Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Dn 12:1-3; Heb 10:11-14, 18; Mk 13:24-32
Back in the late sixties there was a film and a hit song entitled, "What's it about, Alfie?" I can't remember much about the plot of the movie, but I do remember the melody of the song. The basic idea was that Alfie, the main character, led a dissolute and purposeless life and after a series of relationships went bad, he had to ask himself: "What's it all about?"
Still a good question and from time to time, we might ask it of ourselves. What IS it all about? What is the ultimate purpose of our lives? And what is our destiny and, for that matter, what is the destiny of the human race itself? It may not be the kind of question we can afford to ask ourselves every day, but from time to time - and especially in the wake of a crisis or loss - that question is posed for us.
It is, in fact, the question that underlies the readings for this coming Sunday, the last Sunday in ordinary time before we celebrate the great concluding feast of "Christ the King." In many ways the Bible is concerned both about "origins" and "ends". Where did we come from? While science properly considers the complex and long evolutionary process that led to the emergence of human life, the Bible turns its focus to the ultimate source of life in the first place. With strong consistency, the Bible points to a loving and compassionate God as the source of all life. God creates the world and the human person not on a whim but in a burst of intense love. In creating the human person, male and female, God creates the human as image of the divine being, built, like God, to receive and express love.
In the biblical vision of life, there is a strong similarity between the origin and the "end." The final destiny of creation and of the human family is to complete the circle begun at creation: to find loving communion with God and with each other in the heart of God. This conviction is expressed in various ways and with varying degrees of clarity in the Bible. The first reading, from the Book of Daniel states that some of those who "sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake...and live forever". They will shine brightly "like the stars forever." This biblical book was written at a time of great crisis, some 150 years before the birth of Christ. Israel was under severe persecution from the Seleucids - a Greek dynasty that ruled in the region of what is present day Syria. The temple was desecrated and a crushing tax had been imposed on the Jewish people. Yet hope rose from the ashes in the form of the Maccabean revolt which would ultimately overthrow their oppressors and inaugurate a century of self-rule on the part of the Jews. The conviction that God would not abandon them and would give life even to those who "were asleep in the Earth's dust" was more powerful than any threat of death.
The Psalms often turn to the "big picture" questions - what is life all about? Will God abandon us? The selection for this Sunday expresses a similar sense of hope about the ultimate triumph of life over death. "...You will not abandon my soul to the netherworld, nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption." It concludes with exuberant confidence in God's abiding love for the people of Israel: "You will show me the path to life, fullness of joys in your presence, the delights at your right hand forever."
But it is the gospel reading, taken from the Gospel of Mark, that poses the question of the ultimate destiny of the world in dramatic terms. This selection comes from Chapter 13 where Jesus and his disciples are sitting on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, gazing across the Kidron valley at the staggering beauty of the great Temple built by King Herod. When Jesus startles his disciples by predicting that this magnificent structure with its huge stones and gold ornamentation - one of the true wonders of the world at the time - would eventually be torn down, they ask in amazement: "When will all this take place and what will be the signs of the end of the world?"
Jesus' response takes the form of a soliloquy, part of which is our gospel reading. The created world is finite and the end ultimately comes: the darkening of the sun, the moon no longer giving its light, the stars falling from the sky. All of these natural elements were especially important to the people of the ancient world where artificial lighting was sparse: ships charted their course by means of the stars; their calendar was marked by the seasons of the moon; the sun gave them warmth and light. But even in the midst of this chaotic period, God's loving presence does not abandon humanity. The Gospel discourse tells of the "Son of Man" - the triumphant Risen Christ - coming to his people with "great power and glory." In a majestic scene, Christ sends out his angels to gather his people from the "four winds" and from the "end of the earth to the end of the sky". In Mark's account the world concludes not with utter destruction or with a terrifying judgment - but with a gathering of people from all across the world, a gathering into the embrace of the Son of Man, the very one who in the gospel account will give his life on the cross in service for the many.
What are we to do in the meantime? How can we be prepared for our final destiny? Mark's Gospel discourages idle speculation about the precise timetable. The Christian's attention should not be turned inward but outward toward the world itself - announcing the good news of the gospel, healing as Jesus himself healed. In the passage that immediately follows this gospel selection, Jesus admonishes his disciples to "stay awake", i.e., to be alert and ready for the signs of God's presence in the world around us, ready to greet him when he comes again.
Some well-intentioned Christians spend time trying to calculate the end of the world; others think it is best to ignore a world that is doomed for destruction and prefer to live in anxiety and fear of the doom to come. But this is not the spirit of the readings we hear today. Instead, we should continue to be fully alive and alert, ready for the moments of grace that may come our way unexpectedly. In describing the "Year of Faith" that is the theme of this year, Pope Benedict put it this way: "Faith grows" the Pope said, "when it is lived as an experience of love received and when it is communicated as an experience of grace and joy." From the vantage point of Christian faith, there is no place for dread about human destiny.
President, Professor of New Testament Studies
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