Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
It’s November, the closing weeks of the liturgical year, when those in the northern hemisphere see what had recently appeared so green and full of life now wither and die. We see signs in the trees and know that winter is near.
For those in the United States, it is also post-election season. Despite the predictable posturing of winners and losers alongside quadrennial promises of pragmatic cooperation and “reaching across the aisle,” it’s difficult to find real joy in the just concluded, nearly two-year electoral process that left many feeling like a James Bond martini. I, for one, found little to be stirred by in the ugly accusations and dire predictions that now pass of campaigning.
As grace would have it, our readings take a seasonally appropriate turn, looking beyond “current events,” reminding us that what appears deadly serious now will, soon enough, be revealed as inconsequential. For Christians, this so-called eschatological turn can be difficult to negotiate, and scripture’s use of apocalyptic language – unveiling hidden realities through frightening images and strange events – worsens our collective vertigo.
How do we embrace the goodness of the Creation we see now – a goodness underscored and transformed by the mystery of Incarnation – and look beyond it at the same time? How do we steer between two mistakes – the first, a gnostic rejection of the world inhabited by bodies made in the Divine image while we pine for “our heavenly home,” and the second a slavish obsession with events in the here and now, as if our efforts could ever make things come out right in the end.
Mark 13, variously referred to as the little apocalypse or the eschatological discourse, directs us to the troubling reality of impermanence: materially, socially, and politically. The large stones and buildings the disciples marvel over as they leave the temple were at the center of Herod the Great’s massive urban renewal project in Jerusalem, increasing in size and grandeur the Second Temple and the entire Temple Mount.
Herod, who wanted his greatness revealed in stone for eternity, died around 4 BCE, though the temple project was not completed after Jesus, too, had died. Yet, in 70 AD, Titus, son of Emperor Vespasian, looted, burned, and completely destroyed the temple upon entering Jerusalem during the Great Revolt. Emperor Hadrian’s troops raked over the same stones sixty-five years later, in response to another Jewish rebellion, after which Hadrian banished Jews from Jerusalem, renamed the city Aelia Capitolina, publicly burned Torah scrolls, and placed statues of himself and Jupiter where the Temple once stood. Thus passes the glory of the world.
But never forget that Jesus loved Jerusalem (Luke 13:34 and 19:41-44) and so honored the temple that his single recorded act of violence was against those who abused it (Mark 11:15-17). Furthermore, the poor widow Jesus praises in last Sunday’s gospel (Mark 12:41-44) gave her two coins for the upkeep of the temple. Living eschatologically in a Creation graced by Incarnation is not only difficult to say aloud, it’s complex, contradictory, and often confusing.
For Christians, eschatological awareness reminds us that much, if not all, we assume to be “the way things are” will soon enough vanish, and that taking elections too seriously is, at the very least, a waste of time if not, in fact, idolatry. Who is President of the United States is far less important (in everything that matters) than who is Lord of the Universe. Mark 13 and Revelation 13 are strong antidotes for those intoxicated by misreading Romans 13.
The danger lies in not taking the now seriously enough, of becoming like the dwindling congregation in Babette’s Feast, who turn what should rightly be shared sorrow into resentments and grudges, and willfully ignoring present beauty in a misguided attempt see nothing but the heavenly Jerusalem. We are creatures. Our bodies inhabit a material Creation shared with many other bodies, each one possessed of similar sorrow and joy, suffering and liberation. We share a world that we can and must respond to, even though we know that we are not, nor will we ever be, in control. After the initial blow to the ego, that realization can be quite liberating.
This is the mystery we live into as we attempt to follow Jesus, the first century Palestinian Jew who loved and honored the temple he knew would not last, and who proclaimed an inbreaking Kingdom of God while neither revolting against Imperial domination nor proposing to reform the Roman Senate. No wonder so many Jews rejected this man who, whatever else he may have been, certainly wasn’t the messiah they were expecting. No wonder you and I need help. That’s why we’re called to support one another to live in joyful hope of what we can’t yet see.
This is the mystery we live into in this season of natural dying, in this time when a country’s politicians temporarily set aside campaign trail shenanigans for the power struggles played out in grand buildings of limestone and marble. This is the mystery we live into in a hurting and beautiful world, as we come to the end of the liturgical year and into the start of another, when the language and liturgy of Eschaton seamlessly blends into Incarnation.
This is where we live. This is where we die. This is where, though God’s grace, we are called again to life.