“But in those days, after that suffering, 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. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 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.
“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. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell 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 about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:24-52 – NRSV)
We find similar texts in Matthew 24.29–35 and Luke 21.25–33.
“The mischief caused by the misuse of eschatology—not least in contemporary America—has resulted in a virtual eclipse of eschatology in the life of the church. This unfortunate set of circumstances—both its abuse and its subsequent neglect—has weakened the church rather than strengthened it. If we dispense with eschatology, then the purpose and destiny of history fall into the hands of humanity alone. No one, I think, Christian or not, takes solace in that prospect. Unless human history, in all its greatness and potential as well as its propensity to evil and destructiveness, can be redeemed, human life is a futile and sordid endeavor. The longing that things ought not to be as they are, and cannot be allowed to remain as they are, is essentially an eschatological longing. The grand finale of the gospel preached by Jesus is that there is a sure hope for the future. It is grounded not in history or logic or intuition, but in the word of Jesus, in the asseveration that “in those days” humanity will no longer usurp history but relinquish it to its Lord and Maker, who will return in glory and justice to condemn evil, end suffering, and gather his own to himself.” (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, Eerdmans 2002, 402.)
The English word “eschatology” is rooted in the Greek word eschatos (ἔσχατος), meaning “last” or “furthest”. In Christian tradition, eschatology is the study of the last things – death and the afterlife, the Second Coming of Jesus (Parousia) and the resurrection of the dead.
Christianity has accepted the essence of the Jewish understanding of history. The Jewish understanding of history is radically different from that of the peoples around them. For those peoples, history is cyclical, returning again and again to the same place. For the Jews, history is linear, it is moving towards an end point. History is purposeful and meaningful. God who transcends history is actively with us in. That history as we know it will end, giving birth to the fullness of the Kingdom.
What is being described in our Gospel is an event that transcends history, though it will obviously include all of history. (See J R Edwards, op cit, 402). The language and imagery are borrowed from the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus sees himself as fulfilling all of Israel’s history. This is brought out quite explicitly in Luke: “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27).
There is profound irony in this Gospel passage – as there is in life. What seems to be is not the whole story – nowhere near it.
Even as he announces “‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory”, Jesus is preparing for his ignominious passion and death.
John’s Gospel carries the same irony when he speaks of Jesus’ exaltation on the cross.
There is a depth dimension, a subterranean domain that sustains the surface realities.
In the hustle and bustle of life we too easily miss the depths of our lives, that subterranean domain. Focused on products – we get our identity from our usefulness, from what we produce – we can miss the process. Pope Francis told the people of Florence a few days ago, “eat with your family not with your smart phone”.
Ironically, the best place to find “the end time” is in “the present moment”. There is a marvellous practice in our Catholic tradition to speak of “the grace of the present moment”. The whole of my life is there!
Michael Leunig writes: “We pray for another way of being: another way of knowing. Across the difficult terrain of our existence we have attempted to build a highway and in so doing have lost our footpath. God lead us to our footpath: lead us there where in simplicity we may move at the speed of natural creatures and feel the earths love beneath our feet. Lead us there where step-by-step we may feel the movement of creation in our hearts. And lead us there where side-by-side we may feel the embrace of the common soul. Nothing can be loved at speed. God lead us to the slow path; to the joyous insights of the pilgrim; another way of knowing: another way. Amen.” [Michael Leunig, When I Talk to You: A Cartoonist Talks to God, Harper Collins.]