The Last Judgment, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City State.
And then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’
with great power and glory…. Mark 13:26
With claps of thunder and flashes of lightning, today we prepare for next Sunday, the last day of the church’s year. Jesus’ words in the gospel describe the great day of wrath and terror looming, as the ancient “Dies Irae” prayer puts it. This event has haunted, inspired, excited and/or terrified people for the last 2000 years. Despite the crystal-clear statement the Lord utters, “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” there have been numerous “prophets” in the days since who have claimed to know better. Currently there are about seven future predictions of the world’s end, despite the dozens of previous predictions which have all come to precisely nothing. Ah well. So what is the point of all this? Why did Jesus even start this ball rolling? Well I suspect it was not to inspire some of the greatest works of art, musically and artistically, the world has ever seen, though that has certainly been the case (look at the picture above, and listen to that same ancient prayer in Verdi’s spectacular Requiem, both being cases in point). Nor was it to get people panicked into selling everything they have and taking off for some mountain in Wyoming following the latest disaster guru. Rather, I suspect, his intent was to establish a lifestyle and a course of life activity that if the world ended today, would we all be ready to accept it with confidence, with a steady frame of mind as trusting and loyal followers of the Lord? In a perfect world, we should have nothing to fear as Jesus’ disciples should that dread event happen now. Jesus also adds a sort of pointer, telling us that when we see a fig tree starting to bud leaves, we know summer is approaching. Well we might not be too familiar with fig trees, but all our cities have many regular trees and we all know when summer is approaching, and some of those trees even break into breathtaking flower in the spring; we certainly know what’s happening then! (By the way, the Dies Irae was quietly dropped from the Requiem Mass following the introduction of English; those words would hardly comfort those suffering the loss of someone most dear to them).
Spring in Washington DC, March 2016, Jefferson Memorial, Washington DC, USA.
Looking at the cherry blossom glory of Washington, DC, one would think there is nothing to worry about if it betokens the arrival of the Lord! But many prefer to talk about climate warming, terrorist actions, financial calamity and other terrible scourges of the modern day to claim that these signal the End Time is upon us. Other gospels talk of Jesus telling us to look at the signs of the times to speculate on the Rapture, as this event is sometimes called. Well we can speculate away, but Jesus states here and in several other places in Christian scripture that no-one knows when it will be, save the Father, and he ain’t telling! But our gospel today has a very peaceful image of a sign of the times, a fig tree sprouting. Remember that Mark is the oldest gospel, nearest to the time of Jesus, and although “the powers in the heavens will be shaken” in today’s gospel, the premonition seems to be a humble fig tree!
Our first reading also has a chilling tone of a “time unsurpassed in distress” which shows us that Jesus was not the first to talk of the end time. But again there are two groups of people here, the good and the bad, and the Book of Daniel clearly notes that the good have nothing whatever to fear in that event. Now remember that in our day there are indeed many terrible “signs of the times”, but in the past good cases can be made that there were even worse signs then – the Black Death, the Holocaust, the famine in Ireland, the Stalinist purges and collectivization in the USSR, the decimation of native peoples in the Americas after the arrival of the Europeans, the acceptance of slavery, and so on. We will always have terrible events with us, it seems. But for us one thing remains immutable, the presence of Christ who is with us “until the end of time” (Matthew 28:20). With such a companion, nothing can destroy us, nothing can beat us, nothing can crush us. Even today’s gospel reaffirms that: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” So as the old church year passes away with next Sunday, our faith in the eternal Lord will never pass away, against all possible odds. One final thought. Each one of us will eventually face a moment when the Lord calls us from this life; at that time, for each of us, the heavens might seem to tremble, the lightning will strike and the thunder might roar and the threat of terror will confront us. Then will our life history and our belief in God strengthen and defend us, as Jesus opens his arms to receive us into his kingdom of eternal peace.
Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal.
PS: The fig tree does not blossom in the way that the Japanese cherry tree blossoms: its figs are the blossoms! But it certainly has leaves which bud at the approach of summer: