Gospel for the Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (18 November 2018)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
The Coming of the Son of Man
(Mt 24.29–31; Lk 21.25–28)
24 “But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
(Mt 24.32–35; Lk 21.29–33)
28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
The Necessity for Watchfulness
(Mt 24.36–44; Lk 21.34–36)
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:24-32 – NRSV)
This is an example of apocalyptic literature. Our English word, “apocalyptic”, comes from the Greek word, apokaluptein meaning “uncover” or “reveal”. So the final book of the Christian Scriptures is called “The Apocalypse” or “The Book of Revelations”. The central focus of Christian apocalyptic literature is the uncovering or revealing of the glory of God in Jesus who is the Christ! Such an uncovering or revealing will be a momentous and definitive moment in the history of the cosmos. The apocalyptic writers reach for extreme imagery to convey the drama of this event. The Christians see a continuity here with the unfolding of God’s revelation throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. It is not surprising therefore that Mark’s – subsequently Matthew’s and Luke’s – apocalyptic passages echo earlier apocalyptic texts. For example:
Isaiah 13:10: For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light.
Ezekiel 32:7: When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens, and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light.
Daniel 7:13 – 14: As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
Joel 2:10: The earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.
One commentator writes: “While apocalyptic writing is recognized by its scary and dark imagery of trials, tribulations, and turmoil in the heavens (vv. 24–25), there is also the consoling light at the heart of it all, which overcomes the darkness. Here that consolation takes the form of the glorious Son of Man, Jesus, coming on the clouds to gather his chosen and faithful ones from all over the earth (vv. 26–27). Mark borrows this encouraging picture of God’s deliverance from the promises of the Old Testament prophet Daniel (Dan 7:13–14). Mark’s readers today, as well as his first readers, might well be lifted up by this promise of God’s final victory over whatever difficulties or darkness envelop them and their world. Encouraged by this hopeful vision, they can accept more readily their responsibilities to be a consoling light for those who may not yet have experienced the hopeful side of the gospel promises” (D Bergant, & R J Karris, The Collegeville Bible commentary : based on the New American Bible with revised New Testament, Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989, 930).
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place: This sentence presents a serious challenge. One commentator sums up: “The saying is linked backward to 13:29 by ‘these things’ and forward to 13:31 by ‘pass away’. It receives the solemn introduction, ‘Amen I say to you’. The most obvious meaning of genea is ‘generation’—that is, the contemporaries of Jesus (or Mark) who would be expected to have died in the next twenty to thirty years (see 8:38–9:1). This suggests that the expectation was that ‘all these things’ would occur fairly soon, at least by the end of what we call the first century C.E. Efforts to interpret genea as referring to the Jewish people (‘race’) are not convincing. As in 13:29 “all these things” is problematic. The most obvious meaning is the coming of the Son of Man and the vindication of the elect (see 13:26–27). The expression may also have been taken to refer to Jesus’ death and resurrection as the decisive event in salvation history and/or to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 C.E. If indeed ‘all these things’ does refer to the return of Jesus as the glorious Son of Man, his non-appearance does not seem to have created much consternation for the evangelists (who insisted on constant vigilance). The specificity (and imminence) of the timing stated here (‘this generation’) is balanced by the claim in 13:32 that no one knows the day or the hour” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 376).
In 1899, Joseph Conrad published his little classic, Heart of Darkness. The word “apocalypse” does not appear in that book. However, in 1979, Francis Ford Coppola, released a film based on Conrad’s novel. That film was called Apocalypse Now. This suggests a common misunderstanding of the meaning of “apocalypse”. That word is generally used now to imply death and destruction on a massive scale. The adjective “apocalyptic” is typically used to describe events that are dreadfully frightening or literature about such events. Today’s Gospel – Mark 13:24-32 – is in fact “apocalyptic literature” but it has little to do with the kind of thinking implicit in our current usage of that word.
Our English words, “apocalypse” and “apocalyptic”, come from the Greek word, apokaluptein, meaning “uncover” or “reveal”. So the final book of the Christian Scriptures is called the Apocalypse or Revelation. The central focus of Christian apocalyptic literature – including this last book of the Bible – is the ultimate uncovering or final and complete revealing of the glory of God in Jesus who is the Christ! Such an uncovering or revealing will be a momentous and definitive moment in the history of the cosmos. It should not surprise us that extreme imagery is used to convey the drama of this event. Gospel writers borrow from the apocalyptic writers of the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus we read in Isaiah 13:10: “For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light”; Daniel 7:13 – 14: “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed”.
When we read the apocalyptic text in Mark’s Gospel – repeated with variations in both Matthew 24:32-44 and Luke 21: 29-36 – we must remember that the words and images are not the point. But they do point. “It is in the profusion of our affirmations that we encounter the limits of language, and then break through them into the dark silence of transcendence. .... It is through the fissures in our discourse that the darkness of the apophatic is glimpsed” (Denys Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism, Cambridge University Press, 1995, 32 & 33).
The great gift of apocalyptic literature is the “fissures” in the words and the images it puts before us and the “fissures” those words and images beget in the human mind bent on rational comprehension. Language is at its best when it renders itself obsolete, when it leaves us in silent awe and wonder. In listening with the ear of the heart, there is a revealing of the text and a revealing of us to ourselves.