Tuesday, November 10, 2009

11-15-2009: 33rd Ordinary Time (B)

Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Daniel 12:1-3/Psalm 16/Hebrews 10:11-14,18/Mark 13:24-32
If you ever get a chance to visit St. Petersburg, the former Leningrad of Soviet Russia, you might venture into the large square before what is now the Hermitage Museum. Previous to the Communist Revolution the museum was the Czar’s Winter Palace where serfs and soldiers would shout their disdain for the Romanovs and the injustices of an obsolete imperialism – all this a decade before the Bolsheviks took power. Perhaps they felt emboldened (though they must have known they would be crushed under the Czar’s powerful guard) by the high column that stands in the center of the square. Since atop that column was the bold statue of the patron of St. Petersburg – the Archangel Michael - sword in hand, about to slay Satan who lay writhing under Michael’s foot.

The Communists never got ‘round to dismantling the column with St. Michael atop. It continued to stand in the middle of the square in front of the old Winter Palace of the Czars in St. Petersburg-turned-Leningrad. By the time the great prince, Michael, was thought to have heard the cries of his people and come to the aid of those entrapped behind the Iron Curtain, the injustices of the Czars seemed mild in comparison to those of the Communists.

In the Book of Daniel, Michael is the great prince, the guardian of God’s people. He fights the dark forces of evil; evenly matched, as it were, against another Archangel, Lucifer, who through a mutation of history had become one with Satan. Satan had made an earlier appearance in the Book of Job where he was God’s emissary, not an evil independent entity. I plead ignorance concerning the evolution of Lucifer into Satan, but there’s no doubt he has mutated in many minds into the personification of evil, that fire-breathing, dragon-like, reptilian devil who many accept as equal to God. Thus we slip into that dangerous dualism where all is either black or white, good or evil.

Despite the temptation to embrace this kind of apocalypticism (would everything be so clear), I tend to think life’s a lot more nuanced. Read C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, for instance, and you walk away with a healthier fear of evil precisely because the devil does his most effective work in the ordinariness of daily decisions than in any threat of a global Armageddon. Or take a look at another gem from C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, where the devil – this time an actual lizard – is rather endearing. More like a pet who tries to convince his host to see things his way through gentle persuasion than full-fledged scare tactics. After much inner turmoil the man gives the angel permission to remove the lizard from his shoulder. Both the man and the lizard fall to the ground, near dead by the powerful touch of the fiery angel. But then, both are transformed, both redeemed; reminding us that God had indeed initially created all things good – including Lucifer. Pope John Paul II in Crossing the Threshold of Hope came very close to embracing an old, near-heretical belief that argued that God’s powerful mercy would eventually save all – even the devil.

Despite prophecies and predictions to the contrary, we aren’t yet at the end - and worrying about it can’t be an especially good thing. Until the moment when everything becomes crystal clear, we’re left to figure things out with a bit of faith and a good deal of reason. Prudence, perhaps, is our most important weapon in the battle.

For all the depictions in art of the Archangel Michael holding the sword close to Satan’s throat – I’ve yet to see one that depicts Satan actually dead. Maybe Michael sees - even in Satan, in his most ardent enemy - a glimpse of goodness, a vestige of love that hasn’t been completely lost. Maybe that’s why Satan squirms, as we all do when confronted with the beauty of the gospel: despite our sins and our selfishness, we’re loved and valued just for being us.

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