Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel
by Kristin Berkey-Abbott
The readings for Sunday, November 15, 2009:
First Reading: Daniel 12:1-3
First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 1:4-20
Psalm: Psalm 16
Psalm (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 2:1-10
Second Reading: Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25
Gospel: Mark 13:1-8
Here we are, back to apocalyptic texts, a rather strange turn just before we launch into Advent (and just so you won't be surprised, those Advent texts can be on the apocalyptic side too). This week's Gospel is the type of text that many Christians use to support their assertion that we're living in the end times, that the rapture is near.
Keep in mind that the idea of rapture is fairly new; most scholars date it to the middle of the 19th century. But Christians have felt besieged since the beginning, and indeed, at certain times throughout the centuries, they have been severely threatened.
Most scholars believe that the book of Mark was written just after a particularly brutal suppression of a Jewish uprising and just before the destruction of the Temple, a time when the empire of Rome made it increasingly difficult to be an alien part of the empire. The Gospel of Mark is the most apocalyptic Gospel, perhaps because it was written when people really expected the end was near (and indeed, in many ways, the end was near). The whole of chapter 13 of Mark is grim indeed. Perhaps the Gospel writer uses such a chapter to launch into the Passion story, to set the mood.
Or maybe the Gospel writer wants to remind us of the cost of following Jesus. Maybe it's the larger cost of existing in the world. Even if we're lucky enough to be born into a stable time period, to be part of a country with a stable government, if we're conscious, it's hard to escape the conclusion that it could all vanish at any moment. And even if we don't suffer on the grand (genocidal) scale, most of us will endure more loss than our younger selves would have believed could be survived.
Before we sink too deeply into depression, we need to remember that Jesus came to give us Good News. And that Good News is that we have each other, and we have a God who loves us, no matter what. If we devote our lives to that love, then we can survive all sorts of betrayal, loss, and persecution.
It's also important to look at the last part of the last sentence of this week's Gospel: "this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs." Birth-pangs. What is being born exactly?
The most positive spin on this bit is to say that the Kingdom of God is being born. We tend to think of the Kingdom of God as referring to Heaven, but if you read all the references to the Kingdom of God, it appears that Jesus isn't talking about Heaven as we know it. In some places, Jesus seems to talk about the Kingdom as already existing, perhaps as Jesus walking amongst us. In other places, the Kingdom of God will come to earth later, in a kind of purifying, redeeming vision. Yet again, we see references to this process already beginning, both with Christ's efforts and with the efforts of his believers.
Those of us who have had children, or who have had relatives and friends who have had children, know that parents have to go through a fierce process to hold that little baby in their arms. Jesus reminds us that the process towards the Kingdom of God can be equally fierce. Jesus reminds us that we must stay alert and aware, but that we need not feel alarmed.