Every year as the liturgical year winds its way to its final weeks and the feast of Christ the King, the liturgical readings take a somber, even threatening, turn. Be watchful! Be alert! You don’t know when the end is coming. This is certainly true of Mark’s Gospel, especially in chapter thirteen, an excerpt of which is used for the 33rd Sunday of Year B.
How should we approach such apocalyptic readings? How can we make sense of an end-time outlook that seems remote and antiquated?
The Contemporary Context
While it is true that the ancient context of the Gospels, especially Mark — which was likely written in the late 60s of the first Christian decade just before or shortly after the fall of Jerusalem — was more attuned to end-time threats, the modern world is hardly immune to such preoccupations. Just think of the number of times in the last 20 years small fringe groups have predicted the end of the world (e.g., the misreading of the Mayan calendar for 2012!). Some survivalists even took great precaution to stock up and burrow into caves or secure hiding places. (We went through this for the third Christian millennium in 2000, too!)
|As the world limps along, we Christians take our cue from Jesus: “Be watchful! Be alert!” This is not a dire warning, but a summons to a hope-filled stance for the future. The Crosiers photo
Moreover, the media talk of ongoing violence and wars in many parts of the world, the continuing threat of terrorism at home and abroad, revolutions and unsuccessful reforms in some Arab countries, extreme political divisiveness in the U.S. and elsewhere, global warming and its dire effect, natural disasters, and so on.
Even the Church has had its difficult moments: the scandals of sex abuse and fraud, the disclosure of secret papal documents and revelations of discord at the top, serious reprimands of women religious and theologians, ongoing tensions in various countries within presbyterates and between priests and bishops.
Frankly, the list could go on and on. Some observers succumb to a “Chicken Little” outlook: the sky is falling! The end is near! Everything is going down the tubes. Society is a mess, and even the Church seems less a secure environment than it once was.
So, is the sky falling? I doubt it. In fact, the discordant notes of our time are probably no worse than in certain other periods of history, including the first century. Mark’s Gospel was probably born at such a time of gloom and discord, as chapter 13 attests.
Enter Jesus of Nazareth According to Mark
In Jesus’ day, and already in decades leading up to it, there were many tensions in the world and different groups vying for attention. The Pharisees and Sadducees did not get along well and had opposing theologies. Jews and Gentiles often looked at one another with distaste. Some radical Jews even left Jerusalem and fled into the desert to preserve authentic Judaism. Some foresaw doom. Indeed, in A.D. 70 when the Romans sacked and burned Jerusalem and dispersed the Jewish population, it must have seemed like the end. Mark explicitly alludes to the Temple’s destruction (13:1-3).
Precisely in this context Jesus’ message as described in Mark was born. Jesus speaks of false prophets and messiahs (13:22), natural disasters like earthquakes and famines (13:8), sharp divisions within families that tear them apart (13:12), and the fact that His followers will be “hated” because of his very name (13:13). Jesus also includes a serious warning to be on guard: “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray” (13:5-6). The fact is that it is easy to be deceived when things seem to be falling apart. People look for easy answers to complex questions. Slick presentations of “solutions” can be deceptive. Jesus warns His disciples not be deceived by such well-packaged and attractive messages. True prophets must be carefully discerned. And there is only one true messiah, Jesus himself.
Another aspect of Mark’s presentation is that Jesus carefully warns people against wild speculations concerning the end times. His disciples urge Him: “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (13:4). Jesus’ only response is to warn them against misinterpretations and to urge them to remain watchful, “for you do not know when the time will come” (13:33). He even mysteriously says that only the Father in heaven knows the time frame for the end of the world: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (13:32). The highlighted words “nor the Son” caused some difficulties in the early Church, because they seem to limit Jesus’ omniscience. How is it that He, God’s own Son, could not possibly know the time frame? Some manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel eliminate the phrase, and Luke’s parallel version deletes the line entirely (Mt 24:32-36/Lk 21:29-33).
But for Mark, this is simply part of Jesus’ full humanity. All rests in the hands of His Father, whose will He has come to accomplish by offering himself on the cross. The point is not to spend time in endless speculation. Rather, Jesus wants His followers to “be prepared.” Be ready at any time, for we are not masters of our own destiny.
Preaching in a Time of Uncertainty
The attentive preacher might wonder just how to approach this unusual material. We are not used to this “apocalyptic” and “eschatological” mindset that was characteristic of Jesus’ time and that also influenced heavily the attitudes of the early Church. But I suggest we take another look at the context of our own time, enunciated above, in light of Mark’s Gospel.
The fact is that there are some remarkable parallels to the context of Mark’s community. Life was very uncertain. Threats were coming into the community from without (especially the Romans and persecution), and within (false messiahs and doomsayers). It must have been a huge temptation to cave in to disillusionment or hopelessness. But Jesus’ message of warning and a call to staying alert was not to discourage His followers. On the contrary, His message was intended to bolster their faith, to give them hope, and to strengthen their resolve to move forward in their lives, despite the harsh realities around them. Things are not as bad as they seem.
True, the urgency in Jesus’ apocalyptic message urges immediate action. His announcement of the nearness of the kingdom of God (1:15) is mirrored in His assertion that “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (13:30). Yet, since no one knows the hour or the day, we can only live each moment in hopeful anticipation that we will be found ready when the time arrives.
Our own day is filled with its share of uncertainties, calamities and reasons for despair. The so-called “Arab Spring,” which has now spread to several countries in the Middle East, has not brought about the effective reform and societal transformation desired. The world economy, with its financial problems and chronic unemployment in many sectors, especially in the U.S. and Europe, has not suddenly turned around for the better. Political debates have become harsh and intolerant; divisions have seemingly increased. Even threats to religious liberty, under the relentless march of secularism, have reared their ugly head. In short, the times are hazardous, even for people of faith.
A Message of Hope
Into this context the faithful preacher of Mark’s Gospel will attempt to help people remain hopeful, confident and faithful, in spite of the many examples of “bad news” that seem prevalent. Jesus came for “good news” — Gospel. That is what we are to preach.
In his 2007 encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI cites St. Paul’s insistence on hope as the basic stance of Christians (1 Thes 4:13), and then adds: Here too we see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future. It is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness. Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well. . . .[T]he Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known — it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.
So, as the days in the northern hemisphere grow shorter, the nights get longer, and the world’s complicated situation limps along toward the future, we Christians take our cue from Jesus himself: “Be watchful! Be alert!” (Mk 13:33). This is not a dire warning, but a summons to a hope-filled stance for the future.
SULPICIAN FATHER WITHERUP is Superior General of the Society of Saint Sulpice. Among his many publications is Gold Tested in Fire: A New Pentecost for the Catholic Priesthood (Liturgical Press, 2012).