In this last week of the liturgical year, the Church puts several fantastic readings before us in the daily readings at Mass. The first reading today (Daniel 5:1-6, 13-14, 16-17, 23-28) is pretty intense, and worth some contemplation (for all of today’s readings go here)
King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his lords, with whom he drank.
Under the influence of the wine, he ordered the gold and silver vessels which Nebuchadnezzar, his father, had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, to be brought in so that the king, his lords, his wives and his entertainers might drink from them. When the gold and silver vessels taken from the house of God in Jerusalem had been brought in, and while the king, his lords, his wives and his entertainers were drinking wine from them, they praised their gods of gold and silver, bronze and iron, wood and stone.
Suddenly, opposite the lampstand, the fingers of a human hand appeared, writing on the plaster of the wall in the king’s palace. When the king saw the wrist and hand that wrote, his face blanched; his thoughts terrified him, his hip joints shook, and his knees knocked.
Then Daniel was brought into the presence of the king. The king asked him, “Are you the Daniel, the Jewish exile, whom my father, the king, brought from Judah? I have heard that the Spirit of God is in you, that you possess brilliant knowledge and extraordinary wisdom. I have heard that you can interpret dreams and solve difficulties; if you are able to read the writing and tell me what it means, you shall be clothed in purple, wear a gold collar about your neck, and be third in the government of the kingdom.”
Daniel answered the king: “You may keep your gifts, or give your presents to someone else; but the writing I will read for you, O king, and tell you what it means. You have rebelled against the Lord of heaven. You had the vessels of his temple brought before you, so that you and your nobles, your wives and your entertainers, might drink wine from them; and you praised the gods of silver and gold, bronze and iron, wood and stone, that neither see nor hear nor have intelligence. But the God in whose hand is your life breath and the whole course of your life, you did not glorify. By him were the wrist and hand sent, and the writing set down.
“This is the writing that was inscribed: MENE, TEKEL, and PERES. These words mean: MENE, God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it; TEKEL, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; PERES, your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”
Go back and take a look at Rembrandt’s depiction of this event … the fear in King Belshazaar’s eyes is palpable. So guess what happens next?
The same night Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was slain.
Which is why this incident inspired the phrase “the handwriting was on the wall“, a phrase that normally describes signs of inevitable doom.
Fr. Bede, the Benedictine priest and monk who celebrated Mass tonight, concluded his homily with this thought (I think I remembered this correctly):
The Church reminds us with this reading that … death, for the Christian, is not the most important thing that is going to happen to us.