In November, we reach the end of the Church’s liturgical year, and the readings direct our minds towards the end of all things. Traditionally, Catholics have spoken of four “last things”: death and judgement, heaven and hell, and on the penultimate Sunday of the year (this year, 14 November), the Gospel speaks of the time when “the powers in the heavens will be shaken” and we will see “the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory… to gather his chosen from the four winds”.
Scholars refer to Mark 13, from which this passage is taken, as Christ’s “apocalyptic discourse”, and with all its talk of the sun turning dark and the stars falling from heaven, it is a passage that many find deeply uncomfortable. An additional layer of discomfort is added by the fact that Christ tells us “before this generation has passed away all these things will have taken place”. After all, we are quite some generations later, and as I write the sun is still shining and the stars, so far as I can tell, are still in place.
So it’s tempting to conclude that Jesus did not really believe in all this stuff. Maybe even that he did not speak like this at all. Perhaps the early Christians, affected by the superstitious language of pre-Christian Judaism, have misinterpreted Christ’s teaching and overlaid it with something quite alien to him. Such a theory is an easy get-out, but arbitrarily dismissing those parts of the Gospels that we find difficult or distasteful leaves us with a Christ made in our image, whereas the challenge of Christianity is to remake ourselves in his image.
How, then, to address our difficulties in a more intellectually honest way? First, let us note the scene: Christ is sitting across the valley from the Jerusalem temple, whose destruction he has just predicted to his disciples. Shortly before that, he has cursed a fig tree, then gone into the temple, overturned the tables and driven out the sellers of sacrificial animals, before coming out to find the fig tree withered and dead. Now he tells us to “take the fig tree as a parable”: the destruction of the temple will follow almost as swiftly upon his violent protest against it.
Sure enough, before that generation passed away – to be precise, in the year AD 70 – the temple was destroyed, albeit by the Romans rather than by a bolt from heaven. For the Jewish people, this was such a cataclysm that it might almost have seemed like the blotting out of the sun.
Is this, then, all that Jesus meant by his apocalyptic words? Surely not. The language of Mark 13 picks up on the vision of the “one like a Son of Man” from Daniel 7, which holds out the promise that God’s people would be vindicated once and for all. More than that, it seems to promise the restoration of the whole of humanity: in the Book of Genesis, God created humanity to share in his image but also to participate in his kingship over the whole of creation. This is the royal dignity of Adam and Eve, to which they preferred a dignity of their own fashioning, a mere earthly kingdom instead of a place in the kingdom of God.
Christ’s promise is that he will sweep away all earthly kingdoms and usher in the kingdom of heaven. The destruction of the temple is just a small part of that. It is, if you will, one of the earliest rumblings of that earthquake in which all human vanity will be thrown down. As we reach the end of the liturgical year, we are invited to consider what are our own earthly vanities. What are the material things in which we have placed our trust, the temples we have built with our own hands?
In the Gospel for the Feast of Christ the King this year, Christ tells us clearly, “Yes, I am a king” but “mine is not a kingdom of this world”. He says these words in his trial before Pilate, a scene suffused with dramatic irony: is it really Christ who is on trial, or is it Pilate himself? Yes, and with him all authority that does not conform to the kingship of God.
As Christ, crowned with thorns, takes his place upon the throne of the Cross, St John suggests, he shows us what a true king looks like: someone who will give everything, even his life, in loving service of humanity.
Fr Richard J Ounsworth is the provincial bursar of the English Dominicans
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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