The first clear and unambiguous statement in the Bible about resurrection from the dead did not emerge until the middle of the second century BC. And it is in the First Reading for today’s Mass (The Book of Daniel 12:1-3) that we find it, in words addressed to Israelites who were being persecuted for their faith. They were promised that if they remained faithful to their tradition they, the martyrs, would pass into ‘everlasting life’ and their persecutors to ‘shame and everlasting disgrace’. This would happen on a Day of Judgement at the end of time.
As we hear in the Gospel today, Jesus believed that this ‘end time’ would occur during the lifetime of his hearers. And in today’s Gospel – Mark 13:24-32 – we find him speaking about it. The location is the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, facing the magnificent Temple, just after his triumphal entry into the city on Palm Sunday and not long before his crucifixion. After he had predicted that the Temple would be destroyed (it took place in 70 CE), they asked Jesus for a sign to know when it would happen and the rest of the chapter is taken up with his answer.
Jesus first warns them of wars and natural disasters to come, of persecution for those remaining loyal to him, of the destruction of the city and how they would need to flee it. Then in today’s text he tells them that when the world ends he will return to gather up his disciples and hand them over to God the Father. In doing this He saw himself as carrying out the mission of the Son of Man described in the Book of Daniel.
St Mark recorded these words some 30 years after Jesus spoke them, sometime in the late 60s CE. The Christian community then lived in a time of turmoil and probably wondered whether the ‘end time’ and Jesus’ return were near. In all likelihood St Mark responded to this anxiety by recording Jesus’ warning against seeking out dates and times for this ‘Parousia’. Instead, using the example of a fig tree’s growth in spring, they should be looking for the signs of the Lord’s presence amongst them.
Most trees in Jesus’ native land are evergreen but the fig tree stands out because it grows and loses its leaves in yearly cycles, just like our deciduous trees. So people knew that spring was near when they saw buds appearing on fig tree branches. Similarly, Jesus said, his disciples should watch out for the changes around them that might herald his return.
But as for when all this would happen, the question remains unanswered. Jesus first says it will happen in the lifetime of ‘this generation’ but then he says no one knows the day or the hour – not even Jesus – but only God the Father (and He’s not saying!)
It’s worth noting that where the Book of Daniel speaks of reward at the ‘end time’ for the faithful and punishment for the wicked, Jesus make no reference to punishment. He speaks only of his mission to gather people together in order to take them into the presence of a loving God.
Catholics and Christians of my generation were brought up in the belief that this encounter with Christ – be it at the natural end to our lives or in some great cataclysmic world disaster – was to be dreaded. We were taught that if we were not in the ‘state of grace’ when the end came, we would ‘go to hell’ and be damned for all time. In this Gospel of St Mark – the earliest of the four Gospels to be written – Jesus makes no such threat. He says that his coming – whenever and wherever it takes place – would be a moment of deliverance and pure joy for his people. So perhaps – and it won’t be easy for some of us – it’s time we finally cast off this yoke of fear and took Jesus at his word?
But we still need to be prepared for his Coming, as Jesus asks. So how do we do this?
In addition to all the practical things required of us, like making a will, letting go of past hurts and resentments, seeking forgiveness from those we have hurt and, generally, ‘putting our house in order’, there are three other ways we may wish to consider.
The first is to pray for the grace to read the ‘signs of the times’ and recognise God’s presence and action in our lives each day. Are we aware how Christ is already present in our messy, complicated lives without us being perfect?
The second might be to become more aware of how Jesus is at work in the people and world around us. Do I see society and the world as God-forsaken or one where God is active?
And lastly, we might pray for the gift of hope, so that when we experience personal distress or torment, we truly know that God has not abandoned us; and that no matter what challenges we face, we remain confident that God is with us and that with God all things are possible.
Holy Name, Jesmond
18 November 2018