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A Year with Mark: November

A Year with Mark: November

Each liturgical year ends with a rehearsal for the last times, and the Year of Mark ends with a short passage in which Jesus says that he does not know when the end will occur (13.32). This raises the question, what Jesus taught about the remote future.

Mark’s chapter 13 is often call the Synoptic Apocalypse because it shares with the other synoptic Gospels (Matthew and Luke) predictions of the ‘apocalyptic’ crashes and bangs of the final collapse of the universe, stars falling from heaven, etc. It is a chapter quite unlike any other part of the Gospel of Mark. For one thing, it is (verses 5-37) one long speech, whereas no other episode and no other continuous speech covers more than a few verses. For another thing, it is no narrative about the past, but is all about the future, consisting entirely of future tenses and commands to be alert, to be on guard, etc. For a third, it is carefully crafted, falling into sections: an introduction, three clear passages based on Old Testament quotations (verses 14, 20, 31) and a conclusion. Rather than being simply all the words of Jesus, it must be considered a carefully constructed prediction, based on and containing the words of Jesus. So, for instance, the saying that even Jesus does not know the day or the hour would never have been invented by the community which so revered the Risen Lord; they would never have invented a statement about his ignorance of the future.

The main theme and the central idea is familiar in the Old Testament prophets: there will be a moment when God will intervene in history to put everything to rights and complete the divine plan. This will be an earth-shaking event, the Day of the Lord, described under the symbolism of tempest, earthquake, cosmic upheaval of an earth-centred universe. The first qualification for understanding scripture is to know when it is to be taken literally and when it is meant symbolically. A second qualification is not to force images and symbols into a single straightforward meaning.

In this case the principal image is ‘the Abomination of Desolation’ (v. 14). This refers to a horrifying sacrilege; the expression is taken from Daniel 9.27, where it describes the desecrating, idolatrous image set up in the Temple by the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes in 167bc. In Mark it may refer to the statue which the Emperor Gaius threatened to erect in the Temple in 41-44ad, or the desolation of the Temple by the Romans in 70ad. In either case it is the symbol of the horror and distress which the followers of Jesus must undergo before Christ comes to rescue them and gather them to himself. The point is not the exact nature of the distress, but a warning to Christians to steel themselves for a life which will not be easy, and a promise that in the end Christ will gather in his own. But emphatically no time limit is given.

by Dom Henry Wansbrough OSB

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