Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
“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 13:24-32 – NRSV)
You will find similar texts in Matthew 24:29-44 and Luke 21:25-36.
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 first 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).
Thomas Merton (1915-1968), received many visitors at Gethsemani Abbey over his twenty-seven years there. Among them was a Sufi mystic – Sidi Abdesalam. He later wrote to Merton. In that letter he used an expression that Merton himself would later use: “What is best is what is not said” (Thomas Merton, Learning to Love: The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume Six 1966-1967, 200). The idea was not new to Merton. In a Journal entry on December 14, 1940 – a year before he entered Gethsemani – Merton reflects on poetry and the writings of St Bonaventure and speaks of “keeping hid that which cannot be told” (Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation – The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume One, 1939-1941, 279).
Merton is addressing – among other things – that mysterious human experience of belief. Incoherence in the face of that experience is an utterly normal reaction. One reason for the incoherence may be a sense of respect for the ineffable in that experience.
A genuinely loving relationship, for example, implies such an experience of belief and the consequent experience of incoherence and hints of the ineffable. We may find words for it. But when we speak those words, we realise that the belief, like the love itself, is more – much more – than words can say. In fact, we may be embarrassed by the poverty of our words or the presumption that prompted us to think we could articulate our belief. The listener should therefore listen for the unspoken when in the presence of a person endeavouring to articulate their experience of belief. The incoherence demands respect!
In our experience of belief in Jesus Christ we encounter the same incoherence and the effects of coming face to face with the ineffable. Many attempts have been made to articulate this experience of belief in the Risen Lord – in the Scriptures, in creedal formulae such as the Apostles Creed, and by theological and spiritual writers down the ages. When reading those attempts to articulate the experience of belief in Jesus Christ – St Paul says Christ “took hold” of him (Philippians 3:12) – there is always the danger that we will confuse the articulation with the belief. Difficulties, confusions, even errors in the articulations, must be expected. A corollary of this is that we cannot “pass on” the belief by simply sharing the articulation. As Pope Paul VI reminds us in Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), “above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness” (#21. Also #26 & #41). You may reasonably argue with – and even reject – a particular articulation of belief, you cannot reasonably argue with or reject authentic witness.
In today’s Gospel – Mark 13:24-32 – we have an example of apocalyptic literature, a particular articulation of our shared belief. The English word, “apocalyptic”, comes from the Greek word, apokaluptein meaning “uncover” or “reveal”. The central focus of Christian apocalyptic literature – indeed of all Christian witness – is the uncovering or revealing of the glory of God in Jesus who is the Christ. We might reasonably think of today’s Gospel text as an incoherent articulation of the ineffable.