Commentary on Daniel 12:1-3; Hebrews 10:11-14,18; Mark 13:24-32
TODAY IS THE SECOND LAST SUNDAY of the Church year. Next Sunday we will celebrate the Feast of Christ the King.
On this Sunday the readings traditionally speak about the end of the world, the end of time, the final coming of Jesus to take all peoples and all creation to himself. For Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega: the source and the end of all things.
In the passage immediately before today’s Gospel, Jesus spoke about the fall and destruction of Jerusalem. It was a catastrophic experience for the Jews: even worse than the destruction of Rome and St Peter’s would be for us. Because, for the Jews, Jerusalem and its Temple was the very dwelling place of God. It was not the first time the Temple had been desecrated and the Jews driven out into exile but this destruction has lasted 2,000 years. There is a Muslim mosque now on the site and that is not likely to change in the foreseeable future.
For the early Church it was a very significant event. Even in the letters of Paul, which predated the destruction of the city and Temple, he already speaks of the "new Temple" which are the members of the Body of Christ. Christ was to be found in people and not in a building and that is why the destruction of the Vatican and St Peter’s would not affect the essential nature of the Church. In the early Church, Christians assembled in private homes. Churches, as we know them, only came into existence when, because of the rapid growth of Christianity, homes were too small. Assembly halls (‘basilicas’ from the Greek basileus, , king) had to be used which, in the course of time, were exclusively used for religious worship.
The coming of the Son of Man
Today Jesus speaks of the appearance of the Son of Man in glory and the final establishment of the Reign of God. Many people will come under that Reign, probably many more than we may expect. Others may reject it for ever and choose the outer darkness. In rejecting the Way of Jesus and the Kingship of God (and this is not necessarily the same as rejecting Christianity), they choose to be outsiders forever.
The Son of Man here is understood as Jesus, the man on earth that the disciples knew and loved, but now appearing in all the unparalleled glory of God’s own majesty. Today’s Gospel speaking about the Son of Man "coming in clouds with great power and glory" echoes a passage in the Book of Daniel but here the Son of Man is even more victorious.
His appearance is described in terms usually used in the Old Testament for the appearances of God himself. He sends out angels or messengers and gathers all God’s people together: acts of God in the language of the Old Testament. In the OT prophecies where God manifests his glory in the final days (see the First Reading of today), the scattered people are gathered to Jerusalem and to God himself. Here they are gathered to the Son of Man, who commands the angels as if they were his own.
Thus we have an affirmation of the central place Jesus, the Son of Man, has in the expectations of the Christians and a reflection of the divine role he is understood to exercise.
The first half of today’s Gospel leans heavily on traditional language and ideas from the Old Testament. We need to emphasise that the description of events is not to be understood literally as a prophecy of what is actually going to happen. Rather we are to look at the inner meaning of these happenings. The cosmic disturbances about the sun, moon and stars are traditional ways of describing manifestations of God’s judgment of Israel.
In ancient Israelite times, people believed that the sun, moon and stars represented deities who controlled world affairs. Israel believed that when God acted, these celestial bodies would be disturbed. (They had no idea of the real nature and structure of our stellar world.)
What is being said here is that these celestial bodies which other nations believed controlled history would be shown to be helpless under the power of God. And so, the sun and moon will stop giving light; stars will fall from the skies.
In Mark’s time, of course, the belief in the power of the stars was very strong. In imperial China the role of the astronomers who could accurately predict eclipses was of the greatest importance. Because of their skill in such calculations the Jesuit missionaries in 17th century China had access to the very throne of the emperor himself. And even today there are many people who religiously consult the astrology columns in our newspapers.
No time frame
While all these things are being forecast, there is no time frame given. There is no immediate link being given between the destruction of Jerusalem and the final coming of Jesus as King and Lord of all.
Even so, the early Christians did expect that Jesus would come in their lifetime. This is reflected in the words, "This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place." This was natural for to those who grew up in the Jewish tradition, the end of Jerusalem could only mean the end of the world as some centuries later St Augustine thought that the conquering of Rome by pagan barbarians was the end of Christian civilisation. But already, by the time this Gospel was being written, people were beginning to have doubts about the imminent coming of Christ.
Parable of the fig tree
Jesus then gives a short parable or lesson from the fig tree. Fig trees were a prominent and well-known feature on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus is speaking. This tree only sprouts its leaves in late spring. When they appear you know that summer is near.
So Jesus, in effect, is saying that although the end of the world is being described in calamitous terms, his disciples are to respond with faith, with hope, with anticipation. The end of the world means good times, summer, for them. They are not signs that God has lost control of history but that he is bringing things to a triumphant end. It is indeed the victory of God and the twilight of all the lesser gods which men have created for themselves over the centuries.
Heaven and earth, the sun, moon, stars, galaxies and our own little planet may all disappear but
God’s Truth, Love and Justice will prevail forever.
No one knows how or when
Finally, in spite of the warnings that some people love to give, the ‘when’ of all this is completely unknown. As we came to the end of the millennium and entered a new one, there were many who warned that "the end is near". There are those who warn – on the basis of various apparitions – that God, offended by so much evil, is going to take a terrible vengeance on our world.
This is highly dangerous language we must be careful to avoid. God does not take revenge. God is not hurt or offended by what we do. His is a never-changing love. He has nothing but compassion for the sinner who does not, cannot hurt God but only hurts himself. (God, in the language of the day, is totally proactive, not reactive!)
No one, says Jesus, not even he himself knows when the end will come. It is not for us to worry about that. Worrying will not help. On other hand, we should not play a kind of Russian roulette with life and keep putting off the day of our conversion to God. The only way is to live today and every day in his love and service. It is the present which determines the future; so let’s just concentrate on the here and now. Then we already have entered the Lord’s Kingdom and when, early or late, he comes to call us to himself, it will just be a reunion of old friends. In fact, he is already here and has always been and always will be. It is not that he will come to us but that we will enter into a deeper relationship with him when we pass through death to a different kind of life.
Many of the ideas here come from
New International Biblical Commentary: Mark,
by Larry W. Hurtado