A New Year, a New Gospel, Apocalypse Now
On this New Year’s Day of the Church, we begin Advent, and our Gospels come from Mark. But we don’t start at the beginning of Mark; instead we begin in chapter 13, with Mark’s description of the end times. This counter-intuitive start comes from the church’s custom of connecting the two comings of Jesus – his incarnation in history, and his final coming in glory.
This chapter is often called Mark’s “Little Apocalypse,” because it paints a fantastic picture of the time when Jesus comes again in glory to wrap things up in the world. It’s not meant to be taken literally. It points to an experience beyond our ken: “The Son of Man coming in clouds… [sending] angels to gather his elect from the four winds….” This is not everyday language; it’s suggestive of a dramatic culmination of the world as we know it.
But Mark’s Gospel is not really focused on these “end times,” according to scholar John Dominic Crossan. Mark insists that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and we must respond – now! We must repent and believe in the Gospel (Mark1:14-15). Further, Crossan asserts: “The Kingdom is at hand or near in the sense not of promise but of presence and that its power is made visible in the commonality of shared miracle [healings] and shared meal.”
I’ve always had trouble with the idea of a dramatic (some would say violent) culmination of the world by God. Jesus indicates in today’s passage that his own generation would see this happen (Mark 13:30), but they did not. I don’t believe in a vengeful, punishing God who will reward a few elect, and condemn the rest (of us) to damnation.
What I do believe is that we are invited – urged! – by Jesus to experience God’s presence now. Jesus points to the fig tree sprouting leaves: sign of the fullness that the tree already embodies now. God is present now, in every healing, every sign of growth, every reconciliation, every shared meal…especially the Eucharist.
Mark’s Gospel is well-known for being in a hurry – the word “immediately” appears dozens of times. But I don’t think that means he wants to rush us into the future. Rather, I think he means us to focus on the now, “the fierce urgency of now,” has some have put it. That’s really all we have. And that’s where we’ll find and know God if we stay awake. JBM