“Learn a lesson from the fig tree,” Jesus said.
“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 the Son of Man is near, at the gates.” Mk 13:28-29
This is not a post I want to write. I don’t even know where to begin.
It’s my practice to write these reflections on the readings that make up the Sunday liturgy in the Catholic Church. This week’s Gospel reading is taken from Mark 13:24-32. From a chapter that deals with the end times. We sometimes call it the apocalypse.
But what do I know about end times or apocalyptic literature? Not enough.
Nonetheless, my conviction, proven over time, is that Scripture repays patient effort at understanding. So I will dedicate some patient effort here and see what I can learn.
Still, today I will be begging along the side of the road, like Bartimaeus. I am begging to see.
The Darkening of The Temple
Here we go. Well for starters, you can’t make sense of verses Mk 13:24-32 apart from the full context of Mark Chapter 13. And Mark 13 is, in turn, illuminated by Matthew’s treatment of the same themes – in Matthew Chapters 24 and 25. And then you can’t really understand these chapters apart from the way the apocalyptic tradition is treated in the books of Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Joel, among others.
Even so, in this post, I can only sketch what these sources say. But sketch them, we will.
Let’s return to the beginning of Mark 13 for context on today’s reading. Jesus is leaving the Temple. What is noteworthy is that this will be the last time he leaves the Temple before his death.
Let me repeat that: this is Jesus’ last visit to the Temple.
Think about that. To get a sense for the significance of this moment, you have to engage in a thought experiment. If you don’t believe Jesus is who He says He is, borrow my faith for a moment. See this final visit to the Temple through the eyes of faith.
At the very least, Jesus is a prophet, steeped in all the prophetic literature. At best, He is the second person of the Trinity, the Logos whose spirit hovered over the waters at the dawn of creation. In either case, the Temple would not have been just a building to Jesus. It would have been the culmination of a long preparation, a long waiting, a long expectation. The people who worshiped in this Temple were nurtured, led, forgiven, restored, guided with love and care over centuries. Nurtured to understand the nature, person and the ways of the God of Abraham. The God of Moses. The God of David, Elijah, Isaiah, Ezekiel. This people had been taught to wait for, to watch for the coming of the Messiah, who would be a son to God, whose Kingdom would be manifest upon the earth.
This Temple had taken centuries to conceive and to build. It was prototyped as a mere tent in the desert when the people of Israel were a poor, fugitive people, freshly-fled from Egypt. Struggling through the desert in search of a land where they could live in peace and worship this God who had called them out of Egypt. This God who called them, ultimately, one day to make Him known to the nations. Called them to know Him, illuminated them by a law that was to be written, not ultimately on stone, but upon their human hearts.
This people! This people who largely failed to recognize the visitation of their Messiah, He of the dusty, sandy feet, the carpenter’s tunic and the well-worn laborer’s hands.
This Temple! Built to be an orienter-of-mind-and-heart to recognize the coming of the Holy One, to house the Holy One in the Holy of Holies.
This Temple in many ways definitively failed in its purpose. Its leaders had turned against the One who came to reveal the fullness of the Judaic covenant.
And now, Jesus steps outside the Temple and leaves it for the last time. In Matthew’s telling, he nearly weeps (Mt 23:27), whereas as Luke recalls, He does weep (Lk 19:42) as he gazes on Jerusalem and realizes that the people have failed to recognize the day of their visitation. In any event, we see here Jesus for the last time gazing upon the Temple before he sets his footsteps, firmly, toward Calvary.
All this is for context.
The First Schism
Now we read, at the beginning of Mark 13:
“As he was making his way out of the Temple area, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, teacher, what stones and what buildings!’”
“Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? There will not be one stone left upon another that will not be thrown down.’
Here then is the first key to understanding this chapter. It is not a story about end times as we as we tend to think of it. As in, the end of all times. In the first sense, it’s more about the end of an era. The end of the era of the Judaic branch of the people of God. The end of the Temple era.
As I have prayed and reflected about it, I think we might call this chapter a teaching about the coming of the First Schism. In other words, the coming of a sundering point of two main branches of God’s people on earth.
Here’s what I mean.
Mark Chapter 13 (and Matthew 24) is, first of all, a story about the ending of the Temple era. Jesus is foreseeing and preparing his disciples for a time that Paul will live through most painfully: a time when the Jewish people staunchly reject the person and the message of Jesus, the Messiah.
As Christians, we forget how painful, how earth shattering this time would have been. We talk about the Great Schism, in 1054, when the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox faith was torn asunder. We talk about the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, when Protestant faith communities arose with their distinct understandings of the Gospel and separated from the Catholic Church. This period – and the ongoing separations of faith communities that followed – we might think of as The Ongoing Schism-ing of the children of God, their repeated splintering.
But what of the first break in the family of God? The sundering of branches between the original Jewish trunk of the great tree of revelation and the first great branch of Christendom that sprang from it?
We might think little of it; it might seem to us as a natural development toward a fuller understanding. But the apostles and the disciples would have experienced it as a gut-wrenching separation of families and traditions. An ending of a world. A kind of apocalypse.
That is the first lens through which we must understand Mark Chapter 13. The coming of the First Schism.
As He speaks to His disciples here, Jesus knows that this First Schism is coming – this rift between the Jewish tradition and the nascent Christian tradition. Like a good father, he is warning His disciples of the pain that is to come. He understands human nature. He knows there will be disputes, violent repression, deep defensiveness within the Jewish tradition that will manifest as violent oppression of the Christian branch.
All of this is to come and Jesus knows it. Mark Chapter 13 can thus be understood, in the first sense, as a literary forcasting of the coming of the First Schism, articulated within the tradition of apocalyptic literature first expressed in Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel and others.
Making Sense of the Apocalypse
Here are four few rapid-fire comments that may help you in making sense of the rest of Mark Chapter 13.
First, Mark makes clear that this discourse was initially reserved for Jesus’ close disciples (see Mk 13:3). The insights are dense, the realities presented are stern, they demand a deep understanding of past revelation. If you find them difficult to grasp, I would say that’s normal. This chapter contains revelation first intended for the close coterie of Jesus’ intimate disciples. The gospel writers are making it known to us now. But we will have to work to understand it.
Second, Jesus is describing sufferings that are to come. But note the word he uses: ὠδίν (Mk. 13:8), pronounced ‘odin.’ This is a very specific term. It refers to the pain and anguish of childbirth. And is also used to refer to the suffering that happens in the events that lead up to the coming of the Messiah. It is suffering, in other words, that leads to life. Suffering with purpose. Suffering suffused with hope. Jesus is giving his disciples a picture of the hard reality to come but He is giving them grounds to hold fast and to hope.
Third, not all is literal. This language in Mk 13:24-25 of the darkening of the sun, the eclipsing of moon, the falling of stars, the shaking of powers in the heavens: this is apocalyptic language. It is not intended to be taken literally. It is a manner in which the prophets spoke about what would happen before the Son of Man came – see Is 13:10, Ez 32:7-8; Jl 2:10 and 3:3-4. It means a shaking, a darkening, an ending of the powers that ordered the society of the day and the individual self. The darkening of the great sun could be understood to refer to the Temple, the falling of stars could refer to the failure of the religious leaders to recognize the coming of the Messiah and their falling from their place.
Fourth, Despite the coming end of the Temple, despite the suffering that is to come, there is something magnificent on the horizon that Jesus could see and that He points to. What is that?
The Gospel will be preached to all nations. That is the fruit of this dreadful First Schism and the suffering that accompanies it. Somehow, despite and through this break – this schisming of the people of God – the Good News of Christ’s coming, his indwelling in human hearts, his redemption of our souls – this message will be preached by Jesus’ timid disciples to every nation on earth. That is the great horizon that opens up here before Jesus. That is the bright side of this challenging message.
There will be suffering. Persecution. Nations will fight against nations. Earthquakes, floods will come. Affliction will settle upon the face of the earth. These things will come to pass. But these will not be the end. These are seasons of tribulation that will arise.
Even a cursory understanding of history tells us that indeed these seasons have come and still come.
The Telos of Time
But they are not the final story, Jesus says. There is one other great event He is preparing his disciples for. This is the birth that the ὠδίν – the labor-pains – foreshadow. The coming of the Son of Man. His coming in the clouds, with great power and glory.
This too is not meant to be understood only literally. It is a spiritual event described in biblical terms.
This is the final point I want to make today. Because this is the whole point of the Chapter. A point so important Matthew dedicates an entire chapter to it. (Mt. 25)
Here’s what I mean. We might think these apocalyptic sections refer only to the end times. Well, they do refer to end time. But not ‘end’ as in a single terminal point for all. Rather, end as in telos, as in the purpose for which all time was created. As in – every slice of time has a telos or purpose which is its tether point, the point and purpose to which it tends. A decision point. A point of destination.
This is tough to explain. Here’s another crack at it. Jesus says in Mk 13:13:
“The one who remains steadfast unto the end will be saved.”
ὁ δὲ ὑπομείνας εἰς τέλος οὗτος σωθήσεται.
We might think of end here as end of time. But the Greek word that we translate as end is telos, from which we get teleology, the study of the end or purpose of things.
Telos in Greek contains multiple layers of meaning. It can mean end as in the terminal point of an action. But it can also mean end as in purpose. In other words, telos means that by which a thing is finished, its close, its issue; but also the end to which all aspects of a thing relate, its aim or purpose.
Jesus is not speaking in Mark 13 of end times. He is speaking of the telos of time. The purpose of time.
And the purpose of all time is to welcome the One who is to come. The telos of time is to welcome the One who created time as the locus of encounter between God and man. The telos of time is to welcome the coming of the Son of Man.
This is the purpose, the axial point buried at the heart of all time. Every person, every generation tends toward this reality, to embrace it, to miss it or to reject it. This idea is so central that Matthew follows up his apocalyptic chapter 24 with an entire chapter urging the disciples to watch for the coming of the Son of the Man, to watch now for this coming. Mark addresses the same points in Mk 13:32-37.
Here’s what they say. They describe the coming of the Son of Man like a bridegroom returning from a wedding, like a thief in the night, like a master of the house who entrusted his servants with money to invest while He was away (cf. Mk 13:32-37; Mt 24:42 – 25:46).
The point is He will come. His coming is the telos of time. The heart of it. Its purpose. He will come to the hearts of those who know how to welcome him.
My Last Days at the Monastery
I want to close with a personal story. I remember my final days at the monastery. My last group meeting with the brothers. It was a discussion of Matthew 25, in the way we would always discuss one Gospel passage each week. The topic was the coming of the Son of Man. It was a rich discussion. I remember feeling like the veil of time had been peeled back and I was gazing into eternal time.
I stepped down a flight of stairs, outside that little clay tiled room, where we had sat in a circle and discussed the mystery of Christ’s presence in the inner life of each monk. I stood for a few moments out in the stone courtyard, beneath a quiet, early evening sky, eyes looking up at heaven, stirred to stillness by this discussion. I was alone, contemplating my soon-to-come life after the monastery. Not knowing what awaited me. But knowing what I had learned here. Knowing what the coming of the Son of Man meant.
All this time in the monastery taught me one thing. Here the order of the world is reversed. What is sun in the world here is darkness; what is moon is here obscured; the stars of the world here are fallen. But what is darkness in the world, here sparkles in the light. And there were sufferings too. Suffering had visited each of the monks as he passed through the eye of the needle, dying to life in the world before rising, through birth pangs, into this Gospel Life. Here too was the telos of time. Here the Son of Man could be seen to come in power and glory in the liturgy. Every day. Every Week. And ,with the holy monks, nearly every breath.
The coming of the Son of Man, I learned, is an advent in the heart. An internal communication and communion with a living person. The cloud he comes upon is the Spirit. This mysterious cloud that guided the people of Israel in the desert, that shrouded the disciples upon the mountain of the Transfiguration. Today this cloud conceals the coming of the Son of Man from prying eyes – from undiscerning eyes – but not from the eyes of the heart.
To the eyes of the heart, He is seen to come today, and every day, in the Cloud. With power. In glory. But it is the same power and glory he possessed and emanated when he walked the dusty shores of Galilee, the crowded streets of Jerusalem, the chilly garden of Gethsemane, the stony steps of Golgotha. It is a power and glory this world strains to see. It is a power and glory we are often blind to see.
A power and glory we must learn to watch to see. Watch in the biblical sense. To wait for, to look for, to gaze upon in faith, with lamps well-oiled in patient anticipation.
To watch for the Son of Man – because He will come at an hour we do not expect.
Jesus, you were the telos of the Temple and you are the telos of time. You are the end for which I was created, the end toward which my life tends. You are the hidden fruit that can arise even after schism and persecution and the sufferings of our spiritual birth. I believe you come. Today. You are hidden in the voice that speaks to me in Scripture. You are concealed in the cloud whose outlines my poor eyes strain to see. But I see you through the lens of this dark faith in which I stand. I believe in You who come. I believe. Help my unbelief. Help to me to stand fast amid the trials that are here and the trials that are to come. To persevere, steadfast, unto my telos, unto the end. The telos that is communion with your divine heart.