Almighty, but I do know that I have the nasty habit of choosing my idea of the good over the Goodness, which is God. I suspect that I am not alone in this. It is all a matter of habits and the more practice we get choosing the ultimate Good over the immediate good, then easier it will be, when eternity hangs in the balance.
Finally, the resurrection of the dead is understood in the Book of Daniel not as a mere resuscitation but as a transformation. “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” Human death is such a physical thing: the drop of blood pressure, pulse, pulmonary failure, cardiac failure, then nothing. What we want at that moment is for all the physical functions to restart. We cannot help it. But what we should really want is that the person who has died, the one whom we have loved and continue to love, should be changed, transformed, that the gravity of sin should not continue to pull them down, that they should arise and shine like stars.’
This is not possible within the confines of the Old Testament but only when the Lord himself has conquered death by death, the tree of disobedience by the Tree of the Cross, the gates of hell breached by the Captain of our salvation. But we see already in the prophecy of Daniel what is is to be longed for, from a long distance we can behold the ‘brightness’ of the Lord’s resurrection and surrounding him those 'shining like the brightness of the firmament, like the stars for ever and ever.'
Of your charity pray for the holy souls.
At that time your people shall be delivered.