As we approach the end of the liturgical year, the gospel reading invites us into the strange imagery of Jewish apocalyptic. As always, it is important to read the text within its literary context, in this case a long discourse on the immediate and long-term future awaiting the believing community.
The discourse draws heavily upon the imagery of the Book of Daniel and of other Jewish writings. Jesus is seated on the Mount of Olives which is associated in the prophecy of Zechariah (14:4) with the ‘day’ of God’s coming in judgement and of God’s victory over the powers of evil. He responds to a question about the timing of the destruction ofJerusalem:
‘When will these things happen and what is the sign…?’ Wars, earthquakes, famines, persecution, family discord and division, threats from false messiahs and false prophets: these and the cosmic upheavals that come in their wake are the ‘birth-pangs’ of the new age.
Much of the suffering described no doubt reflects the experience of Mark’s community in the Roman world of the late 60s or early 70s of the first century. The discourse is intended to give comfort and hope to this persecuted community that God will ultimately win through, despite the suffering and seeming triumph of evil.
It is full of contradictions: read the signs and you will know, but God is actually the only one who knows! These contradictions as well as the ancient cosmology that has Jesus returning on the clouds need not distract the modern and scientifically sophisticated reader from hearing the call to trust in God no matter what. As the discourse unfolds, the disciples are told to be alert, stay awake, watch! There is no room for complacency in Christian life.
Maybe this reading also calls us to greater responsibility for our beautiful planet. The freak storms, the cyclones, and other signs of global warming we have seen in our times might well serve as reminders of the need to attend more carefully to the preservation of God’s creation.