At the end of the liturgical year, the readings turn to the end of the world with the Second Coming of Jesus which will complete his work of salvation and complete the journey of Christians to full communion with God and each other.
What that Coming will be like is something that eludes ordinary means of description. The liturgy chooses selections written in the style called ‘apocalyptic’ which is one of the more difficult biblical forms for modern readings to understand. The word comes from the Greek, meaning ‘revelation’. It flourished in the few centuries before and after Jesus’ life and then faded out of usage. so people of our times need guidance to make sense of it.
Apocalypses were written in difficult or dangerous times to reassure people that God was in control of history, and would rescue those who held fast to the faith. The writers use highly dramatic forms with strange, even bizarre, imagery. These is more to be taken as symbolic than literal. Problems arise when modern readers take these features as predictions, and come up with strange interpretations or warnings of an imminent end. Instead, apocalyptic accounts are concerned not so with details of the future as with the history of the times in which they are written, even when they are in the form of predictions. Our times are frightening and as full of atrocities, and we can take the original intent: trust that God’s loving care will bring us through and beyond the suffering.
Daniel is the only fully apocalyptic book in the Old Testament, written as if a vision, with much of the standard images and warnings – such as the ‘unparalleled’ distress we hear today. It is dated by scholars to the time of the Greek ruler of Palestine, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who died 165 BCE. He tried to destroy the Jewish religion and desecrated the Temple. Stories of this period are found in the biblical books of 1 and 2 Maccabees.
The assurance about life after death was also needed at that time, as some older parts of the Old Testament had pictured the afterlife as a grave with no life. This book became one of the key texts for resurrection. Angels figure often as a means of revelation, and one has been speaking to Daniel in this section of the book. Michael, called a prince rather than archangel, is depicted as the warrior guardian of the people.
Psalm 15/16:5-8, 8-11
The psalm is a prayer of calm trust, which in this context is an attitude to face the world to come. It is another Old Testament text which shows insights into a happy life beyond death for the faithful.
Hebrews 10:11-14, 18
The second reading continues to reflect on the priesthood of Christ, comparing it to the sacrifices of the old Law. The image of the ‘right hand of God’ is one we encounter frequently in the Bible as it was considered for the highest place in a kingdom or at a festival. The enemies seen ‘as a footstool’ was a common picture in the world at that time both verbally and in art. It signified that they were completely conquered and could no longer threaten or do harm.
This reading is the last one we have in Mark for Year B. (Next week, the final Sunday of the liturgical year, uses John’s Gospel.) Since chapter 13 has been called Jesus’ Farewell Address’ it has a certain appropriateness for the end of our year of Jesus seen through Mark. It has also been called a ‘little apocalypse’ as it features some aspects of that type of writing, but it is in some ways taking apart some of the traditions of past apocalyptic works. It is generally agreed to be the hardest part of the gospel to interpret. One problem is, that as we find it in Mark, it refers to two different events – the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the final end of time as we know it. Why are they mingled? One suggestion is that the death-resurrection-ascension of Jesus was seen as the first in a series which brings on the ‘last age’.
In the beginning of this chapter in verses which we do not hear today, Jesus is leaving the Jerusalem with his disciples. They call his attention to the great building and the large stones of the Temple built by Herod the Great. Contemporary accounts and archaeology tell us that it was truly a magnificent place, covering a mile, the enclosure having many courtyards, and large buildings beside the temple itself. It gleamed with gold decoration. Some stones were indeed huge weighing a ton or more. Jesus answers them: ‘There will not be one stone left upon another that will not be thrown down.’ It would not be long before this prediction came true: In the Jewish revolt against Rome, 66-70 AD, the emperor Titus besieged the city, and finally destroyed it with great brutality and turned the huge temple complex into a ruin of shattered stones. (The results of the destruction can still be seen today, although a mosque has been built within the site. Jews still come to pray at the ‘Wailing Wall’ which is not the temple itself, but some of the huge foundation stones.)
This warning of their sacred place being destroyed must have been a terrible shock to all who heard, and not surprising if they took it as meaning a total end. The four disciples Jesus had first called come to him privately to ask for the time this will happen. Jesus’ response is a long discourse, which shifts from the temple destruction to the last days of the world when he will come to complete his Kingdom. He refuses to give them a time for his return, instead they are always to be ready. He does give them more precise warnings of the coming Jewish war and warns his disciples to leave the city before they- like thousands of Jews – could be slaughtered.
Our reading today picks up another important theme, which is Jesus’ return to earth, which we call ‘The Second Coming’ or the ‘Parousia’. He begins with standard cosmic descriptions in the manner of apocalypse. The figure of the ‘Son of Man coming on the clouds’ is a quotation from the Book of Daniel, which we will hear next week. Other words also recall Daniel.
The final words given with his solemn ‘Amen, I say to you’ that ‘this generation’ will see the end times have been especially puzzling, leading some to think he was mistaken about the time of his return. Mary Healey’s explanation is that ‘the symbolical and figural way in which Jesus and the early Church interpreted history in which past and future events both shed light on and are understood in the light of Jesus and his paschal mystery.’ Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension are the beginning of the final stages of God’s plan for humanity and that was seen by the first disciples. The rest will certainly follow, but he refuses to give them a day and hour for that.
While the prediction of the temple came true fairly quickly, the final end has been long delayed. We can his take words to keep in mind that, not knowing ‘when’, we trust God for the glorious new and eternal life he promised. In the meantime, carry on the work of God’s Kingdom here and now.