Washington has been abuzz this week with talk of the MLB Playoffs. Our Nationals played, and lost, against the Chicago Cubs. It was a fine series by any account, and there’s no shame losing in game five. All the adversarial talk that has come up… all the “Us vs. Them” conversations… and of course the larger context of, “Is DC as championship team?”… All of this comes to mind as I read the first reading for today’s mass. It’s from the first two chapters of the Book of Joel. As a plague of locusts ravages the Kingdom of Judah, Joel sees in their arrival portents of a larger struggle: the end of the world. A brief excerpt from Chapter 2 follows:
Blow the horn in Zion, sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming! Yes, it approaches, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of thick clouds! Like dawn spreading over the mountains, a vast and mighty army! Nothing like it has ever happened in ages past, nor will the future hold anything like it, even to the most distant generations.
What struck me was the simile at the end, “Like dawn spreading over the mountains, a vast and mighty army.” Now, that’s the Lectionary translation. The New American Bible says, “a mighty people,” closer to the Latin, “populus multus et fortis.” Who are these people?
Normally when we read prophecy, we associate ourselves with the prophet’s audience; a natural association given we are listening to him. But… there’s nothing to say we can’t change… or better yet, convert. Indeed, isn’t that what every prophet dreams of: that his listeners should listen well and convert? Will we be part of the conquered, destroyed, judged, people on whom this “populus multus et fortis” marches like the dawn? Or will we be on God’s side today?
I asked the same question in prayer about two weeks ago when the Church was listening to the words of another prophet, Ezekiel… in the Office of Readings I think, it was… the prophet warns the wicked shepherds of Israel about their selfish neglect of the sheep. Paralleled by St. Augustine’s Sermon on Pastors warning the priests of the Church, it’s hard to read such prophecies, such warnings and not feel accused. To be sure, a priest, a shepherd has to tend his flock… must always grow in that vocation… But then I read Ez. 34:11-12 “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will look after my sheep. As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep.” On the one hand I am a shepherd, but I’m also one of God’s sheep… and he promises to support me, care for me, just as much as any of the rest. AND… if I recommit myself to being one of his sheep, maybe, just maybe he’ll give me what I need to be a better shepherd.
Reading the Old Testament prophets, it’s worthwhile to ask the question, “Which people will I be part of today?”