In this highly figurative gospel about the end times, Fr. Jim teaches that Mark’s message to us is one of change to the whole world as we know it but as the gospel says, even Jesus did not know the hour when he would return. Only the Father knows. Listen below to Fr. Jim’s full message or read the full transcript below the video.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“In those days after that tribulation
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from the sky,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
“And then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’
with great power and glory,
and then he will send out the angels
and gather his elect from the four winds,
from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.
“Learn a lesson from the fig tree.
When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves,
you know that summer is near.
In the same way, when you see these things happening,
know that he is near, at the gates.
Amen, I say to you,
this generation will not pass away
until all these things have taken place.
Heaven and earth will pass away,
but my words will not pass away.
“But of that day or hour, no one knows,
neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
A New Millennium
Sometimes the readings seem a little depressing, don’ they? This is one of those readings. It’s always good news but sometimes at first it doesn’t feel so good, as someone said.
This little passage from Mark’s gospel is fitting considering the fact that it concerns the end of times. We are coming to the end of our liturgical year—next week will be the last week for the feast of Christ the King—and appropriately, we’re ending our study of Mark’s gospel for this liturgical year. We take this passage from one of the last chapters—it’s even called the “little apocalypse.” Apocalypse means the end times. It is Jesus’ farewell address toward the end of his life about the eschatological—that’s a big Greek word for “end of times.”
This type of apocryphal teaching is taken from the book of Daniel which will be our first reading Sunday. These are highly symbolic readings talking about those end times. We also have this kind of apocryphal literature in the book of Revelation which we are probably more familiar with. Again, it’s speaking about the final days and it uses highly symbolic language—never to be taken literally—but rather understanding it in terms of the hard times the community is facing. What we need to see is the background of this particular gospel. Remember, Mark is writing his gospel to the Roman Christian community that was undergoing great persecution and even execution. They felt that they were in the end of times in so far as their own lives were concerned.
Mark wrote this particular passage to give them hope. All of apocryphal literature is actually intended to bring hope to the people but it has to be translated to understand it. As we see then, Mark will be drawing on this Old Testament imagery from the book of Daniel and he begins by saying to his disciples, “During that period after trials.” Keep in mind, they’re going through severe trial. Mark then has Jesus say, “The sun will be darkened, the moon will not shed its light, stars will fall out of the sky, and the heavenly host will be shaken.” Wow. Talk about dramatic effect. This is symbolic language. Today we might say that the stock market would be crashing. That would tell the end of times for us.
It is interesting to reflect just briefly on the astronomy. I know very little about astronomy I need to say that first, but what little I know and have read is absolutely mind-boggling. I researched what it would mean for this literally to happen where the Sun is darkened. I understand that our Sun has approximately 5 billion more years it will probably exist. That’s a few years. 5 billion more years after which time, these astronomers and scientists predict, it will expand so enormously it will just combust spontaneously and then burnout, taking along all of its planets in the solar system—along with planet Earth—and we would just dissolve. That’s only after the oceans would boil and the crust of the earth would just be incinerated. But, 5 billion more years to go.
I read too, maybe you’ve seen in the news, that there is another sun and star that the Hubble telescope just recently discovered that is a million times brighter and bigger than our sun. Did you read that? Our Sun sheds as much light and energy as that sun does in five seconds. Can you imagine, so much brighter, bigger, stronger are its rays. All of this cosmic reality is a dramatic demonstration of God who is so much bigger than all of us. In fact, I think to study astronomy would be a certain aspect of theology. Wouldn’t you imagine? How could one’s mind not be just amazed at how great our creator is? As the song goes, ‘How great thou art when I think of all the suns thou hast made.’
Mark is communicating that the whole universe as we once knew it will be changed. These dramatic cosmic images speak rather dramatically of his community that feels like their world is caving in on them. Their world seems to be coming to an end. Now we can place ourselves in that situation. Who was that cartoon character who said, ‘The sky is falling. The sky is falling.’ Chicken Little. There it is.
There are some days when you may feel everything is falling in around you, right? There are some days that we feel our world, as we once knew it, is coming to an end; that forces greater than us are against us and what do we do? This is the situation that Mark is describing and we could find ourselves there in certain times in our life when we’re in crisis or chaos. God creates the cosmos out of chaos. That’s what he did with the beginning of creation, when he ordered everything and that’s what he continues to do in his re-creation of his people.
How can God bring it all into order? We’re told, as Mark continues, “Then men will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.” Again, this is high imagery. What Mark is saying is, imagine that God is in control over it all. No matter how bad things may seem to be in the world, no matter how dark times may get, God is in control. “He will come on clouds.” “On clouds” is kind of a heavenly symbol that God hovers over all of us and he’s in charge of the world and he’s going to be in charge of our lives. We try to keep giving it over to God, and trusting him. Remember the message underlying this whole gospel is don’t doubt, but have hope. Hold onto God.
I’m reminded of another verse in the Scriptures that I hold on to and that gives me hope and that is Paul’s letter to the Romans and the verse from chapter 8: “We know that all things work for the good for those who love God.” Chew on that one for a while because that will really feed you. “We know that all things work for the good for those who love God.” That’s a good one to say to yourself when someone else is in your face. These scriptures, remember, are vitamins. The verses are vitamins and we take them to remind ourselves of the hope we can always have. We don’t know how that will work out and that’s why it takes trust and faith. Faith is to have a conviction about things that we do not see.
Mark continues in this great heavenly vision. Jesus is speaking here that God will dispatch his messengers and assemble his chosen one from the four winds and from the father’s bounds of the earth and sky. Jesus is assuring his disciples as they are facing what seems like the end for them. He is saying don’t worry about the world, I promise you a happy ending because God is in control and God will save the best til last on that final day when he will send out his messengers—presumably his angels—to all the corners of the world to save all God’s people.
Then Jesus proposes a parable, a very simple parable, he draws so many lessons from nature. We could even see the lesson as the leaves are falling and the season of autumn overtakes us. Fallen leaves represents our fallen nature that we’ll need, like the leaves, to be brought to the earth, but we believe in the change of season that will transform these dead trees, bringing them back to life. God does that year after year, season after season will he not do that for us? Then Jesus speaks something of that same change of season when he points our attention to the fig tree, look at the sap of its branches that runs high. Notice when it begins to sprout leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, Jesus says, you could read the signs of the times and you know that he is near. “He” is referring to himself when he comes in the second coming. Jesus promised to come.
Interestingly, as he promised the first community and you would think if Jesus promised to come back again that would be soon, but obviously Jesus hasn’t come back yet or has he? The second coming of Christ is sometimes called the Parousia, it will truly be at the end of time, but there’s this in between time in which Christ does come to us under disguise. The disguise of course of his people, the disguise of the events of our lives, and in his word—which we will hear—will live forever.
Part of what Jesus is saying, and he promises again, is that this generation will not pass away until these things take place. This generation he is referring to is the first generation of Christians who will witness the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. When they see that happening in 70 A.D.—at the very time this gospel is probably being written—they’re seeing a new era come about so that God is coming in a new way since the Temple was once the main residence of God. That’s where God resided and lived among humans, the Jewish people thought. So now God’s presence will be open wide. I remind us of that symbol when Jesus died on the cross, remember the curtain in the temple was torn? That was the curtain that stood before the holy of holies, which was where God lived. We believe that in Jesus’ dying and going on, he sends his spirit that pervades now the whole world. There is no divider. Jesus is with us always and everywhere.
We’re told then the heavens and the earth will pass away. The heavens is not the Heaven as we know it, but they called the sky and all that was above overhead as the heavens. Jesus is saying now, everything you see is temporal, is passing, so treat it as such, as passing value but live for the eternal value. I am reminded of the old rabbi’s story of this man who came to visit the rabbi in his apartment he was shocked when he saw how sparsely furnished the rabbi’s room was. He asked about that and he said, “Rabbi, it seems like you’re only here for a short time.” The rabbi said, “Absolutely and may none of us ever forget it.” We don’t want to get to settled and we want to realize we’re here just in passing and that all things are changing. I think of the great philosopher Heraclitus who once said, “You can never stand in the same river twice,” because all things are evolving and developing. So too should our life be, that’s why we call ourselves pilgrim people. Don’t get too settled. We’re always being called onward.
Then Jesus says in his most memorable line of the gospel, “As to the exact day or hour no one knows it. Neither the angels in Heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Mark seems to be reminding his community that Jesus said this because they’re all a little mystified by the fact that they expected Jesus to come by now and he obviously had not. They’re wondering, ‘When is the end? When is Christ’s second coming? When are we to expect this return? Remember Jesus admitted, he didn’t even know the end of time.
This is interesting for two points for me, first it admits to Jesus’ own admission of his humanness. Jesus was truly human—although admittedly divine, we hold that imbalance—we don’t quite know but we believe that he did not know everything and in a human way of speaking that at least here he admits he does not know everything about the world and when it will end. The other interesting fact is that if Jesus did not know the end of the world nor he says not even the angels in heaven, then I want to know who are these wiseguys that predict the end of the world? I say that because we’ll probably hear a lot of people predicting the end is near and I’m reminded, ‘yeah they’ve been saying that since the beginning the world too.’ So far everybody’s been wrong.
To share just a few things that I’ve been thinking about in terms of this gospel, as we come to the end we’ll also hear a number of prophets of doom, but remember this gospel gives a prophetic message of hope and if there’s one thing we can always count on, Jesus would always speak a word of hope. Jesus always gives a message that is good news. Remember last week I asked the questions, ‘What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say?”
As an aside, I was sharing that with my parish this last week, I said would you all ask this question with me, “What would Jesus do?” After Mass, one of the ushers was closing the door in church, it was sticking, and he looked to me and said, “Father, you need to fix this front door.” I said, “I don’t think so, I’m not much of a mechanic and it would be even worse.” So he said, “Well you just told us to ask ‘What would Jesus do?’ and Jesus was a carpenter and he’d fix this front door.”
What would Jesus say? Right now I would have us ask ourselves that question. Given any situation or tension or problem we may be facing, What would Jesus say? We can always expect he would want to say something that would encourage us and that would guide us but always Jesus was encouraging and what he had to say was always something that would build us up and be positive. Yes, corrective. Yes, challenging. But he would say it in such a way that would give us hope and that’s what we want to do. Our own holy father Pope John Paul II was, I believe, prophetic leading us to this transition of the new millennium and I suspect that as some historians have said, every 500 years or so something major happens. Every 500 years or so. The first 500 years we saw close to that: the fall of the Roman Empire, which was a major transition in the world. Then in the year 1000 we saw a major break in the East and the West—from which we still suffer you know—establishing the new centers in Constantinople and Rome, developing two mainline churches Orthodox and Catholic. Then in the next 500 years we saw the Protestant Reformation; complete splitting and dividing to different sects or denominations of Christianity. This had major ramifications throughout Europe and the world. Who’s to say what the major event might be, but I think every so many years there are grand changes; especially in the world today that changes so fast, so much, we could almost expect this.
A lot of people would be prophets of doom about that, but I would like to adopt the vision that our Pope gives us, as he is decidedly leading the church to set our sight on this great year of Jubilee. This is a very biblical concept. Every 50 years, actually, the Jewish people were told to celebrate God’s special blessing, celebrating as we would any great anniversary, as a golden Jubilee would be celebrated. I was just thinking this past summer, I celebrated my parents’ 50 years of Jubilee and so this is what we’re all being invited to do as God’s family. In that year of Jubilee we want to give thanks for God’s many blessings. Part of which is to take time out to celebrate.
One of the things I’ve learned from when I visited Mexico, people who suffered greatly and lived in dire poverty celebrated more “fiestas” (fiesta=feast) then we do here. The odd thing I never understood is, they will take their meager savings and spend it all. I’m saying to myself, “Why are you doing that? Put it in your savings. Save it for a rainy day .” Their attitude is, no, while we have it let’s celebrate it because we don’t know if we’ll have it tomorrow. Isn’t that interesting? It’s a celebration of just trusting God and I don’t know how economically wise that is, but there is something there about trust and faith that I think is in the mind of this gospel. We don’t know how long our life is. Celebrate it now in the best sense of what it means to celebrate life, which is not just a party but to live it to the fullest.