In the wake of last night’s horrifying terrorist attacks in Paris it is natural that many of us are in what might be called an apocalyptic state-of-mind. If this is the case, then our readings today no doubt resonate within us more than usual. In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus talking to His disciples about His future return in glory, which advent will follow the events He predicted up until this point in the thirteenth chapter of St Mark’s Gospel, from which chapter our reading is taken.
In the passage immediately preceding today’s Gospel, Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. We know that the Romans levelled the temple in AD 70, roughly 40 years after our Lord predicted this “desolating abomination” (Mark 13:14). Jesus also told His followers that there would be many false messiahs. Indeed, in the decades immediately after Jesus’ ascension, there were false messiahs who gained a following among the Jewish people. One of the most prominent of these false messiahs was Simon Bar-Kokhba.
Bar-Kokhba led a three-year Jewish revolt against the Romans beginning in AD 132. The revolt was successful for a time, but it was ultimately crushed by the Roman army. It was probably with the rise of Bar-Kokhba, whose followers explicitly revered him as the messiah - the savior the Jewish nation - that there was a definitive split between in the holy land between the Christian Church and the Jewish synagogue.
But neither the destruction of the temple nor the rise of false messiahs, not even the persecution of the Church in its earliest centuries, when, in fulfillment of what Jesus taught earlier in this chapter – “They will hand you over to the courts. You will be beaten in synagogues. You will be arraigned before governors and kings because of me, as a witness before them” (Mark 13:9) - resulted in Christ’s glorious return. Indeed, our Lord taught “of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). Besides, our Lord told His disciples that before His return, “the gospel must first be preached to all nations” (Mark 13:10).
The word “apocalypse” means an unveiling or the unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling. It was likely incomprehensible to most of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries that God would again allow their magnificent temple to be destroyed. I say “again” because their first temple, Solomon’s Temple, was destroyed by king Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon just about 450 years earlier, in BC 587.
Next week we will observe the Solemnity Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, the last Sunday of this liturgical year and the Church’s annual looking forward to the end of time.
Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews tells why the destruction of the temple in AD 70 did not lead to the end of the world, but marked the beginning of the reign of God:
Every priest stands daily at his ministry, offering frequently those same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But this one offered one sacrifice for sins, and took his seat forever at the right hand of God; now he waits until his enemies are made his footstool. For by one offering he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated (Heb 10:11-14)Of course the “this one” to whom the sacred author refers is none other than Jesus Christ, who, after His death and resurrection, ascended to the right hand of the Father from whence, as we confess in the Apostles Creed, “He shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Who are those “being consecrated”? Those being consecrated, that is, set apart for a sacred purpose, are you, me, and all who come to faith and are baptized. We are set apart to proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who died and rose for all.
It is from our first reading, taken from the Book of the Prophet Daniel in the Old Testament, that we hear about Christ’s conquest of death: “At that time your people shall escape, everyone who is found written in the book” (Dan 12:1). I do not think it too much of a stretch to find a parallel between “the book” written about here in an ambiguous way and the “book of life” about which we read in the Book of Revelation (20:15). After all, both Daniel and Revelation belong to the Bible’s apocalyptic writings.
Looking again at our first reading, which comes from the twelfth chapter of Daniel, we hear: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; Some to everlasting life, others to reproach and everlasting disgrace” (Dan 12:2). We find Jesus echoing these words in the fifth chapter of St John’s Gospel:
Do not be amazed at this, because the hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come out, those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation (John 5:28-29)St Mark tells us that Jesus’ teaching in our Gospel today was delivered to His disciples “While he was sitting on the Mount of Olives across from the temple complex” (Mark 13:3). Our Lord brings His listeners back to the present moment after His rather frightening teaching with a simple parable about the fig tree. Perhaps He held a branch from a fig tree as He taught this simple parable. I think perhaps the message of this parable is best summed up by these words of Jesus, spoken in the Gospel According to St John: “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).
Responding today to last night’s violence in Paris, Fr Julián Carrón wrote:
The evidence has been placed in front of our eyes: each of our lives is hanging by a thread, and we could be killed in any moment in any place, in a restaurant, at the stadium or during a concert. The possibility of a cruel and violent death has now also become a reality in our cities. The events in Paris, therefore, put us in front of a decisive question: what makes life worth living? It’s a provocation that none of us can avoid. The search for an adequate response to the question of meaning in our lives is the only antidote to the fear that overshadows us as we watch the images of the past [day] on TV. This is the foundation that no terror can destroyIs the answer eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die an adequate response to the question of meaning in our lives? I think that is a nihilistic response to this provocation.
Fr Carrón went on to say, “By keeping our eyes on [Christ], we will be able to look even death in the face . . . we will be able to offer our children a meaningful hypothesis for facing such massacres and for returning to work Monday morning, for continuing to build a world that achieves the stature of our humanity, with the certainty of the hope that is in us.”