Jesus and Apocalyptic

Frances writes on the Readings for this weekend : Our gospel passage is taken from Mark (13:24-32), traditionally labelled ‘apocalyptic’ and as a consequence radically misinterpreted as about doom and destruction as portrayed in frequent disaster movies. Our Old Testament writers knew better, since true apocalyptic is about the revelation or disclosure of God’s purposes and how to recognise and respond to such events. True, as might well be expected, the disclosures of God to us might well be deeply disturbing, but they are not fundamentally about annihilation, violence and destruction.  They are about God’s will for his creation.

In our gospel, Jesus was already in Jerusalem for Passover and what would be his crucifixion, and this passage is part of a long discourse with his disciples as they looked at the temple. Now the temple occupied about a third of the city and its golden dome could be seen from miles around. Its dominance of both landscape and people’s hearts and minds was absolute; and Jesus was at pains to get his followers to see that it was only a man made structure, and that its priesthood had become corrupt and self–serving; their end was on the cards. He wanted them to understand the significance of his own person among them, and used the language of apocalyptic to convey that powerful message in a time honoured and unmistakable language. His bodily presence among them; the actual presence of God-made-man; shortly to be met in his passion, death and resurrection, was going to shake the very cosmos to its roots. The one who was to be put to death by Jewish machinations would ultimately be the one who would come in glory as judge of the world and gather his chosen both living and dead. It is through language such as this that the disciples finally realised who Jesus was after his death when faced with his bodily resurrection. Jesus’ parable of the fig tree was a wake-up call to his followers to recognise and be on the alert for the changes to come; albeit they only understood retrospectively what his remarks meant.

Apocalyptic then does not write to foretell distant future events of a terrifying nature, but is much more about commentary on the present. We see the same in the Book of Daniel, (12:1-3). Allegedly written in the time of the 6th century BC Babylonian captivity, it is now clear that it was the product of the terror of Antiochus Epiphanes C 164 BC when the Hellenistic occupiers of Palestine forced Jews to renounce their faith and adopt paganism. So its source is the period of the Maccabees and their revolt. The text speaks, like our gospel, of times of terror and distress, but looks forward to the grace of God and the restoration of believers in the true God. Most likely what would be the successful revolt was in process and the writer was coping with its effects.Since the whole idea of post mortem life is not found in Judaism until the 2nd Century BC, we begin to get a grip on ‘Daniel’ and understand just how important this, and other works dealing with resurrection to eternal life, would have been to the revolutionaries; and in turn to Jesus as his understanding of himself and his mission grew.

“Of those who lie sleeping in the dust of the earth many will awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting disgrace.The point, as we see so vividly exemplified in the New Testament is that God the Father intends believers for life; real and lasting life with him which extends beyond mortal life into eternity. It is this which makes all Jesus’ talk of his and our relationship with the Trinity meaningful, as we see in Jesus’ great prayer in John 17, where Jesus prays that we be One with the Father and himself as they are eternally one. The writings of St Paul, speak of us as God’s heirs (Rom 8); or those given ‘wisdom and insight into the mystery of God’s will, his plan for the fullness of time, (Eph 1); or, following 2 Peter 1, we are ‘sharers in the divine nature.’  Apocalyptic writing, with its capacity to encapsulate but transcend time was therefore a well tried and understood means by which Jesus could convey his identity and purpose to those who followed him.

Our second reading, (Hebrews 10: 11-14. 18) once again, as it did the previous week, reiterates that this great status which we are simply given by God is achieved by the unique and single sacrifice of Christ on the cross. On the cross, in the words of St Augustine he carried out a vast transaction, freely giving us what the never ending cycles of Jewish temple sacrifices for sin were quite unable to achieve: “By virtue of that one single offering, he has achieved the eternal perfection of all whom he was sanctifying. When all sins have been forgiven, there can be no more sin offerings.”

So apocalyptic is about Christian hope and is to be read positively and helpfully as we approach the end of the Christian year. But, watch-out! Throughout Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Lord we will be bombarded by Old Testament apocalyptic readings. For those who think of Christmas as tinsel and baubles and soppy fun, this may be quite taxing!

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