November 25, 2018
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B) on November 18, 2018, at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-14, 18; and Mark 13:24-32.
In the Church, November is a month of endings. We will end our lectionary cycle next weekend. Today’s gospel passage is our last lectionary reading from Mark, a cycle of readings we began on December 3 of last year.
As Americans, we’re not very good at endings. It’s fair to say that most of us like the beginnings of December more than the endings of November. Even in the world of academia, Christmas music and visions of completed term papers are already dancing in students’ heads.
But the second half of November will not allow us to let go so easily. Our great Thanksgiving holiday calls us to give thanks for all that has occurred. We continue to remember our beloved dead. And here in the Church today, we have a doozy of a set of readings. Both our first reading from Daniel and our gospel from Mark are of a type we call apocalyptic. Apocalytic literature deals with “the last things”: the things we can only speculate about, such as death and eternal life.
As we listen and struggle together to comprehend these challenging readings, let us remind ourselves of God’s great love and mercy.
We’ve been working our way through the Gospel of Mark all year. We’ve gotten used to stories of Jesus teaching a gospel of hope, people who believe in that gospel being healed, Jesus preaching about the challenges of discipleship, and people not understanding those challenges. But then, on our last day with Mark, Jesus speaks vividly about the end of the world. It seems to come out of the blue. If you’re anything like me, it speaks of things you’d rather not see happen. The sun being darkened, the moon not giving off its light, stars falling from the sky. Other portions of this chapter – parts we didn’t read today – talk of other unpleasant stuff.
Did Jesus really say this? Did Mark make this up? Did a later editor add this speech to what Mark had written?
The more we study the gospel of Mark, the more plausible it seems that Jesus would have said this. The very first words out of Jesus’ mouth in chapter 1 were that the time had been fulfilled and that the kingdom of God was at hand. His healings and teachings are framed in context of the kingdom breaking into our world.
This part of Mark is called “the little apocalypse.” The more we study apocalyptic literature, the more we see that it’s a central element of our Judeo-Christian tradition. For us Christians, the apocalyptic writing we’re probably most familiar with is the Book of Revelation. But the book of Daniel is also apocalyptic, as today’s passage about the coming of the Son of Man indicates. There are apocalyptic passages in Ezekiel and Zechariah, too. But Judaism in the three centuries before the birth of Jesus is filled with apocalyptic writings, writings that influenced both Jews and early Christians, even if they didn’t make it into the Bible. These books speak in vivid terms about fantastic, Technicolor™ events, filled with detailed descriptions featuring lots of numbers and colors.
These passages are not to be interpreted literally. Throughout the ages, people have repeatedly predicted that the end of world was upon us because all the events of apocalyptic literature had been fulfilled. Even though Jesus said no one knows the day or the hour, they keep predicting it. I can think of several events of the past few months that sound as if they are the fulfillment of Mark’s apocalypse.
But fixating on the details is to miss the main point of the apocalyptic literature. The main point is this: those of us who have led lives of discipleship will experience eternal joy. Daniel hears the LORD say “At that time your people shall escape [the destruction]…. The wise shall shine brightly…and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.” Jesus says that the Son of Man “will send out his angels and gather his elect…. My words will not pass away.” It’s a message of profound love, joy, and happiness.
Many of us, however, when we hear apocalyptic passages, are terrified. No matter how metaphorical the stories are about what happens before the end, it sounds awful. Our reaction is very different from the people who first heard these passages.
Part of the problem for us is that apocalyptic is written by people and for people who were being oppressed – Israelites living through the Seleucid and Roman occupations in the centuries before Christ’s birth, or Christians in Asia Minor living through the persecution of Domitian that inspired the Book of Revelation. It’s similar to African-American slaves who found consolation in singing spirituals about crossing the River Jordan at the end of their lives. Most Jews of Seleucid-occupied Palestine, most Christians of first-century Asia Minor, and most African-American slaves of the early 1800s longed for the second coming of the Son of Man in way that’s probably foreign to us. If the second coming of Christ doesn’t sound as appealing to us, perhaps we’re a little bit too comfortable with how things are currently going.
The question is this: when we pray that “thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” do we really mean it? Are we ready for God to come reconcile the world, or do we want some more time to get ready?
What is the appropriate prayerful response to these apocalyptic messages about the future? We’ve had the answer for quite a while. The words that ended our gospel passage today, are the last words we’ll hear from Mark in this liturgical year. It was verse 32 of chapter 13. The first words of our liturgical year, which we heard on December 3rd of last year, were from the next verse of Mark, verse 33: “Be watchful! Be alert!”