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."
It is unfortunate that Sunday’s reading encompasses only verses 24-32, for the entirety of Chapter 13 in Mark is quite dazzling, in both a religious and an academic sense. In his commentary on Mark, Father Francis Moloney comments that a summary of sources on the treatment of Chapter 13 would take up an entire volume, and in fact two such books do exist. (249)
To begin with, Chapter 13 belongs to a literary form known as “apocalyptic.” The Encyclopedia Britannica provides the best brief summary of apocalyptic, the speculation about and prediction of the end times. Apocalyptic literature predates Christ and takes its roots in Jewish persecution. Because its authors were often at odds with reigning enemies, apocalyptic literature is written under pseudonyms as a rule, and likewise the targets of the literature (for example, Roman Emperors in the Book of Revelation) are depicted symbolically as monsters or other substitutes. The audience is usually a people under persecution, and the purpose of the text is encouragement to hang on longer; the Lord will come to punish and destroy persecutors and richly reward the elect who maintained faith.
The three synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) all contain “little apocalypses,” and after the pattern of Mark, the other two evangelists place them at the conclusion of Jesus’ ministry at his last entry into Jerusalem for the Last Supper and Crucifixion. That the evangelists see the coming death of Christ as the ushering of the Kingdom is beyond dispute. Beyond that the language and the structuring of the material has raised multiple questions. Even a simple reading of Chapter 13 reveals the conjoining of several separate statements and teaching objectives.
The first unit (Mark 13: 1-8) addresses the future of Jerusalem and the body of Israel. Jesus predicts to his disciples that the Temple will be destroyed, though without temporal specificity. His inner circle of disciples later ask for more detail, and Jesus becomes more specific about the imminent trials to unfold. He mentions specifically the signs of those times, namely false prophets, “wars and rumors of war,” and the “abomination of desolation.” In a cryptic remark about wars and the abomination of desolation, Mark adds, “let the reader understand.” This would be typical of apocalyptic literature, where the “insider” knows the hidden meaning of the images. The abomination of desolation is an actual reference to an event two centuries earlier, when the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes (a gentile) defamed the Temple by placing a statue of Jupiter in its holy enclosure. Jewish Christians would be well aware of the comparison of Antiochus to the present day Roman Emperor besieging Rome and the point would be made without antagonizing local Roman officials further.
But in 13:9ff Jesus turns to the persecutions to be suffered personally by his disciples, a very prominent theme throughout this Gospel. In this paragraph the disciples are warned that they will be physically and intellectually abused. Moloney observes that the persecutions will go on into the future well past the outcome of the Roman struggle in Palestine (this Gospel was probably composed before 70 AD) We have here in Mark the only explicit mention of the Holy Spirit in his original text, as the inspiration for their testimony in time of trial and persecution. In Mark 13: 14-23 we have more detailed information of the harrowing suffering and disarray of Judean refugees during the general Titus’s siege of Jerusalem, much of which appears to be factual reports from eye witnesses, though certain details of the account do not square with geographic and other factors of the time.
Marl 13:24-37, of which Sunday’s reading is a portion, goes on to describe the cosmic dimensions of events that will follow the earthly struggle described above. “After these things” (a common apocalyptic literary connector) the sun will be darkened and the moon dimmed, and stars will fall from the sky. The darkening of the sun, hardly by accident, is reported also later in Mark when Jesus is raised on the cross. Here God will give his answer: the Son of Man will appear coming in the clouds with great power and glory. He will send out his angels to gather the elect. The term “Son of Man” has been applied to Jesus throughout the Synoptic Gospels; there can be little doubt that what is referred to is the return of the Son of Man in all his glory, a prediction Mark has recorded before the Sanhedrin during Jesus’ trial.
This, in turn, leads us to Sunday’s text cited above. As we have it here, there are three emphases: (1) in the midst of a cosmic turmoil, the Son of Man will return in glory and gather the elect; (2) a parable about the blossoming of a fig tree and recognizing the signs of things to come, and (3) the mystery of the future, the Father’s exclusive knowledge, and the need for all to be on perpetual watch. It is probably worth noting that one of the great struggles of the early Church was precisely the issue of when Jesus would return in glory. The first New Testament book, 1 Thessalonians, is devoted to the question of the fate of the baptized who die before the sound of Michael’s trumpet. Luke’s Gospel, the text for the upcoming Cycle C, will address how the Church came to live in “the long haul” without losing its apocalyptic hypervigilance.
This Sunday is the final weekend of St. Mark’s narrative. We will next see him in late November, 2017. Cycle C begins with St. Luke on November 29, the First Sunday of Advent—and ironically, the text is the Lukan version of Mark’s Gospel above.