When the End Is Not the End
s the days grow shorter and the trees become bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang (Shakespeare, Sonnet 132), the liturgical year winds down with images of the end of history. Daniel speaks of a time unsurpassed in distress but followed by a general resurrection of the dead, when those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.
The Gospel that concludes the Markan cycle of readings also comes at the end of Jesus’ eschatological discourse, in which he predicts the destruction of the Temple and the return of the Son of Man in glory. Yet Jesus resists a timetable for these events and tells a parable about reading the signs of the times, for of that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
As the much touted year 2000 draws to a close, we recall the apocalyptic predictions of computer meltdown, failed power plants, water and food shortageall symbolized by the ominous Y2K. Yet these evanesced as the routine of ordinary life unfolded. Strangely we are not too different from Mark’s community, which expected that Jesus would return in their lifetime to inaugurate the kind of reign of God envisioned by Daniel. Yet despite the cries among early Christians, Our Lord, Come (1 Cor. 16:21), Jesus did not return, and we exist between the times, the time of the advent of Christ into the world and the time of return. Through prayer and ritual the liturgical cycle renews this experience every year.
One of the most puzzling aspects of today’s Gospel is Jesus’ prediction that the generation of his hearers will not pass away until the return of the Son of Man and his claim that not even the Son, but only the Father knows the day or hour of the final events. This conflicts with a later Christological perspective, in which Jesus was with God prior to creation (Jn 1:1-2) and shares knowledge and being with the Father (Jn. 10:30; 17:11). Mark rather emphasizes Jesus as truly human. Mark’s Jesus shares the uncertainty of human history, and he will later pray that the hour of suffering might pass from him (Mk 14:34), even as he promises that his words will endure forever. This promise of today’s Gospel has been fulfilled.
Often the hope of the return of Jesus can devolve into fantastic speculation about contemporary events heralding the end, or it is dismissed as irrelevant in a scientific age. Yet for the next three Sundays the Liturgy of the Word presents images of the end time. These can sustain lives of faith in many ways. They present a view of human history from the end looking backwards. If those who lead the many to justice shall shine like stars, the community that waits for the end is summoned to join those leaders now.
Mark offers to a persecuted community a vision of hope: wars, natural disasters, betrayal by family members will be overcome when the Son of Man returns to gather in his loved ones. This is not simply pie in the sky, a palliative for human suffering; it is a way of stating that those who suffer and die are not forgotten in God’s eyes. The century just past has witnessed unprecedented evil and suffering in the Holocaust and in massive slaughters of whole populations, as well as the spread of famine and disease.
The view of history from the end presents a countervision. Though not described in detail in the readings today, this vision includes images of abundant food (Is. 25:5-7), vindication of innocent sufferers and a reign of peace. The reigning of God that Jesus hopes for as his own ministry nears an end points back to his very first words in Mark’s Gospel: Change your hearts, for the reign of God is at hand. These apocalyptic Gospels are a sign that our lives can be formed by the kind of world we envision, while we face a world we grieve over. Our hopes should shape our lives as powerfully as our faith and our love. If we hope for a future of justice and peace, we must read the signs of the times so this future may begin now.