Ps 16:5, 8, 9-10, 11
Heb 10:11-14, 18
At the start of this month, On the Solemnity of All Saints, the first reading was from The Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation. It described the saints from the perspective of heaven, showing them to be marked and sealed by God, set apart as holy. Next Sunday, on the Solemnity of Christ the King, the epistle reading is from the opening chapter of the same book. It describes Jesus Christ as the ruler of kings of the earth who “is coming amid the clouds” to judge all men at the end of time.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark is closely related. It is from the Olivet Discourse, sometimes called a “little apocalypse” (see Mt 24-25 and Lk 21) because it contains difficult teachings by Jesus about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in A.D. 70 and the final day of judgment. Like The Apocalypse of John the Revelator, the little apocalypse is filled with strong imagery and a complex web of allusions drawn from the Old Testament, especially from the prophets.
The challenge of making sense of today’s Gospel reading (and many related passages) is highlighted inJesus, The Tribulation, and the End of the Exile (Baker Academic, 2005), written by Dr. Brant Pitre, a Scripture scholar who teaches at Our Lady of Holy Cross College in New Orleans. Pitre’s impressive study draws together a host of interwoven themes rooted in the Old Testament and referred by Jesus in his discourse, including the exile, the tribulation, the elect, the temple, and the messiah. I’ve chosen three insights provided by Pitre that will, hopefully, help readers better understand today’s Gospel reading.
The first is that the images of darkened sun and moon, falling stars, and the shaken powers of heaven were frequently used by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Amos, and other prophets. They referred to one or several of the following: a day of divine judgment, the destruction of a foreign city (Babylon, for example), the destruction of Jerusalem (Isa 24:10-23; Jer 4:11-31), the restoration of Israel from exile, and the coming of the Messiah (Isa 13:10-14:2). Put simply, Jesus was not employing heavily coded language, but the heavenly language of the prophets. “A close study of the similar images of heavenly tumult,” writes Pitre, “shows that Jesus’ forecast stands directly in line with the oracles of the ancient Israelite prophets and early Jewish eschatological writings.”
Secondly, Jesus used this language to describe his approach Passion and death, through which he, the promised Messiah, would deliver his people from tribulation and inaugurate the restoration of Israel. The prophecies of Daniel are essential, for they speak of “the son of man coming in the clouds” (Dan 7:13), a figure Jesus clearly identifies with himself (Mk 13:26; 8:38). The Son of Man will “gather his elect” and lead a new exodus out of sin and death and form the new Israel, the Church, through the new covenant of his blood.
Finally, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple are central events, both historically and theologically, in this epic plan of salvation. Recall that Jesus, in considering the spiritual state of Jerusalem, said, “Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate” (Mt 23:38). This desolation, Pitre argues, refers to the cessation of sacrifice, which is the “abomination of desolation” referred to by Daniel (Dan 9:27; 11:31; 12:11). The sacrifices of the temple, having ended in sacrilege, were fulfilled and replaced by the perfect sacrifice of the Lamb of God, which takes away the sins of the world.
“Just as the first Exodus had been preceded and set in motion by a paschal sacrifice during a time of great trials and plagues,” Pitre explains, “so too Jesus saw his death as setting in motion the great paschal and eschatological trial that would bring about the restoration of Israel.” Today’s reading from Hebrews indicates this trial and restoration is still ongoing, as Jesus “waits until his enemies are made his footstool.” Meanwhile, we worship and serve a risen Lord and look to the return of the Son of Man.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the November 15, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)