I have a feeling that this week’s readings were not geared to the Hollywood release date of 2012, but it works out well for those with apocalypse on the mind. The first reading, from Daniel 12:1-3, and the second reading, from Mark 13:24-32, a chapter known to scholars as "the little apocalypse," bring us to the heart of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic hopes. The symbolic imagery of apocalyptic thought is rife in both passages, with pictures of "a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence" (Daniel 12:2) and a time "after that suffering," when "the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken" (Mark 13:24). This hardly, I admit, seems like "hope," and gives reason for the dramatic scenes of destruction in almost every cinematic apocalyptic scene. The violence of apocalyptic imagery both attracts and repulses readers and viewers, as it mimics the reality of human violence which has been prevalent in human society from the ancients to the present day. God’s answer is not more violence I would argue, even as the apocalyptic scenarios are shot through with war and turmoil, but the restoration of peace. We are given a window into the reality of human hearts and human society with the prolongation of violence, but also the answer: God’s triumph over human and demonic violence. Evil, suffering, war, sin, destruction and corruption will come to an end - and the only imagery that seems to do it literary justice is to place this triumph in the terms of conquering. Just as the Christian saints "conquer" evil in the Apocalypse of John by remaining faithful (Revelation 3:5, 12), so God conquers by remaining faithful.
Both Daniel and Mark point to a time in the future when those who are "righteous" will live with God in the heavens - like "stars" in the sky in Daniel, or the "elect" taken with the Son of Man who comes from the clouds. These snippets of ancient cosmology, which we need not take literally, nevertheless point us to our eternal place with God. Yet, this raises two big questions. Who are the "elect" who are to live with God forever? And when will it happen?
"Who is found written in the book" (Daniel 12:3)? Who are the "elect," the chosen ones? These apocalyptic images have often been used to "narrow the field," if you will, to create a sense of "us" and "them." It is important to remember, though, that apocalyptic thought is intended not only to give a sense of the coming future, but to influence present behavior. At a recent talk I gave to students at the University of Saint Thomas on "The End of the World," one student wanted me to make clear that Revelation is prophecy, that there are prophetic elements in the text which should not be cast aside. I agreed, but argued that whether I interpret the apocalypse as occurring on November 9, 2009 -that would be "The Sun" newspaper, a sister publication of "Weekly World News" - or in 2012 or that the symbolic imagery only hides the reality that every day we must prepare for the coming of God’s kingdom should make no difference as to how I live my life daily. I am called to be faithful, to feed the poor, to care for those in need, to tell the truth, to live out the Christian life each and every day. If the "end" were to occur tomorrow would I change the way I live? If so, then I had better do it now, because the end for any of us could be tomorrow. Those who are called to be the "elect" are all of us.
Jesus does warn us to be prepared, to keep awake, but this is different, I would say, than calculating the coming end: "So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father (Mark 13:29-32). From the point of view of eternity, Christ is very near, which ought to impact how we live, but this imminence masks the fact that no one knows for certain. There is one line, however, that we must return to in another post - "truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place" - for it is a promise difficult to interpret and the source of a lot of (genuine and understandable) confusion. To what things does Jesus refer? What generation does he describe? We have the promise, but is this line a promise gone awry? More on this in the future.