THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Psalm 16:5, 8-11
Hebrews 10:11-14, 18
Apocalyptic language, which we hear proclaimed in our first reading from the Book of Daniel and in our gospel passage from Mark, appears strange to us who are living in the twenty-first century, far removed from a Middle Eastern mentality. It is that uncomfortable lack of familiarity which undoubtedly makes the Book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, the least favorite book of Christian Scripture. Revelation is difficult to understand because of its disturbing images and extravagant symbolism. But apocalyptic literature was popular in both Jewish and Christian circles from 200 B.C. – A.D. 200.
Apocalyptic language was intended to bring comfort to those who were struggling with difficult times, it was intended to encourage people to be steadfast until the day of the Lord when God would return in glory to call all things to Himself. The obscure symbolism and frightening images of our first and third readings are really trying to say something rather simple: if you follow in the footsteps of the Lord and live your life as Jesus taught you to do, you have nothing to fear whenever God returns in glory, for “you will shine brightly… like the stars forever.”
It is important to remember that the political climate was becoming overheated at the time Mark’s gospel was composed. Tensions between the Romans, the Jews, and the rather new sect of those following the teacher from Nazareth (Christians) were escalating, and they would peak in outright persecutions and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D. Although our first reading from Daniel was certainly not speaking of Israel circa 70 A.D., its apocalyptic language did capture the overall chaos that the author of Mark surely was experiencing: “it shall be a time unsurpassed in distress since nations began until that time.”
Today’s gospel passage is from what some refer to as the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark, and Jesus is sounding very much like Daniel, Zephaniah, and Ezekiel in the Jewish tradition. With apocalyptic fervor, Jesus is directing his disciples’ attention to the end times when they will see Him, i.e. God, “coming on the clouds with great power and glory.” Jesus wants his disciples to be ready, to be on the right side of judgment. He wants them to “learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that [the Son of Man] is near.” With agricultural imagery that the disciples would clearly understand, Jesus and the gospel writer Mark, want the disciples to understand that when these unnamed “things” happen, God is near and ready to “gather his elect from the four winds.”
There is one final Sunday to the Church’s liturgical year, the feast of Christ the King, and then we enter the new year of Advent, when we spend four weeks preparing not only for the coming of Christ at Christmas, but also for the coming of Christ at the end of time. We are a people of hope, who not only long for the future, but we prepare for that future in the present. We are not meant to get lost in the time-wasting act of Doomsday predictions, for as Jesus tells us “of that day or hour, no one knows”. Our task is to be constantly preparing ourselves to meet the God of judgment, whether that judgment takes place at the end of our time, or at the end of time. Our God is the eternal high priest of today’s second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, who has offered himself up for us that we might one day live with God in eternity. It is He who has, as the Psalmist says, “shown us the path of life and the fullness of joys,” and He will not abandon our souls to the “netherworld.” All we are called to do is to stay close to that God, and live our lives the way Jesus taught us to live them.
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