Daniel 12:1-3, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-14, 18, Mark 13:24-32
In our Sunday Gospel two weeks ago, a scribe asked Jesus, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” and when he had answered, “No one dared to ask him any more questions.” This week Jesus responds to one last question.
Our reading begins, “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘In those days after that tribulation.’” Again the Lectionary alludes to a passage we didn’t read, which begins, “Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?’”
This is our last reading from Mark: because Mark is short, this year we read from John, too, so for the last Sunday of the year, Christ the King, we will read John’s account of Christ before Pilate.
Our reading from Daniel tells of “a time unsurpassed in distress,” “there shall arise Michael,” “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake.” The prophets foretold a final day of wrath, and it is about that day that the Apostles ask Jesus.
But Jesus’ answer is subtle. He begins, “when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet.” The passage we read at Mass concludes, “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Jesus speaks of his humanity: no creature, not even the angels, can see that day, only God knows.)
The Apocalypse is not about predicting the future. It will come—but we don’t know when. Don’t look for signs.
Here’s an important point in Catholic theology. Protestants (and some Catholics) have a tendency to read the Bible as talking about other times. For them, the most important part about Genesis is figuring out when and how the world was created back then; the most important part of the Apocalypse is figuring out when and how it will happen; even the most important part of Christ’s work on the cross is what happened then.
As Catholics, we believe all these things are true: God did create the world, it will end, and Jesus’ death on the Cross is the central moment of history.
But we believe all those things are important now, not just “then,” “in that day.” Genesis, the Apocalypse, and the Cross all tell us how to live now. They are of historical importance because they are also of moral importance, today.
Thus if we keep reading past this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. . . . Stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come.” The Apocalypse is something that will happen—but it is important for how we live our lives today: as those who await his coming, not as those who have it all figured out.
Twice in the passage leading up to our Gospel Jesus warns about “false christs and false prophets.” Instead of following new leaders, we need to hold on.
When it comes, our Gospel says, you will know: “the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light” (that’s a prophecy made many times) “and then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.” “Learn a lesson from the fig tree: . . . when you see these things happening, know.” (A curious reference: he begins his final ministry in Jerusalem by cursing a fig tree for not being ripe before its time. A complicated passage—but one point is, things have their proper time—and only Jesus can uproot the mountains.)
You will know! No need to guess.
Our reading from Hebrews says Jesus made the “one sacrifice for sins, and took his seat forever at the right hand of God; now he waits until his enemies are made his footstool.” We await that final victory too—and live in the in-between time, when we know Jesus will triumph but we have not experienced it yet.
“By one offering he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated.” Christ on the Cross gives us the strength to survive. If we read on in Hebrews, we would find something similar to our reading from Daniel: “At that time your people shall escape . . . . Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; some shall live forever. . . . The wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.”
Jesus is at work in our hearts even now. We do not yet see the triumph of justice and wisdom—we do not expect to see that triumph until he comes. But we know the triumph will be his, and we live in the in-between time, letting his Cross, made present to us through the sacraments, shape us into the people of the final age.
What difference does hope for the final triumph of Christ make in your life?