9 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.
10 A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousand served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgement,
and the books were opened.
13 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.
14 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.
I confess that I have struggled this week to write for “Reign of Christ” Sunday, that time of the liturgical year when we celebrate Christ’s kingly triumph over the nations. In a world ripped apart by our unceasing desire to dominate one another, how do we celebrate this kingly Christ, storming to earth to make “all the nations wail” (Revelation 1:7)? How it makes me long for Advent’s anticipation of the infant Christ, come to transform the world in love.
Of course, the Scripture passages for this week would have resonated quite differently in their original contexts than in our own military-technological economies, which themselves seek to reign over the world. In particular, the author of Daniel 7 wrote for a people who, far from being a dominating global power, suffered at the hands of the imperial power of its own day, the northern Greek empire known as the Seleucids. Daniel 7 stems from a period around 167BCE. in which the Seleucid emperor, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, had desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem and was persecuting the Jewish people who refused to adopt the ways of the dominant Greek culture.
It is in this context that this week’s passage from Daniel spoke a word of hope to a people long dominated by foreign military and economic powers: that the terrifying reign of those nations would be judged by God and that their authority would be given to “one like a human being” who would reign forever. In its original Jewish context, this “one like a human being” was likely the angel Michael, who elsewhere in Daniel is called “the great prince, the protector of your people” (Daniel 12:1). But for Christians, the phrase “one like a human being,” or “Son of Man” (Aramaic kevar enosh) came to be understood as a reference to Jesus Christ. For first-century Christians, living in their own context of domination by Rome, this passage in Daniel gave hope that imperial rule would someday come to an end.
It is thus somewhat uneasily that the image of the “Son of Man” coming to reign in power transfers into my own context in the heart of the United States, the great global power of our own day. In fact this passage speaks much more directly to those who are victims of the military and economic domination of the U.S. than to those of us who benefit from it. It would be deeply ironic for us to claim the “one like a human being” comes triumphantly on our behalf. More likely we should receive this text as a cautionary tale, a warning of what happens to those who wield military and economic power over and against the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world, on whose behalf the Son of Man comes in glory.
In this light, it strikes me as unfortunate that the Revised Common Lectionary has selected only four verses from Daniel 7, which as a whole is a self-contained apocalypse including an extended apocalyptic vision (7:1-14), followed by an interpretation of that vision (7:15-28). In the context of the larger vision and its interpretation, the triumphal arrival of “the one like a human being” is seen to function within the broader context of the rise and fall of dominating global powers, whose reigns of violence are judged harshly by God.
In the initial vision of Daniel 7:2-8, four beasts arise from the ocean, each more terrifying than the next. The angelic interpretation reveals that the four beasts represent four kingdoms, a motif familiar to readers of Daniel from Nebuchadnezzar’s statue dream in Daniel 2. Presumably the four beastly kingdoms are the Babylonians, Medians, Persians, and Greeks, the last being the most terrifying of all. Daniel sees it “devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet” (7:7), wreaking havoc on the earth in order to satiate its voracious economic appetite. From the head of this beast emerges a little horn with “a mouth speaking arrogantly” (7:8). This horn, we are told in 7:24-25 is a king who “shall speak words against the Most High … and attempt to change the sacred seasons and the law,” no doubt a reference to Antiochus Epiphanes IV.
It is in this context that we should understand the two brief passages contained in this week’s lectionary. The first two verses, 7:9-10, depict a judgment scene in which God, the Ancient One, sits on the divine throne and opens the books of judgment. While we are not told specifically what the books contain, presumably they record the world-destroying violence of the four great empires and of the arrogant king. The following two verses, omitted from the lectionary reading, then report God’s punishment of the four beastly empires, three being stripped of their power, and the fourth being put to death and burned with fire. Only then, in 7:13-14, does the passage relate the arrival of the “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven,” who is given “an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away” (7:14). This, in a Christian interpretation, is the reign of Christ.
What then can we say on this Reign of Christ Sunday? For those of us living in the military and economic centers of power, the message is far from the Christian triumphalism toward which we might at first be tempted. For the triumphal reign of the Son of Man is cast in contrast to the arrogant reigns of the beastly empires of the world, those powerful nations that trample the poor and marginalized in their quest for domination. For those living in such powerful nations, for those prospering in the global economy, our response to the Reign of Christ Sunday might better be one of repentance than triumph, of humility rather than arrogance. For the reign of Christ stands in opposition to our own reigns, as the world is turned upside down, bringing judgment for those in power and justice for those who have suffered.