All the Times the World Didn’t End: A History, USA Today NEWS, September 2021.
Jesus said to his disciples: “In those days after that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Mark 13:24-25.
Words highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.
Well, reading that passage above from today’s gospel, you might be forgiven for thinking it is one of the wilder conspiracy theories so common on the Internet. Wrong: it is the Lord himself speaking, so this time we have to figure out what on earth he was talking about. It does sound strange and prone to whipping up a frenzy of panic and confusion everywhere. Yet it is today’s Scripture reading! I imagine Jesus wasn’t out to panic all of us in saying this, but what was he trying to do? In his day, there was excited and breathless anticipation that the Messiah was about to appear. This would be the One who would deliver the Jewish people from the rule of the Gentile pagan Roman occupation forces and re-establish the kingdom of David. Trouble with that is that Jesus’ language is not the language of victory and jubilation, but of destruction and perhaps damnation. Not what was wanted. Of course, in Jesus’ thought, that popular idea of the Messiah was completely wrong, that this man (as it was always thought to be a man) would have to suffer and die, as well as be the one who would triumph, with kings bowing down to him (which of course happened in the centuries that were to follow). But those first followers would know nothing about that, and so would have to work out for themselves what, exactly, he was talking about. And as we know, even they got it wrong, spectacularly demonstrated by Peter in the garden of the high priest where Jesus was being questioned and condemned, and Peter disowned him. Jesus was clearly not Peter’s idea of the Messiah. Those grim words from today’s gospel quoted above would surely describe Jesus’ thoughts and feelings at a moment like that, alone and betrayed. Indeed for him the sun was darkened, and the powers in the heavens were shaken. Jesus was abandoned, friendless and utterly alone.
But then Jesus’ words change. He talked of better times, when we must learn a lesson from the fig tree, when its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, as if coming back from the dead, for then we know that summer is near. So there is a great contrast in today’s gospel. There is something approaching despair followed by a spark of hope. Hope is usually not an element found in Internet conspiracy rants. But our gospel is not a conspiracy rant; it is a recipe for salvation. There is hope buried amid the warning of catastrophe and perhaps that is the message for today’s believers. It also occurs to me that perhaps Jesus’ words can be applied to our own last moments in this world when we are radically alone, facing eternity. But with a little confidence, our own fig tree can provide us with support, strength and above all, faith in what is about to happen. So for each of us there will be a time when all will end and each of us will face we know not what. We know what faith says, what the Lord says, what St. Paul says and the rest of it, but what, exactly, will happen? Ah, that’s the question, when our whole life might well flash in front of us, assuring us of eternal happiness as one of the “elect” as today’s gospel says, or not, when it is too late to do anything more about it. But right now, we do have time and opportunity to act, either to maintain a life in accordance with the will of God, or to change it now to align it with God’s will and thereby save ourselves. We have been given clear and direct guidance on what to do, and will have no-one but ourselves to blame or congratulate. So ends the church’s year with clear language and some strong encouragement as to what we should do with our lives to ensure happiness both here and beyond.
Happiness Beyond Paradise 2020, Zerbini.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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