In those days, I Daniel, heard this word of the Lord, “At that time there shall arise Michael, the great prince, guardian of your people; it shall be a time unsurpassed in distress since nations began until that time. At that time your people shall escape, everyone who is found written in the book. “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace. “But the wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.” (Daniel 12:1-3)
Zombies are all the rage. In the past ten years, the zombie genre has swarmed the marketplace. From blockbuster movies to award-winning television shows, from best-selling video games to cult-novel series, stories about zombies sell. In reflecting on this fascination with zombies, there are certainly the vicarious thrills that are connected to horror stories in general. To come face to face with the living dead produces an adrenaline rush in the safe confines of fiction. In a particular way, the surge of zombie popularity is connected to its capability to make us examine our deepest fears and frights. The zombie genre is essentially a blank slate upon which any artist can create and examine various cultural fears and anxieties, which can be too terrifying to face directly. In the tenuous fragility of our modern world fraught with financial crisis, social unrest, terrorism and religious persecution, stories about zombies and the apocalypse provide a safe canvas upon which to project such fears in secure environs. As a famous author of zombie fiction notes, “You can’t shoot the financial meltdown, but you can do that with a zombie. You can’t picture the meltdown of our financial institutions, but you can picture a slouching zombie coming down the street.”
Contemplating the roots of such cultural dread, two basic fears emerge: first, the fear of death, and second, the fear that the experience of modern living is mere survival and as meaninglessness as a life of the walking dead. As a society, we tend to look away from death. We create euphemisms to soften the reality, e.g., passing away, etc. We sequester the dying to particular places and banish cemeteries outside the city. (It’s great to be alive in Colma!) But not only does the harsh reality of death lead to a sort of denial, but is can also lead us to distract ourselves from considering how we ought to live. Though first-world living conditions have increased, and many societies have emerged from merely subsistence living in the last century, there has not been a proportional growth in terms of moral and spiritual living. As medicine and technology advance to lengthen life span, the questions of what we ought and might do with more life still remain.
In the face of such fears, our readings give us a twofold hope. First, with respect to the fear of death, the prophet Daniel does not soften his language regarding its grim reality. In describing the apocalypse he says, “At that time there shall arise Michael, the great prince, guardian of your people; it shall be a time unsurpassed in distress since nations began until that time. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.” (Zombies anyone?) The finality of death, the reality that this world will end is unavoidable. Yet, the prophet is not without hope. He continues, “At that time your people shall escape, everyone who is found written in the book.” The creator of the world, the author of life and death, promises that his people have their names written in a book of life. For those who believe and follow God’s law, the fear of death melts away in the hope of eternal life. Though this confidence does not remove the emotional gravity of death, the reality that there is life beyond the grave reassures us that death does not have the last word. Love is stronger than death and those who remain in God’s love will shine like the stars of the sky. This hope pertains not only to the end of our life, but also to the way we live now. Knowing that we have our names inscribed in the book of life inspires us to act with generosity and justice towards one another, “The wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.” Jesus’ Gospel assurance that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” buoys our knowledge in the perseverance of God’s promises. This week amid whatever fears and anxieties threaten to overrun our lives, we hold fast to the Gospel’s hopeful image of apocalypse, “He will send out his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the sky.”
~ Fr. Michael Hurley, O.P.