To the certainties of death and taxes, astrophysics has added a few more. For example, our most crucial star, the Sun, has about five billion more years to go, after which time it will expand enormously and then bum out, taking its planets, including Earth, along with it into oblivion. Astronomy has taught us even further galactic humility, reminding us that the end of the Sun and its planets is by no means the end of the cosmos; other such stars have come and gone during the universe’s fifteen-billion-year expansion. And yet the cosmos itself will surely come to a conclusion—whether by finally reversing its expansion and slamming back together in a Big Crunch or simply dissipating, we do not know.
Though such thoughts were surely not in the minds of Mark or the authors of Daniel and the letter to the Hebrews, something like that cosmic picture is in our minds as we hear the readings for this penultimate Sunday of the liturgical Year.
Does our contemporary picture of the universe, and its story, alter how we hear the cosmic imagery of Daniel and Jesus in Mark’s Gospel? Not significantly, it seems to me. For, Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse in Mark 13 is neither prediction nor description. It is proclamation and assurance. What we hear in this passage—clothed in the imagery of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, and Zechariah—is the message that human history will not end without the universal human recognition of Jesus as Lord of that history. Exactly when it will occur, what it will look like—the data are not accessible.
What comes through loud and clear—to the four on the Mount of Olives and to the readers of Mark (then and now)—is this: false messiahs, wars, persecutions, earthquakes and famine’s notwithstanding, followers of Jesus will be supported by the Holy Spirit, the gospel will reach all nations, and there is a heap of housekeeping to be done in the time between. The housekeeping part is caught in the parable at the end of the speech, about the servants left with work to do until the lord of the household returns (Mk 13: 34-36).
Meanwhile, lest anyone get caught in an apocalyptic fervor of
sign-spotting and calculation, we hear the ringing caveat: “But
of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor
the Son, but only the Father” (Gospel), surely a text to bear in mind as the approaching end of the
millennium draws doomsday predictors out of their caves. Christian
theology of hope looks confidently to the future because of what has
already occurred in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The reading from Daniel reminds us where the apocalyptic language comes from the authors writing at the time of the tyrant Antiochus IV knew their Lord was acting in history for their salvation, and that same Lord would master all of history. And the passage from Hebrews 10 helps us recognize that our expectations about the ultimate future are rooted in what has already been accomplished, the victory of Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice.
Thus we move toward the end of the Liturgical Year by stepping back and looking at the big time picture. Our contemporary science may well read the data correctly when it pictures our minuscule human history as framed by a Big Bang at the beginning and a Big Crunch/Burnout at the end.
Our faith asserts that this picture is incomplete unless we recognize that the Creator of all has become fully manifest in Jesus of Nazareth, especially in his death and resurrection, and that these events constitute a victory of cosmic implications. We find, in our best moments and sometimes in our worst moments, that this declaration of victory and this cosmic vision free us sufficiently from fear so that we can get on with our housekeeping