Today’s gospel reading is rather apocalyptic in style. “In those days, after the time of distress, the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will come falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (13:24-25).
Apocalyptic material is often associated with the ‘end of times’. The quote above certainly creates an image of a time when all that we know ceases to exist; all that sustains us comes to end. So, perhaps, as we approach the end of the Church’s liturgical year, and our salvation seems us uncertain as ever, apocalyptic writing is appropriate for readings at Mass.
An issue with apocalyptic writing is working out what is literal and what is simply imagery. Apocalyptic material can certainly be taken too literally and we start looking for babies with ‘666’ stamped on their head. The dangers associated with taking apocalyptic material too literally should never be dismissed lightly. If we are always looking for the devil made incarnate then we risk overlooking the evil that is around all the time and so fail to confront that evil.
What apocalyptic writing always does is to resonate with the experiences of the people who hear it. Shortly before this section of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (13:1-2). The audience for whom Mark writes his Gospel already know that, and for many of them the destruction of the Temple was a momentous event that shook them to the core. They may very well did worry that they were living in the ‘end of times’. The destruction of the Temple is akin to a ‘darkened sun’.
People going through difficult times are always more likely to identify with apocalyptic language. The prophets exhort us to look after the traveller for good reason. The epitome of that traveller must be the refugee. Refugees tend to be an unhappy lot. They are not moving to somewhere new and interesting. They are leaving everything they know for something they have no knowledge of at all. Many are close to feeling that their world really has come to an end. Providing refugees with platitudes provides no solace: that all will be well in the end; that in a few years they will be running successful businesses in the UK.
For those who feel more secure in their situation apocalyptic has less resonance. The present age possesses a large degree of self-confidence. Perhaps it is an age not quite as self-confident as it used to be, but it is still fairly full of itself. So it is not surprising that to most, excluding the crazy talking about the end of the world is not very popular.
Ultimately, though, the ‘end of times’ will concern us all. We may be lucky enough never to share the experiences of a refugee or any other great suffering, but our life will come to an end. It is perhaps in pondering death that apocalyptic resonates with everyone.
In another sense, however, the ‘end of times’ is again relevant to us all. Time is part of existence, our existence, and outside that existence there is no time. The ‘end of times’ and the end of existence equate. When existence ends, time ends, and so in a sense the end is immanent for us all, no matter when in history we live, for the chain of history comes to an end for all as an instant.
Resonance, with people’s uncertainties and fears, however, is just one aspect of apocalyptic writing. Another aspect is the encouragement to hope. “Then too he will send the angels to gather his chosen from the four winds, from the ends of the world to ends of heaven” (13:27).
For refugees, those living in war zones, the homeless, the ill, and the dying it is right that much of their attention is directed towards their present suffering. But no matter how it may seem, that is not how things will end.
Refugees will find a new home, as will the homeless. Wars will come to an end. The ill will be cured. The dying will have new life. Salvation, life with God, is there for all.