The mystery revealed/18 - We will all die, but we do not return to dust forever.
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 31/07/2022
"Near Dijon, when the last ears of corn were about to be cut, an ox was carried around decorated with ribbons, flowers and ears of corn, followed by all the dancing reapers. Then a man dressed as a devil cut off the last ears and killed the ox. Part of the meat was eaten during the harvest; part was kept until the day of sowing in the spring."
Arnold Van Gennep, Handbook of contemporary French folklore
Daniel's last vision, a prophecy of the Christian resurrection, is a lesson on hope, on the biblical sense of waiting that is not in vain and of making room for new protagonists.
Women and men are capable of being resurrected. After terrible illnesses, depressions, griefs, failures, abandonments, they know how to get up and get out of their graves even when there is no one screaming "come out". If it is true that human resurrections exist because God exists, it is also true that God exists because our resurrections exist - two acquainted and related truths. The resurrection is inscribed in the soul of individuals and peoples, it is part of the ethical repertoire of being a homo sapiens. It is not a Christian novelty, even if, for the Church, the resurrection of Christ is a different and unprecedented event. Many peoples had sensed, desired, prayed and hoped for something alive and true that would continue when men and women close their eyes for the last time. We have found traces of food and utensils in tombs of at least 90,000 years ago, which tell us of the ancient belief, or at least the hope, that the end was not really the end. The Egyptians were certain that life continued after death and that there was a judgment before the god Osiris for the dead. The cycle of life and death inscribed in nature and in crops has always been the great book where humanity learned to hope that after the last autumn there was a different kind of spring, even for humans. The Indo-European traditions on the last buried sheaf, blessed and prayed for to be resurrected, were a guarantee that not even human wheat was extinguished forever after the passage of the sickle.
The Bible also has a different perspective on this. The biblical God is the God of the living; he loves life and does not want the death of his faithful. For us, children of Christian humanism, it is difficult to understand that we can believe in God and not link his existence to life after death when we finally see him. According to the Old Testament, when you die you do not go to YHWH but to Sheol, the kingdom of the dead, not too different from that of the Greeks and Romans, and very far from the concept of Christian paradise. When King Hezekiah recovered from his deadly disease, he thanked his God: «I said, “I will not again see the Lord himself in the land of the living”» (Isaiah 38,11). The land of the living is the place where we can meet God: «It is not the dead who praise the Lord, those who go down to the place of silence; it is we who extol the Lord, both now and forevermore» (Psalm 115,17-18). Hence, the immense love and esteem that the Bible has for life. Its paradise is the children, its paradise is to leave the earth with a good reputation, and its paradise is Shabbat. In the Bible, there are therefore very few and rarefied references to the idea that the dead are resurrected, that they can, somehow, return to life. Elijah and Elisha resurrect children, and by resurrecting them they redeem them from the realm of the dead. Without this infinite love for life, we would not have had the great ethical value of everything men and women do while they are alive, we would not have had the ora et labora and we would not have had the market economy or the esteem for works of art. We would not have imagined the blessing of the angel of death - only a culture of life can truly embrace death. However, in some of the greater verses by their writer, prophecy sensed that YHWH's existence and promise of life could pierce the veil of historical time, that the economy of divine justice needed a greater arc than that contained. beneath our skies, because in its part that is invisible to us yet real the endings of our most important stories, those of the poor, those of the victims, had to be written. Because if the last chapter in the lives of the living was really the last one, the justice of the universe would be too small: the earth has always shouted for a justice that was greater than what it could see. It is the whole story that it shouted along with Fra Cristoforo for millennia: «“At that time…!» and it continues to shout it: «At that time your people… will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever» (The Book of Daniel 12,1-3).
In this passage, which together with another one from Isaiah (26,19) is considered by Christians to be a prophecy of the resurrection present in the Old Testament (we do not know which of the two is the oldest), there is not only another biblical episode of retributive theology, that ancient and simple religious idea is only the shell of something much deeper and truer. It is the hope that all the pain in the world will be collected «in the scroll» of God (Psalm 56) and that not a single tear will be wasted. Human justice has been based on this idea for millennia. God's judgment after our death or at the end of time was a gaze of last resort on human actions, a gaze that did not eliminate injustice from the earth but perhaps prevented it from exceeding the critical mass of the implosion of the world. The question then becomes, will we be able to avoid causing injustice to explode on earth now that we have eliminated that higher and longer gaze from our acts? What is happening with the planet seems to tell us, no, a land emptied from all gods is becoming mere loot for the strongest and raiding of jackals.
At the end of this vision Daniel receives an order: «”But you, Daniel, roll up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase knowledge”» (Daniel 12,4). These are the parts in which the Bible surpasses itself, it sublimates itself and its words become greater than the author's intentions - perhaps this too is one of the meanings of an "inspired book". That persecuted author thought and hoped that the prophecy of the Daniel, the literary character of the past, was about to come true (it was his own prophecy-hope), and that the «time of the end» was in fact the end of their persecution and the advent of a new reign of justice. For him the seals were about to be removed, a few years and the mystery would be revealed. And yet, unbeknownst to him, those words of his have fed generations of seekers of justice, those oppressed and martyrs, who awaited that very same liberation - the Bible is also historical time being eternalized. Dear ancient author, dear companion of faith and hope, thank you for having sealed your book and not having opened it: you could not know it but you did not remove those seals so that our children, grandchildren and the last human on earth could live and die hoping to be the ones to remove away. You did not remove them because, by rereading this chapter 12 of the book, the men and women of the future would be able to read their own names in the book of life, continuing the battle for justice. You, my daughter, my son, are the angel who must remove the seals, the human being who must at least give it a try and eventually die happy knowing that they tried, and then bless the children who will continue that same race.
After this vision of his, Daniel sees two celestial beings on the two opposite banks of the river. One of them asks the one «clothed in linen» who was stood above the waters of the river: «How long will it be before these astonishing things are fulfilled?» Daniel hears the answer: «It will be for a time, times and half a time» (Daniel 12,5-7). The veil that envelops the mystery of the meaning of that «for a time, times and half a time» is what keeps the Bible from becoming a fable or like the book of Nostradamus; even if there have been countless imaginative attempts to apply those prophecies to our future. Among these attempts, also that of the author of the last editorial passage of the Book of Daniel who updated that prophecy by a few months, given that the few years had already passed and justice had not yet arrived. The 1290 days (this is how one could interpret that «for a time, times and half a time» in verse 7) thus became «1.335 days» in verse 12.
The most important sentence in this last chapter of the book in the Jewish (and Protestant) tradition - we will also do a commentary on chapters 13 and 14 of the Catholic tradition, with the wonderful stories of Susanna and "Bel and the Dragon" in the coming two weeks - is perhaps the one we encounter in verse 12: «Blessed is the one who waits». This beatitude of waiting, which recalls the conclusion of the Count of Monte Cristo, is in fact the most beautiful blessing of the readers of the Bible who believe in its promise. Its time is that of waiting, but a full, dense, true wait, that of those who know how to wait knowing that something, someone, will really arrive sooner or later. It is the expectation of the father of the prodigal son, the expectation of the friend who is late but who will return, of the peace that must come, of the faith that we have lost, but not forever, of the faces of those we have loved and know that we will see again. That hope is Biblical faith, that hope is all faith; agape-love is never in vain if it flourishes from this different form of faith and hope.
At the end of his visions – all of them wonderful, they made us dream of God and the angels again - Daniel receives a final exhortation: «As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance» (Daniel 12,13). Hence, we can imagine Daniel going in peace towards the end of his days, with the faith-hope-agape that the end will not really be the end: he too will be among the righteous who will rise from the dust. Daniel is the first of the resurrected. Hence, the whole story of the Old Testament was present right there in the garden of Joseph of Arimathea: the prophets were there, the martyrs, the Psalms, the daughter of Jephthah and all the victims of history, the Baptist, perhaps even Judas. All praying, hoping and waiting with Daniel. Like Moses, like Noah, like Elijah, Daniel also exits the scene after having completed his task, but he does not exit the Bible. This is the most beautiful chastity in the Bible; this is its anti-idolatry: the greatest and most beloved men and women in it do not become idols because, at the right moment, they withdraw to leave their place for us. The Bible is still alive and living thanks to the space that its protagonists have made for us, to the space that God has made for us. All the while repeating to us: you do the same.