Daniel 12:1-3; Hebrews 10:11-14,18; Mark 13:24-32)
People love to have information about the future. Business people speculate about stock markets, students do everything to gain access to examination question before the actual examination, people consult soothsayers for one reason or the other, etc. Similarly, people fancy information concerning the future and the end of time. From time to time, people come along to predict the end of the world. They always give precise dates on which it will come to an end. For this reason, people rush to conferences on prophecy. They readily buy books that talk about foretelling the future. They smartly turn to preachers and pastors who profess to teach what the future holds. Human beings long to know details about the future so they can get an advantage over others and be prepared. Today’s first reading and the gospel are talking about things that are going to happen in the future.
- APOCALYPTIC LANGUAGE
The first reading (Daniel 12:1-3) and the gospel of today (Mark 13:24-32) use apocalyptic language. They speak of the sun that becomes dark, of falling stars, of angels that call together all the elect from the four corners of the universe, of the Son of the Man coming on the clouds of heaven, of the angel Michael, of the time of great anguish, of the resurrection of the dead. We are not to interpret these things literally. We should not make the mistake of taking all these things as referring to the end of the world. This way of reading an apocalyptic text reminds one of the simple-mindedness of a Jehovah’s Witness who takes every word of the bible literally.
The apocalyptic books were written mostly during difficult historical periods, when a whole population, depressed and humiliated, felt like asking: God, will our sorrow and pain ever end? The book of Daniel was written during one of the most difficult time in Israel’s history: during the oppressive reign of a very wicked king called Antiochus. He sought to wipe out all semblance of religion; he had desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem, and he was persecuting believers and killing those who opposed his reforms. When Mark was writing the part of the gospel which we have proclaimed today, the Christian communities were shaken and frightened by wars, calamities and famines that plagued the world. To tranquilize the Christians, Mark recalls the recommendation of the Master not to be deceived by stupid and senseless talk (Mk 13:5-8). We should not worry about the date of the end of the world. In the case of Daniel, using mysterious images, that only the people to whom the message was addressed could understand, the apocalyptic author announces a message of hope: wickedness, injustice, persecution were about to end, and in their place would rise a kingdom of Justice and peace.
- TWO QUESTIONS
In order to understand what Jesus says in today’s gospel, we must listen to the questions the disciples ask: (Mk 13:1-4) “As Jesus was leaving the Temple grounds, his disciples pointed out to him the various Temple buildings. But he responded, “Do you see all these buildings? I tell you the truth, they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!” Later, Jesus sat on the Mount of Olives. His disciples came to him privately and said, “Tell us, when will all this happen? What sign will signal your return and the end of the world?”
There are two different questions that were asked by Peter, Andrew, James and John (see Mark 13:3):
- a) When will the temple be destroyed?
- b) “What will be the sign of the end of the world?”
The words of Jesus which we read in the gospel of today have both a short-term and long-term fulfillment. In other words, they apply immediately to what happened in AD 70 but may also give us a glimpse of what is going to happen at the Second Coming of Christ.
Concerning the first question, writers of Jewish history do give us a clue. Approximately 40 years after Jesus spoke these words, around AD 70, Roman armies began surrounding the city of Jerusalem to overtake it. And when they did take the city, the Roman army destroyed the temple and made sacrifices to false gods, declaring Titus, the Roman emperor, to be supreme. Daniel 12:1 refers to a time like this: “There will be a time of distress such as never has occurred since nations came into being until that time.” This is the same language that is used in Mark 13:24-27 and Mtt 24:21. The time of Jerusalem’s destruction in AD 70 was a horrifying, ghastly time, “a time of great tribulation”, as Mark calls it. The Jewish historian Josephus described the savagery, slaughter, disease, and famine that marked the Jewish people during those years. And all of this took place about 40 years after Jesus said these words to His disciples.
The answer to the second question is given through the image of the fig tree (Mk 13:28). This tree is the last tree to put on its leaves. As the leaves begin to break out, the farmer knows that summer is near, and he is full of joy because the time of plentiful crops is not at hand. Only the Father, and nobody else, know the time and hour of the final establishment of the kingdom of God, but there are evident signs that show the time is near. The Christians are invited to keep alert like the farmer who knows how to “read” the signs that mark the coming of the new season.
- DIFFERENT REACTIONS TO THE END OF TIME
Imagine how the early disciples felt once they saw the destruction of Jerusalem and its mighty Temple erased to the ground. That certainly convinced them that the end of the world could not be very far off. This thought filled them with trepidation. They felt strongly that the second coming was just around. Whenever predictions of the end of the world are made, different people react differently. The vast majority of people panic. They are frightened. Some have been known to sell all their possessions and return to their village to await the end of the world there. Other have actually committed suicide because they did not want to witness the end of the world. The fear is not unfounded in view of what Jesus says about the events that will precede the end of the world. As said above, there will be unprecedented catastrophe: “after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” Mk 13:24-25). That is enough to scare even the stoutest of heart. Another reason why people—maybe even most people—are frightened is that they do not know what their lot will be after the end of this world: will it be a happy one or a sad one, or to put it concretely, ‘will it be heaven or hell for all eternity? In the face of these trends of thought, there are certain clear lessons for us as we look back on the words of today’s gospel:
- IMPORTANT LESSONS FROM THE TEXTS
- a) Despite appearances, things are NOT out of control. There are times when it feels like the world is a sort of a runaway train that cannot be stopped. We hear stories of gunmen shooting at innocent people; starvation, frightful diseases, despicable acts of wickedness of “man to man” and much more. These may lead many people into hopelessness. In spite of all of this, God remains on the throne. Nothing surprises Him. It is tempting to despair as we read about all the tumult in the world.
The difficult situation in which the communities for which this message was address found themselves is not so different from our own situation. How many failures, injustices, disappointments in our lives? Friends betray us, children disappoint us; people trick us into dishonest deals, etc. Nature seems to be revolting, people are becoming more violent. Jesus invites all those who suffer because of their love for truth, justice, peace and freedom not to get discouraged. Even during the darkest moments, they will be able to see the signs of the kingdom that is coming closer. On this point, Jesus says some very significant in the Gospel of Luke: “When these things begin to take place (persecutions, disasters, calamities), stand erect, hold your heads high because your liberation is near at hand” (Lk 21:28). This is exactly what Jesus said was going to happen. Our job is to remain faithful.
- b) We need to beware of “End Times Hysteria”. There will always be the temptation to run to this teacher or that teacher for the “secret code” to the end times. There will be fads that draw crowds, and people will endlessly debate aspects of the end times. We must keep in mind what Jesus told us:
- No one knows the day or hour (and yes, that also includes the year!)
- The coming of Christ will be sudden and unmistakable. We do not need to know secret codes or possess de-coder rings.
- We must not become complacent thinking the Lord’s coming is still a long-long way off.
- c) We should bear in mind that the end will be Sudden
“But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son but only the Father.” (Mk 13:32). In the next five verses before the end of this 13th chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells his listeners to “stay awake” four times, because they do not know the exact time when the Master will come. Jesus does not leave the disciples wondering. In Matthew’s gospel, He spelled it out for them: “So you, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know what day your Lord is coming. 43 Understand this: If a homeowner knew exactly when a burglar was coming, he would keep watch and not permit his house to be broken into. 44 You also must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected. (Mtt 24:42-44). It is all going to be sudden, coming at a time and a manner which no one can foretell. Imagine driving along in a car and seemingly out of nowhere a car crashes into the side of your vehicle and life changes in an instant. That’s what His coming will be like. Whether this is Christ’s coming for the church or the final advent . . . we will not be expecting it. The Lord is coming. It may be today, tomorrow or years from now. The question is: Are you ready?
- d) We should be ready for the Lord’s coming at all times. The expectant person lives every day in such a way that if Jesus were to appear they would have no regrets. The only sure way to be ready for the return of our Lord is to follow Him every day. We should live our lives in such a way that if we knew for sure He was coming tomorrow; we would not change anything we were planning to do.
At the approach of the end of the liturgical year, these thoughts about the end of the world are apt to help us decide where we want to be: on the side of those who panic at the mention of the end of the world or rather that of those who remain calm, unperturbed at the prospect. The choice depends on our preparation. We need to prepare for our death, we need to put our lives in order; we need to confess our sins; we need to get ourselves in shape from a spiritual point of view so that we are ready to meet our maker whenever that day comes. But our death and the Final Judgement, while it is something we need to prepare for, is not something that we should be afraid of. Indeed, it is the very opposite, it is something we should hope for, something we should rejoice in. When we are eventually called by Jesus it will not be to face a severe headmaster but to embrace a loving Saviour. It is those who reject the salvation that Jesus brings us who ought to be afraid.
They have good reason to fear their death and the end of the world. But we who embrace God’s love and who want to walk in his ways, however imperfectly we may do it, have nothing to fear. As the Prophet Daniel says in our first reading today, ‘The learned will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven, and those who have instructed many in virtue, as bright as stars for all eternity.’ That word learned doesn’t mean the clever, it is rendered in other translations as ‘wise’ or ‘those who impart wisdom.’ If our lives are imbued in the faith, if we communicate the Gospel to others especially to our children then there is nothing for us to fear. That great day when the whole universe comes to its fulfilment will be a day of rejoicing, a day of salvation, a day of love and hope.