Last revised: January 17, 2021
Click Reload or Refresh for latest version
1ST SUNDAY OF ADVENT – YEAR B
RCL: Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Cor. 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
RoCa: Isaiah 63:16-17, 19; 64:2-7; 1 Cor. 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
Happy New Year! As we begin Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary in 2014, I find the Gospel Reading ideal not only as an opportunity to introduce the year of Mark’s Gospel but also as a way of understanding why we have this genre called “Gospel” in the first place — resulting in the sermon “Mark’s Gospel as Fulfilling the Way of Prophecy.”
1. Paul D. Hanson, both The Dawn of Apocalyptic (Fortress Press) and his commentary on Isaiah 40-66 in the Interpretation series (John Knox Press). He comments on 63:7-64:11 on pp. 79-100 in the first and pp. 235-241 in the second. Hanson’s thesis in The Dawn… is interesting to Girardians. He theorizes that the writings of third Isaiah come out of a community of Levitical priests who were in leadership in Palestine during the exile but then were deposed by the Zadokite priesthood upon their return from exile. While Second Isaiah’s are tightly organized writings, perhaps by the same person, and full of hope for the people of Israel during the latter years of the exile, the writings of Third Isaiah reflect a growing sacrificial crisis: conflict within the community, a growing apocalyptic perspective, and a critical stance toward the institutions of the Sacred. If Hanson is right about the community, then these writings reflect the view of the victims during a sacrificial crisis — which explains why they are so widely used to support the Christian perspective.
Reflections and Questions
1. The passage raises questions about God’s seeming absence from God’s people. Where are you, Lord? When are you coming? Come now! A good text for the First Sunday in Advent.
The question for mimetic theory, though, might be: Is God really absent, or does God appear so because we are looking for the wrong God? Mimetic theory helps us to appreciate how deep-seated is our idolatry as an anthropological reality. Looking for God in the wrong places, from the wrong perspectives, is built into hominization itself to the point that we need to become new creatures. Hominization must begin again from the point of the cross and resurrection of Christ. Or, in Pauline language, the advent of a Second Adam into this world must begin hominization again for all of us who are formed according to the First Adam.
If we are looking for the God of the Sacred who will come with sufficient might to violently liberate us from our enemies and exact revenge, then, yes, that God is absent. But if we are looking for the God of victims, then that God has been with us all the time; one simply has to look in the right place.
Hanson (commentary, pp. 237-38) cites Elie Wiesel‘s Night. A child hangs from an SS gallows and the question goes up, “Where is God?” Wiesel writes: “And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is . . . He is hanging here on this gallows.'” (Night, Bantam Books, 1982, pp. 61-62.) I used this passage in 1996 to explore this matter of God’s absence/presence, in a sermon entitled “Knowing Where to Look for God.”
In 2020 there are unfortunately so many examples of suffering where we might lament and question God’s absence. But there is one in particular that millions have witnessed: a police officer ending George Floyd‘s life with his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes. Where is God? God is there with George Floyd and all who witness his murder, which means that new life might spring forth in a movement of greater justice for all.
2. There is also the element of blaming God for the dilemma: God has hardened his peoples’ hearts. Which God is it that hardens peoples’ hearts? Isn’t it the God of the Sacred who constantly is pulling us into the sphere of the Sacred and putting a veil over our eyes? Again, it makes a difference which God we are addressing: the God of our own making, i.e., the God of the Sacred, or the true God.
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong; contains a wholistic reading of 1 Corinthians in the section “The Pauline Ecclesial Hypostasis,” pp. 175-177. Alison twice references the following essay:
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, “A Girardian Interpretation of Paul: Rivalry, Mimesis and Victimage in the Corinthian Correspondence,” Semeia 33 (1985), pp. 65-81. A feature that Hamerton-Kelly lifts up is the fact that Corinth was a center of the Dionysian cult, an important foil for Girard — first in Violence and the Sacred, but also later in his treatment of Nietzsche (many places).
3. James Alison, Raising Abel, chap. 6, “The Apocalyptic Imagination and the Delayed Parousia.” In terms of the Advent theme and questions about the various senses of the coming of the Messiah, the best Girardian examination of the relevant passages comes in this chapter, dealing with 1 Corinthians specifically on pp. 121-22. Alison uses the phrase “apocalyptic imagination” to designate an earlier form of Jewish thinking about the end-times which is still stuck within various dualistic thinking, such as us-them but also in terms of time, present age and age to come. With Jesus the Messiah those dualities are transformed into non-dualistic thinking, which Alison calls the “eschatological imagination.” Alison writes,
Where time is bent away from eternity, there cannot but be a duality of opposition between this age and the next, and the irruption of God into the human story can only be violent, bringing to its end the present age and beginning a new one. However, where the heavenly reality of the crucified and risen victim is already present to the apostolic group, allowing the beginnings of a human life and sociality which are not marked by death, but whose members are free to live a life of self-giving in imitation of Jesus thanks to their faith in the death-less nature of God, then a continuity is already coming about between this age and the next. Human time itself, an unalienable dimension of the physical creatureliness of the human being, has begun to become capable of sharing in life without end. (127)
4. N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians, pp. 1-5. Wright centers his comments on the fact that Paul’s subject matter in this letter is clear from this opening paragraph: Paul names Jesus eight times in nine verses. In context, then, Paul’s anticipation of the day of the Lord is part of his wholistic focus on Jesus:
God called [the Corinthians] in the past, God equips them in the present, and God will complete the whole process in the future. World history, and the story of the Christian life, has a shape, and Jesus is its shaper at every point. Just as a runner sprinting along the track leans forward to go faster and to get to the finishing line quicker, so the Christian must always be leaning forwards towards God’s finishing line, ‘eagerly waiting for our Lord, King Jesus to be revealed.’ There is coming a day – like ‘the day of the Lord’ in the Old Testament, only more so – when the hidden truth about the world will be unveiled; this truth will turn out to be a person, and the person will turn out to be Jesus. That’s why it’s the central Christian badge or sign to ‘call on him,’ to pray to the father through him, to learn to love him, to know his friendship and love throughout our lives, to have his name always in our hearts and often on our lips. (4-5)
For more on Wright’s view of Paul as having an “inaugurated eschatology,” see The Resurrection of the Son of God, pp. 216ff.
5. Douglas Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics, chap. 7, “Defending Resurrection.” Campbell has a similar view as Wright, that for Paul eschatology has already been inaugurated by the resurrection; but he also proposes that here Paul’s thinking might be restricting by ancient worldviews. We might supplement Paul’s thinking about resurrection in terms of modern physics and understandings about the relativity of time.
Reflections and Questions
1. V. 7: “as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This phrase is what rings out the Advent theme, voicing Paul’s anticipation of a “Second Coming” of Christ, a “day of the Lord.” Has that day of Parousia been delayed? It depends on whether one’s experience of time is dualistic and linear. See the resources above.
1. V. 26, hyios tou anthrōpou, “Son of Man.” This note is reshaped for the context of the Gospel of Mark from a similar note in Christ the King A.
Much has been written on this phrase, since it is Jesus’s primary self-designation in the Synoptic Gospels — 30 times in Matthew, 14 in Mark, 25 in Luke. But it is even prominent in John — where Jesus uses other self-designations, most notably the “I am” sayings — appearing 13 times in the ‘rogue’ Gospel, too.
Background: “Son of Man” appears in Ezekiel a number of times as a translation of ben Adam (translated as “Son of Man” in the KJV but simply as “Mortal” in the NRSV), primarily as God’s way of addressing the prophet when delivering significant visions (such as the ‘dry bones’ vision in Ez. 37). Scholars largely agree today that the significance of “Son of Man” in the Gospels comes from Daniel 7:13, the appearance in a vision of a kebar enash in the Aramaic, a human one, in contrast to the four beasts that have preceded it. Here “Son of Man” has a representative connotation. The beasts represent oppressive human orders — empires. The Son of Man represents how human beings are truly meant to live, a kingdom according to the original design of the Creator, the Ancient One. Daniel 7 is the quintessential biblical vision of oppressive human reigns giving way to a truly human way to reign:
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14)
In First Century Palestine the Book of Daniel held a place among Jews that can be compared to the place of the Book of Revelation today for many Christians — even, perhaps, the troubling aspects of often misinterpreting it as a triumphalistic hope in a divine violence to conquer one’s enemies. It epitomized their hope of a reign of peace. Increasingly, scholars are coming to see that this fits well with Jesus’s basic message of the coming of the kingdom of God. In designating himself as the “Son of Man,” Jesus was expressing confidence that he represented the coming of God’s way to reign in the world, a way that is truly human, a way that God the Creator designed for us from the beginning.
The more recent trend in scholarship also tends to correct a mistake of earlier scholarship (one that is still prominent in many circles). Earlier modern scholarship tended to view “Son of Man” as expressing a hope for the “parousia,” the so-called Second Coming of Jesus. Jesus, or the early church putting these views in Jesus’s mouth, was looking ahead to a time of return, when the reign of God would be fully established. Hopes of a Second Coming are certainly a part of Christian hopes, but scholars are increasingly saying that that’s not what Jesus is referring to with the designation of Son of Man. Yes, many of the Son of Man sayings are in the future tense, looking ahead to when the Son of Man comes. But this is Jesus looking ahead to the moment in his life that inaugurates the coming of God’s reign of peace. It is Jesus looking ahead to his Passion and Resurrection. In short, it has everything to do with the significance of his First Coming, not a Second Coming.
There is a climactic moment in the Synoptic Gospels when “Son of Man” becomes emphatically in the present, not just the future. It is the moment that Jesus is judged by the Sanhedrin. Mark’s version, the final and truly climactic instance of “Son of Man” in his Gospel, is:
Jesus said, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.'” (Mark 14:62)
“I am” is emphatically in the present tense. So the use of the future tense with it, “you will see,” conveys continuing action that begins immediately and continues on into the future. In short, the future is beginning now. And what will they see? Precisely the vision of Daniel 7 coming true: a truly human reign of peace coming from God, pictured in the present tense as seated next to God, coming on clouds.
Ched Myers, in his excellent study of Mark “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship (see more below), addresses these issues of interpreting Mark 13, using the translation “Human One” for hyios tou anthrōpou:
Traditional theology has assumed these refer to a time beyond the bounds of both story and history — the “Second Coming.” But in fact this moment is narrated in Mark’s story.
The three ‘predictions’ of the Human One’s advent parallel the three ‘portents’ of the Human One’s death at the hands of the authorities (see Chapter 11). Moreover, they each assert that someone “will see” this spectacle: the disciples, the powers, and the Sanhedrin, respectively. As we shall see, “some of the disciples” (15:40) and the authorities (15:31) do in fact “see” the crucifixion of Jesus (see Chapter 24). Do the powers witness it as well? As Jesus hangs on the cross, at least one of the cosmic signs of 13:24 is indeed realized: “There was darkness over the whole land” (15:33; see Chapter 24).
This is the heart of Mark’s apocalyptic argument. The Human One’s death and his revelation “in power and glory” are the same moment. It is through his demonstration of the nonviolent power of the cross that the powers are overthrown. But it takes the bifocal vision of apocalyptic faith to “see” this (see Chapter 11). Although the early church understood this “mystery” of the cross (see 1 Corinthians 2:7f, Colossians 2:13-15), the modern church has not. (pp. 172ff.)
If you are interested in more research on “Son of Man,” I have been most interested in, and found most helpful, N.T. Wright‘s reading of the Gospels in this regard. He has been very consistent over his career to reinterpret the trend set by Schweizer and Bultmann to read the Jesus (Schweitzer) or the early church (Bultmann) as expecting an imminent return of Christ, or Second Coming. No, says Wright, Jesus’s apocalyptic element is looking ahead to the significance of the cross and resurrection as vindicating his prophetic ministry. Jesus wasn’t wrong about a Second Coming. On the contrary, he was right about the consequences for his people if they didn’t heed the significance of his first coming — namely, he was right about the Roman-Jewish War of 66-70 C.E. and the utter destruction of Jerusalem at its climax. It’s the kind of judgment anticipated in Mark 13. Nations that don’t follow God’s path to peace in King Jesus end in destruction.
So Wright is also consistent in his reading “Son of Man” passages and their connection to Daniel. You will find this way of reading already in his first “big book” The New Testament and the People of God (1992); see especially ch. 10 on “The Hope of Israel, and specifically pp. 291-97, a section on Son of Man and Daniel 7. And the consistent message is carried right on through his more recent book on the Gospels How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (2012), perhaps my favorite book of his; see especially pp. 190-96 for a section on Daniel 7.
This way of understanding the “Son of Man” is also a central Girardian theme as elaborated in one of the books that spurred me to start this website, James Alison‘s Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination. Alison portrays Jesus’s transformation of the apocalyptic thinking, where the hope is in God’s ultimate sacred violence, to an eschatological thinking, where the nonviolent God is rescuing us human beings from our own violence. Relevant passages on the “Son of Man” in Raising Abel can be found on pages 86-87, 102-3, 111, as a prelude to the remainder of the book beginning in chapter 6, “The Apocalyptic Imagination and the Delayed Parousia,” in which he directly engages the theme in modern scholarship (from Schweitzer and Bultmann) of the delayed Second Coming. Here is the core of Alison’s position (where this passage is also cited):
The question then, is this: when Jesus talked of his coming and of the end, was he simply enclosed within the apocalyptic imagination? That is, did he accept the dualities proper to the apocalyptic imagination as part of what he was preaching and announcing? It will come as no surprise to you if I say that, as I see it, he was not. It seems to me that what we have with Jesus is precisely and deliberately the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. What I have called the eschatological imagination is nothing other than the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. That is, Jesus used the language and the imagery which he found around him to say something rather different. There are various ways of glimpsing this in the Gospel, for example in the contrast which is made between the preaching of John the Baptist, which does indeed fit within the apocalyptic imagination, and that of Jesus. Maybe we can see this better if we draw up to it in an indirect way: that is, Jesus’ attitude with respect to the social and the cosmic dualities would already be a good indication of his attitude with respect to the temporal duality.
It is evident that Jesus did not simply accept the social duality of his time, the division between good and evil, pure and impure, Jews and non-Jews. In fact, his practice and his teaching add up to a powerful subversion of this duality. Neither did he accept the cosmic duality, as can be seen in his announcing the coming about now of the Kingdom of God, and, for example, in his teaching his disciples to ask, in their prayer to God:
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
His practice of, and teaching about, celibacy lived now for the kingdom of God — for the children of the resurrection neither marry nor are given in marriage — would be another indication of the same thing. So that it would be very surprising if, breaking as he did with the apocalyptic scheme in these areas, we must imagine that his teaching concerning the temporal duality and the coming of the end remained perfectly within the duality which we have seen, leaving it intact.
There is then a good prima facie reason for thinking that the subversion of the apocalyptic imagination by what I have called Jesus’ eschatological imagination is something proper to Jesus rather than something invented by a disconcerted early community in the face of the indefinite postponement of the Day. This prima facie evidence deepens somewhat when we discover that at the root of the subversion which Jesus was making of these dualities, the criterion of the victim is to be found. Jesus offers a prophetic criterion in terms of ethical demands that are capable of being carried out as the basis of his subversion of these dualities: the social duality is redefined in terms of the victim, so that the victim is the criterion for if one is a sheep or a goat (Matt. 25), or if one is a neighbor (Luke 10); it is victims and those who live precariously who are to be at the centre of the new victim people, to whom belongs the kingdom of God which is arriving (Matt. 5-6). No one can be surprised that this insistence, more in the line of the prophetic imagination than the apocalyptic, comes also to be subversive of the cosmic and temporal dualities. It is thus that the forgiving victim, the crucified and risen one, comes to be, himself, the presence of the kingdom in the here and now. (pp. 125-26)
Finally, in Year B Mark’s ‘little apocalypse’ follows directly upon the ending of Year A and its concluding three weeks from Matthew 25. In recent years, I’ve found it helpful to read Matthew 25 together with Matthew 24, Matthew’s parallel to Mark 13. See my webpage, “Nuechterlein on Jesus as Fulfilling the ‘Son of Man’ Prophecy in Matthew’s Gospel.”
2. Mark is selective about his audience for these apocalyptic sayings. Mark 13 begins with a larger groups of disciples who receive the prophecy of the temple’s destruction, but then we read this: “When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, . . .” (Mark 13:3). The rest of the chapter is spoken to this select group of four disciples. See the James Alison video homily below for more on the significance of this.
3. V. 33, “when the time will come” (NRSV). The Greek is actually pote ho kairos estin. The King James gets it right: “when the time is.” All the recent translations get it wrong with “when the time will come” — “is” not “will come.”
4. V. 35, “keep awake,” grēgoreite in the Greek. This is a meaningful week for those named Gregory.
5. V. 35, erchetai, “is coming.” Following up on the v. 33 note, even when we get the actual word “come,” it is still present tense, not future: “when the master of the house is coming.” The NRSV still renders it “will come.” (The RSV set the trend by incorrectly rendering “will come” in both verses.)
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 35-40. (Hamerton-Kelly’s commentary on Mark, written from the perspective of Girardian “mimetic theory” will be a constant over the next year.) H-K begins his commentary on Mark’s gospel at chapter 11, the confrontation with the institutions of the Sacred centered around the Temple in Jerusalem. Ch. 13 brings Jesus’ teachings regarding these institutions to a climax as he predicts their collapse. It is a mixture of general apocalyptic language about judgment day with more specific references to the fall of Jerusalem and the Jewish-Roman War. H-K lays this out nicely. Most notable, I think, is his closing paragraph (p. 40):
It is remarkable that among all the apocalyptic imagery of this discourse there is not one claim, that the tribulations to befall humanity in the messianic apocalyptic history and the ultimate eschaton are expressions of the vengeance of God. Rather, the suffering is to be caused by wars, frauds, charlatans, natural catastrophes, misunderstandings and persecutions. These are the sadly predictable human failings that cause human misery without any divine intervention. In fact, the one clear reference to divine intervention has God shortening the tribulation for the sake of his elect. There is, therefore, a significant omission of the divine vengeance from a traditional apocalyptically styled passage, and that confirms our thesis that the generative energy of the Gospel is the opposite of the Sacred. Even though traditional imagery is used, the traditional content has been modified so as to remove the idea of the divine wrath and vengeance. The wrath is the suffering we inflict on ourselves and each other within the order of the GMSM. [Note: H-K’s “GMSM” is an acronym he uses for: Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism.]
2. Two excellent commentaries on Mark — which are not written specifically from the perspective of mimetic theory but are compatible with it because of sensitivity to representing the view of the victim — are from Ched Myers. The first, Binding the Strong Man (Orbis Books, 1988), is an in-depth scholarly work which uses a blend of Narrative Criticism and Sociological Criticism; and it was written over a period of years of doing bible studies among the poor of Latin and South America.
Structurally, he notes that there are only two ‘sermons’ of substantial length in Mark: ch. 4 & 13. And each features a keyword: “Listen!” in ch. 4 and “Watch!” in ch. 13. This comes from Mark’s prominent usage of the quote from Isaiah 6 regarding people who have ears but cannot hear and eyes but cannot see. Disciples are called to hear in the opening chapters, to listen to the preaching and teaching of Good News, climaxed by the healing of a deaf person in ch. 7. Ch. 8 begins the move toward the cross in which disciples are called to watch and see. The famous section in 8-10 that contains three passion predictions is flanked by two healings of blind men. The sermon in ch. 13 brings this to a climax under the keyword “Watch!” In the next chapter, the narrative will find Jesus specifically asking his disciples to watch with him in the Garden of Gethsemane — and, of course, they fall asleep. But the linking of this call-word is significant: in watching for the traditional signs of Judgment Day (ch. 13) the disciples only need to watch the signs of the next several days (chs. 14-16). What they are about to witness will be the revealing of the Son of Man.
The second of Myers commentaries is a distillation of Binding the Strong Man, written with parish Bible studies in mind., for which he teamed with Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Stuart Taylor to write: “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship. I highly recommend this book as a preaching resource on Mark, as well. For this passage, see Chapter 20, “Revolutionary Patience.” In the section pointed toward preaching, he notes how Mark 13 is expressive of the crises we face today, but also how we many modern folks find ways to not face the pain and suffering. It can be different for people of faith:
From the perspective of the gospel, to experience this pain and sadness is to enter into the agony of Christ. In communities of faith these feelings can be validated and channeled. Together we name the pain of the world and lift it up to God in prayer. By finding the strength together to face the brokenness of our world we encourage each other to move through it.
In prayer we rediscover that the human family is connected by more than just currents of matter and energy; by more than just electronic networks, information systems, markets, and policies; by more even than our common human instincts and longings. As children of God we are intrinsically connected to the Divine Being who created us and who is moved with compassion in the face of our suffering.
But the reign of God will go far beyond a revolution of the soul. The reign of God will bring about a radical transformation of the social order itself. All hierarchies of unjust privilege will be overturned: The first shall be last and the last shall be first. The gentle will inherit the earth; those who mourn will celebrate. The margin becomes the center: the despised outcast now sits at the seat of honor at the divine banquet. The crippled and sick are healed; the homeless and sojourner called home; the orphan and widow are reunited. The abused child will dwell in safety; the poor and the hungry will be given abundance. The oppressed will taste the precious liberty of God. And the rich, the indifferent, the powerbrokers, and the oppressors of this world will weep and gnash their teeth.
3. René Girard. In the first book in which Girard wrote about the Judeo-Christian scriptures, Things Hidden, he immediately took up the Christian theme of Apocalypse, represented in a text such as Mark 13. Most notable are Girard’s segments on Apocalypse in Things Hidden. There is a section entitled “Apocalypse and Parable” (pp. 185-190; excerpt) and “Science and Apocalypse” (pp. 253-262), the latter segment preceded by a lead-in to discussing Apocalypse called “The Sacrificial Reading and History” (pp. 249-253). I highly recommend reading these. Apocalyptic also became the main subject of Girard’s last full book, Battling to the End. For more on Girard and a Girardian perspective on Christian Apocalypse see the opening comments for St. Michael and All Angels Day.
4. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, has a section entitled “Apocalypse” at the outset of his book, pp. 14-16. It has to do with the very title of his book:
The word “apocalypse” means “unveiling.” What, then, is veiled, the unveiling of which can have apocalyptic consequences? The answer is: violence. Veiled violence is violence whose religious or historical justifications still provide it with an aura of respectability and give it a moral and religious monopoly over any “unofficial” violence whose claim to “official” status it preempts. Unveiled violence is apocalyptic violence precisely because, once shorn of its religious and historical justifications, it cannot sufficiently distinguish itself from the counter-violence it opposes. Without benefit of religious and cultural privilege, violence simply does what unveiled violence always does: it incites more violence. In such situations, the scope of violence grows while the ability of its perpetrators to reclaim that religious and moral privilege diminishes. The reciprocities of violence and counter-violence threaten to spin completely out of control.
5. James Alison. Mark 13 is a primary text for reflecting on our experience of September 11, 2001, in the essay “Contemplation in a world of violence: Girard, Merton, Tolle,” a talk prepared for a day retreat with Sebastian Moore, organized by the Thomas Merton Society, held at Downside Abbey, Bath, November 3, 2001. This is my favorite piece on that terrible day and its aftermath. It was later edited and published by The Other Side, May-June 2002, pages 16-19, 38), under the title “Looking Elsewhere.” Finally, it was published in Alison’s book On Being Liked, as ch. 1.
Alison also addresses this passage in a video homily for Advent 1B; in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. (Note: the Catholic version of this lection begins at vs. 33 rather than vs. 24 in the RCL.) He begins with an important note about the audience of these apocalyptic sayings, Mark 13:3: “When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately. . . .” The first part of this discourse, then, explains the chaos and catastrophes that will occur as the sacrificial apparatus is taken away by his self-sacrifice, weakening the containment field on mimetic violence. It will be difficult to remain focused amongst the dramatic distractions, the fake sources of meaning. (We currently face similar distractions!)
Modern translation get vs. 33 wrong. It should be “when the time is,” not “when the time will come.” The next verse proceeds to tell us not about something that will come, but about a man going on a journey. This wider passage about what will come is based on a certain sort of going. The man is going on a journey and putting his servants in charge. Before he goes, Jesus is putting these four disciples in charge. The “doorkeeper,” for example, must be on the watch. Peter is the keeper of the keys, the binding and loosing of forgiveness.
In the next several days, these disciples will all fail to keep watch. From Thursday evening to Friday morning they will each fail to see the coming of the Son of Man as a certain kind of going — namely, a being handed over into the hands of men, as he predicted three times earlier. So Jesus ends by widening the call to keep watch: “And what I say to you I say to all: Watch” (Mark 13:37). The wonder of the Gospel is “mercy for screw-ups.” Jesus has set-up these disciples to fail so that they can share their failure on the way to sharing the gradually getting-it-right with others. It is a very difficult thing to get right: to train our eyes for the coming of one whose being is going out. Example: a 70-year-old nurse in the United States who came out of retirement to train other nurses for Covid, and then succumbed to the disease herself. In her going, she received her coming. She received herself in the act of giving herself away. This is the kind of Advent preparing we spend our lives at, thanks to the penitent failed disciples who gradually learn to train their eyes properly on the coming that is a going.
Alison concludes his homily with reflections on the First Reading (for which the Catholic is once again slightly different than the RCL, Isaiah 63:16-17, 19; 64:2-7 instead of 64:1-9). The prophet is longing for not just forgiveness, but for the presence of the one who can set us on the right path. It’s the passion behind the longing for the coming of Jesus. We more typically look for a Messiah who bring vengeance on our enemies. We instead get one who fails at vengeance and gives us forgiveness. This is the difficulty of training our eyes for the coming. Advent is the time of learning that the one-who-comes comes in gentleness and precariousness so that we can perceive his coming in his giving himself away.
6. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation; Mark 13 is cited on pages 62, 90, and 186. On pages 62-62, for example, Schwager gives a nice summary of a Girardian perspective on Christian apocalyptic:
Besides the judgment sayings and the pronouncements of woe, the problematic of violence is found especially in the so-called apocalyptic texts. Since J. Weiss and A. Schweitzer, many have seen in them impressive evidence that Jesus was trapped in very time-bound and unrealistic ideas. Thus they thought it necessary to demythologize his sayings in this vein from the higher standpoint of modern knowledge and to reinterpret them. But are the apocalyptic texts in fact so mythological? They speak of a shaking of the forces of heaven and a coming of the Son of Man on the clouds (Mark 13:24-27 and parallels). Apart from these brief but ultimately austere words, there are only descriptions of things that happen on this earth. There is talk of leading astray and poverty, of wars, rebellions, and famine, of strife in families and above all of persecutions (Mark 13:3-20 and parallels). (1)Does the content of this part of the apocalyptic texts, which, compared with the description of the (cosmic) end-events, is much more comprehensive and also clearly distinguished from those in the Gospels, (2) not largely coincide with what has continually happened in the history of Israel? Do the apocalyptic texts contain in essentials anything different from a description of those forces which — in contrast to the new community in the kingdom of God — actually dominate history? If it has often been thought that the apocalyptic speeches would betray a mythological worldview, one can also turn this suspicion around and ask those who judge in this way whether they are not continuing to hold on to marginal elements and losing sight of the crucial utterances. Does not the way in which apocalyptic texts have been treated over the last decades, which have been full of war and other forms of violence, betray something of that exegesis which Jesus criticized in the saying about the tombs of the prophets?
Even if post-Easter influences are to be assumed in the description of the end-time, what emerges is absolutely no justification for ascribing everything to the theology of the early community. The essential elements fit coherently into the situation of rejection and the judgment sayings of Jesus. They make clear the important opposition between the laws of the world (see Matt. 20:25) and of God’s kingdom, and they highlight, in agreement with the prophetic proclamation, the situation of judgment upon the world. Without this very realistic view of history, the call to decision and the message of judgment risk being too quickly spiritualized and thus finally dissipated.
Schwager’s citation of Mark 13 on page 90 is in the context of showing how the disciples failed Jesus, when he had explicitly warned them to “Watch!” He writes:
From the viewpoint of the message proclaimed by Jesus, the behavior of his own disciples took on a particular significance, since the kingdom of God had found its first realization in their gathering. Consequently, whether this beginning was genuine must be seen in them; whether it proved itself even in the face of great resistance showed that the coming God of Jesus had completely won their hearts and wills. But at the critical moment this proof was not forthcoming and in fact the opposite occurred. According to Mark, Jesus ended the great judgment speeches with the challenge “Watch!” (Mark 13:37), and shortly afterward the Gospel reports how the disciples were the very opposite of wakeful and instead they slept, while their master prayed alone to God in his anxiety and his need (Mark 14:32-42). The threefold warning of Jesus and the threefold sleeping of the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane depict graphically how the disciples failed fundamentally in their task. Even if the narration of Jesus’ struggle with death is shaped by later linguistic formulation, it should nevertheless give a clear picture of how the disciples, even before the arrest of their master, failed at the decisive moment.
7. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, p. 303; Marr cites Mark 13 as a main example in his glossary note on “apocalypse”:
apocalypse. From the Greek word apokalypsis, which means “unveiling” or “disclosing.” Commonly thought to refer to unveiling the future, but many apocalypses unveil the deeper truths of the present situation, i.e., what God is doing underneath the human activity. Apocalyptic writings can be future-oriented and project where present trends are likely to end up. The “apocalyptic discourse” of Jesus in Mark 13 is a warning of the violence to come if his hearers continue on the course they have set.
8. N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God. Wright’s interpretation of the Gospels’ apocalyptic, with Mark 13 being a centerpiece, is at the heart of his presentation of the Historical Jesus. He maintains that Schweitzer was basically right about Jesus being a Jewish apocalyptic prophet of the First Century, but his history around what exactly that means needs updating. Jewish prophets would never predict the end of the world in a literal sense of Creation being destroyed with the righteous being whisked away to heaven (the popular Christian view). The Hebrew prophets, Jesus among them, used ‘end of the world’ language to prophecy ‘earth shattering’ events that would take place if there wasn’t repentance. Schweitzer misunderstood Jesus to be prophesying an imminent end of the world — a prophecy that proved to be mistaken. Wright understands Jesus to be prophesying what Mark 13 literally prophesies at the outset: the world shattering destruction of the centerpiece of Jewish religion, the Temple. Absent repentance by a significant portion of Jesus’ fellow Jews, Jesus’ prophecy proved correct in 70 A.D. More generally, according to Wright, Jesus’ apocalyptic message found a more dangerous enemy behind Rome’s power, namely, the Satan, and so his victory on the cross and on easter morning would be directed against the Satan, not against any group of people deemed to be one’s enemies. So Jesus prophetically called his fellow Jews not to trust in armed rebellion against powers of flesh and blood; such misguided faith only ends in terrible destruction — the kind of cataclysm prophesied in Mark 13.
I am attracted to Wright’s approach as complimentary to mimetic theory. The weakness in Wright’s book about Jesus, in my opinion, is an inadequate understanding of the Satan — which is precisely a strong point of mimetic theory, witness Girard‘s own book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Read Jesus and the Victory of God and I See Satan Fall Like Lightning together and I think one has a compelling picture of the Historical Jesus.
9. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2011, titled “Awake!“; in 2014, “Stay Alert!“; and in 2017, “The Temptation to Violence.”
10. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from December 1, 2002 (Woodside Village Church); sermon from November 27, 2005, and sermon from November 30, 2008 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2008 I reshaped the sermon above, “Knowing Where to Look for God,” based on the First Reading, to begin with an understanding of the Gospel Reading proposed here.
2. “…for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn….” It is often pointed out (e.g., in Alison’s “Contemplation…” above) that this line references the events which are about to take place: Jesus hands himself over at the Last Supper in the evening; he is handed over by Judas at midnight, by Peter at cockcrow, and to the Romans in the morning.
3. Gil Bailie has found the reference to the cock crowing to be especially meaningful for disciples. It is our call to penitence. It is also the work of the Paraclete, progressively in the world, to make it increasingly difficult to carry out sacred violence without the cock crowing on us, producing a “moral hangover” in the morning.
The chief illustration of this for Bailie is Shakespeare’s Hamlet, one that underscores the metaphor of the cock crowing. Shakespeare understood what kept Hamlet from being able to make his revenge on Claudius, the king, even if Hamlet didn’t understand himself. Hamlet’s best chance to kill the king is in Act III, scene 3 — except he is kneeling and praying in the chapel for repentance! Hamlet again talks himself out of it:
Now might I do it pat, now ‘a is praying!
And now I’ll do ‘t. And so ‘a goes to heaven;
And so am I reveng’d? That would be scann’d.
A villain kills my father, and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven. (III, 3, 76-81)
Hamlet thinks he can’t do it because he will send the king to heaven. Shakespeare knows, however, that it is the message of the church — forgiveness instead of vengeance — which prevents Hamlet. Shakespeare provides a blatant contrast to Hamlet in the figure of Laertes, who has no such trouble when Hamlet mistakenly kills his father. Claudius is egging on Laertes to that revenge, getting him to say what lengths he would go to, to avenge his father. Laertes responds, “To cut his throat i’ th’ church” (IV, 3, 139).
But Shakespeare’s biggest clue comes right in the beginning. The ghost of Hamlet’s slain father is appearing during the night to call for vengeance on Claudius his slayer. But it disappears — when? When the cock crows. Marcellus’ speech provides a perfect Advent theme:
It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad…. (I, 1, 173-177)
Bailie asks, ‘What do you think the chances are that Shakespeare didn’t have the Christian message in mind with the crowing of the cock? Zero.’ During Advent we pray for that Christmas day to dawn when the Gospel of forgiveness will finally chase away all the ghosts of vengeance. We pray for the day of God’s peace in Jesus Christ.
4. In 1999 it was timely to confront Y2K fears. The First Sunday of Advent is generally the highpoint of apocalyptic texts in the lectionary. Even though Y2K passed without incidence, it raised two kinds of fear that are ongoing.
One is a specific one created by the computer-related scare of failing microchips all over the planet. This actually fits the Girardian mode of apocalyptic since it would be a human-made one, brought on by our own short-sightedness and myopic focus on profits to the exclusion of safely anticipating this possible crisis. When Girard wrote Things Hidden (1978), the threat of nuclear war comprised the human-made threat of apocalyptic violence. This nuclear threat, quieted with the end of the Cold War, is now being revived in connection with terrorism. Or continuing to be aggressors against Muslim nations may be what Osama bin Laden wanted in the first place: a gradual escalation into World War III between Western and Muslim nations.
The other kind of Y2K fears were of the usual millennialist type: fears that a vengeful God will finally bring about the Day of the Lord. These fears might be tied in with the first type. And these are the kind that a Girardian understanding of the Gospel can help to allay. Alison’s essay above uses Mark 13 to brilliantly address such fears.
Notes from Schwager quote: