• Deut 12:1-3
• Psa 16:5, 8, 9-10, 11
• Heb 10:11-14, 18
• Mk 13:24-32
Tribulation, affliction, and distress. These aren’t attractive topics, but they are quite real; they are part of our sojourn here on earth. And so Scripture addresses them directly, again and again, as in today’s Gospel reading.
One of the first references in Scripture to tribulation, or distress, is in the book of Deuteronomy, during the course of an overview of God’s covenantal promises to the newly established people of Israel. The people were warned that if they should “act corruptly by fashioning an idol in the form of anything” they would be scattered and taken into exile. That punishment, harsh as it will be, was meant to restore them to true worship and the covenant. “When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and obey his voice…” (Dt 4:30). God is merciful, “he will not fail you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers which he swore to them” (Dt 4:31). Tribulation, then, is always mixed with hope, and it is ultimately resolved through both judgment and mercy.
The prophet Daniel was familiar with tribulation and exile. As a young man, he was taken to Babylon, where he lived until around 538 B.C. His book is a combination of prophecy and apocalyptic writing, making use of cosmic images, dreams, and symbolism to address current trials while looking to a time of liberation and deliverance.
Today’s reading comes from the last and greatest of four visions, which depicts a time of anger (chs 10-11) and a time of the End (ch 12). While the first part focuses on earthly events—namely, the profaning of the Jerusalem temple by Antiocus IV (c. 215-163 BC)—the latter is interested in more heavenly matters. There will be, Daniel wrote, “a time unsurpassed in distress”, from which only those whose names are “written in a book” shall escape, a reference to the book of elect mentioned in Exodus 32 (vs. 32-33). The passage in Daniel 12 is significant for its clear description of a resurrection from the dead, one of the first such references in the Old Testament. Some who “awake” shall live forever, while others will suffer “an everlasting horror and disgrace.”
The reading from the Gospel of Mark is from the Olivet Discourse, and comes after Jesus has entered Jerusalem, inspected the Temple, and rendered judgment (Mk 11:1-25). This passage is called a “little apocalypse”, containing a discourse by Jesus about the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 and the final day of judgment. Just like The Apocalypse, the final book of the New Testament, the little apocalypse contains cosmic (and sometimes bewildering) imagery and prophetic language drawn from the Old Testament. The images of darkened sun and moon, falling stars, and the shaken powers of heaven come from the prophetic rhetoric used by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Amos, and others. These heavenly images are multi-layered, referring to one or more of the following: a day of divine judgment, the destruction of a foreign city, the destruction of Jerusalem (cf 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).
Jesus was not using codes and ciphers, but the heavenly language of the prophets in delivering his message of judgment. However, it was not only judgment but also hope being proclaimed by the Son of Man. His approaching Passion and death would deliver his people from tribulation and initiate the restoration of Israel.
Daniel wrote of “the son of man coming in the clouds” (Dan 7:13), a messianic figure Jesus directly identified with himself (Mk 13:26; 8:38). The Son of Man shall “gather his elect”, lead a new exodus out of sin and death, and form a new Israel, the Church, through the new covenant of his blood. The new high priest is also the new Temple, and he alone “has made perfect those who are being consecrated” (Heb 10:14).
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the November 18, 2015 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
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