Last revised: November 17, 2018
Click reload or refresh for latest version
PROPER 28 (November 13-19) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 33
RCL: 1 Samuel 1:4-20; Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18), 19-25; Mark 13:1-8
RoCa: Daniel 12:1-3; Hebrews 10:11-14, 18; Mark 13:24-32
Opening Comments on Apocalyptic: Elements of a New Reformation
The “Apocalyptic” literature of the Bible — namely, Daniel, Revelation, Mark 13 and parallels, et al. — has been somewhat of an embarrassment to “mainline” Christians. This is partly due to an awareness that the most extreme of groups — for example, David Koresh and his Branch Dividians, who tragically met their fiery end in Waco, Texas on April 19, 1993 — use the apocalyptic literature as their focus. In general, Christians remain both uncomfortable but also fascinated by the violent imagery and the apparent “end of the world” thinking. Many “mainline” preachers have a difficult time when these passages appear in the lectionary.
Help is now available for Christians stricken with ‘apocalypticitis.’ I would like to call your attention to two in particular, two whom I often feature in these pages, René Girard and N. T. Wright. The work of Girard and his students has addressed the concern for what appears to be divine violence in apocalyptic literature, which I will say more about in this introduction. Wright’s position is supportive of the Girardian view on violence (though independent of it), but he takes on the “end of the world” thinking more directly. In general, Wright has written with a clarity that is extremely helpful in addressing concerns about apocalyptic, a concern he has taken on because he revives and revises Schweitzer’s thesis that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. He thus places apocalyptic at the center of the Christian faith, namely, that we are to take history seriously and to finally understand what it means to have been a first-century Jewish apocalyptic prophet. There is more on Wright’s work under the scripture passages themselves.
René Girard first began to address the notion of apocalyptic violence already in Things Hidden (e.g., pp. 185-190). He is interested in drawing a “main lesson” from his analysis that, “The notion of divine violence has no place in the inspiration of the gospels” (p. 189). But then he has to explain the presence of apocalyptic violence in the gospels. If this is not divine violence, then what kind of violence is it? Where does it come from? His answer:
The theme of the Christian Apocalypse involves human terror, not divine terror: a terror that is all the more likely to triumph to the extent that humanity has done away with the sacred scarecrows humanists thought they were knocking over on their own initiative, while they reproached the Judeo-Christian tradition for striving to keep them upright. So now we are liberated. We know that we are by ourselves, with no father in the sky to punish us and interfere with our paltry business. So we must no longer look backward but forward; we must show what man is capable of. The really important apocalyptic writings say nothing except that man is responsible for his history. You wish for your dwelling to be given up to you; well then, it is given up to you. (p. 195)
In short, the potentiality of apocalyptic violence would be generated by human beings, not God. Girard extends this discussion of the Apocalypse on pp. 250-262, with many other interesting things to say; for example, that Mutually Assured Destruction (still in place when he wrote this in the 70’s) is “human violence in a sacralized form” (p. 255).
It is important, I think, to understand the Girardian explanation of apocalyptic violence. Sacrificial violence is a sacred, sanctioned violence that comes into place in order to keep in check the fearsome profane, random violence. A sacrificial crisis, in the Girardian parley, occurs when the effectiveness of the sacrificial institutions is waning such that the sacrificial violence loses its effectiveness in containing profane violence. If a new sacrificial solution does not come into play, then the profane violence grows into apocalyptic violence. Throughout human history we see cycles of being on the verge of such violence and then new sacrificial solutions come into play to again bring relative peace. During the sacrificial crises, there are often cries of the Final Apocalypse, a violence that will finally consume us. And in sacralized settings, this apocalyptic violence is attributed to the deity: the gods will bring a resounding judgment that will punish the wicked and reward the just. To the mind under the influence of the Sacred, apocalyptic violence is the ultimately divine sacred violence.
But Girard argues that the continuing effect of the Gospel in history is to desacralize, i.e., to make it clear to us that violence is not of the true God; violence is ours alone. (In the above quote from Girard, he suggests that the humanists think they invented desacralization on their own, but, from a Girardian perspective, it is actually due to the continuing work of the Paraclete in history.) It begins with a small band of disciples who have witnessed the resurrection of the Innocent One who was crucified by those sacralized powers of violence and raised from the dead by the true God in Vindication. As more and more people come to see the revelation (apocalypse in the Greek) of sacred violence, however, it also means the increasing ineffectiveness of the sacrificial institutions to contain mimetic violence. The times of sacrificial crises increasingly come closer together, and what looms on the horizon is the possibility of a truly apocalyptic violence: a sacrificial crisis in which a new sacrificial solution cannot assert itself because the revelation of the cross has finally made such solutions impossible. In short, the Apocalypse would be a sacrificial crisis that doesn’t result in a new sacrificial solution — no sanctioned violence to contain the random, mimetic violence. And this is a possibility that the revelation of the cross and resurrection bring about and that the work of the Paraclete slowly has made more real. Girard contends that this is why the New Testament is realistic about the possibility of apocalyptic violence — because it is the Gospel itself which disarms the powers of sacred violence.
The other important anthropological/theological move here is to recognize the transformation of earlier, sacralized versions of apocalypse, in which the gods carry out the apocalyptic violence themselves, into what is more properly called Christian eschatology. The subject of James Alison‘s Raising Abel is essentially all about this transformation from sacralized apocalypse to desacralized Christian eschatology. It recognizes the existence of apocalyptic literature in the New Testament but endeavors to show how it is undergoing a transformation. (More below under the gospel text.)
Another basic question to address would be: Are there really signs of being closer to the Apocalypse as we move to the Third Millennium? It is tempting to simply scoff at the Hal Lindsey’s and the many sectarian groups who seem to relish the thought of the Apocalypse. And we do, of course, need to be critical of their re-sacralized versions which bring back a divine violence very prominently into the picture. But with our Girardian lenses of seeing history in terms of cycles of sacrificial crises and their solutions, are we beginning to see some differences that make apocalyptic human violence too close for comfort?
One such difference we’ve already alluded to: Enlightenment humanism’s tendency to desacralize and then take the credit for it. When we desacralize our perspectives, according to this view, it is simply because we are finally a more enlightened humanity. We’re growing up out of our superstitious, childish beginnings. For this desacralized modern society, we no longer have recourse, then, to violence sanctioned by the gods. It is simply our own sanctioned violence working to contain the unsanctioned (i.e., profane) violence. The question is whether or not a humanly sanctioned violence is transcendent enough to work. Or will we eventually end up in a sacrificial crisis with no new solutions of sanctioned, sacrificial violence? Enlightenment humanism offers us the truth of desacralization (which they typically claim as their own truth). But that leaves us with only human possibilities to arrive at the solutions to our violence. They are correct to reject the sacralized solutions offered by the false gods (including Christian false gods). But does this position also preclude the fact that the true God might be trying to offer us a wholly different alternative?
I believe that the Christian revelation offers us the only truly different answer: the true God who has submitted to our sacrificial violence in the cross of Christ and planted the seeds for its final defeat through the power of the resurrection, which is continuously working to renew creation through the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. And the cross reveals to us that the nature of this defeat over sacred violence is decidedly not by violent overthrow. The divine solution recognizes that sacred violence cannot be overthrown by more sacred violence. Rather, God’s answer is the power of forgiveness and sanctification in the face of the powers and principalities of violence. God’s work of salvation through Christ and the Holy Spirit makes possible both the re-formation of our very identities (Holy Baptism) in non-rivalrous desire (agape-love), and the re-formation of our life in community (Holy Communion) without having to scapegoat victims (sacrificial violence). And, contra humanism, these necessary re-formations are impossible on our own.
I’ll conclude these opening comments with the best Girardian summary on apocalypse, a brilliant paragraph from Gil Bailie:
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. (Violence Unveiled, p. 15)
Link here for a sermon entitled “The End of the World?“, wading through some of these question about apocalyptic. It was delivered in 1997 as the United States was deliberating whether it needed to use military action to force Iraq to abide by the Gulf War treaty. See also “My Core Convictions (especially beginning with Part II),” which elaborates many of these themes around an ‘apocalyptic’ statement from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”
In 2018 I was also in the middle of a eight month preaching ‘gig’ on the theme of my first Sunday: the grace of God healing our tribalism (on Eph. 2, Proper 11B). The resulting sermon is informed by these reflections in the context of that theme (Proper 28B Sermon Notes ).
1. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, p. 322. In general, Wright’s work on the Book of Daniel is the key to this first volume in his monumental project of “Christian Origins and the Question of God.” “First-Century Jewish Monotheism,” pp. 248-259 in this first volume, and all of chapter ten, “The Hope of Israel,” are the most essential reading from this book for setting up what is to come in the subsequent volumes.
In “First-Century Jewish Monotheism,” for example, Wright addresses the charge that Jewish apocalyptic falls into dualisms that betray monotheism. His sorting through the various senses of “duality” (excerpt) goes a long way to set the record straight. Does it help, for example, when confronted in this text with the “duality” between those who are raised to everlasting life, as opposed to those raised to shame and everlasting contempt?
Chapter Ten, “The Hope of Israel,” focuses on a wholistic reading of Daniel, in order to set the record straight on Jewish apocalyptic. As mentioned in the introduction above, one of his central points addresses what has traditionally been interpreted (by Schweitzer, for example) as “end of the world” thinking. In my opinion, Wright couldn’t be more clear and convincing in leading to the conclusion:
There is, I suggest, no good evidence to suggest anything so extraordinary as the view which Schweitzer and his followers espoused. As good creational monotheists, mainline Jews were not hoping to escape from the present universe into some Platonic realm of eternal bliss enjoyed by disembodied souls after the end of the space-time universe. If they died in the fight for the restoration of Israel, they hoped not to ‘go to heaven’, or at least not permanently, but to be raised to new bodies when the kingdom came, since they would of course need new bodies to enjoy the very much this-worldly shalom, peace and prosperity that was in store. (p. 286)
Consider the popular Christian views of heaven, or the “end of the world.” According to Wright’s analysis, are they Platonist or Jewish? Wright ended up taking the planned conclusion to Vol. 2 (Jesus and the Victory of God) regarding resurrection and turning it into an 800-page Vol. 3, The Resurrection of the Son of God, because the issue of popular Christian views on the after-life is so important. Many of the popular Christian views of an after-life are closer to Plato’s view of disembodied souls going to a realm of eternal essences than to the Jewish view of resurrection of the body when God’s Kingdom, the Creation, comes into its fullness.
2. Frederick Niedner, “Midwife Michael’s Birthing Room Apocalypse,” from his annual preaching commentaries at the Valparaiso Institute of Liturgical Studies (ca., April 2000). In 2006, I preached a sermon, “The Baptismal Birthing Room,” that merged some of the insights from Wright, Alison, et al., with Niedner’s preaching suggestions, especially his rich imagery around birth pangs.
Reflections and Questions
1. Here we read the concluding assurances to the righteous that comes with a resurrection of the dead. It is generally recognized that Mark (and Jesus?) has taken his title of the Son of Man from the apocalypse of Daniel. Much of the imagery in Mark 13 is also linked with Daniel 7-12. See more below under Mark 13.
2. In 2006 I linked to a Journal of Biblical Literature (Spring 2003, 3-21) article by John J. Collins “The Zeal of Phinehas: The Bible and the Legitimation of Violence,” which, from my point of view, falls too much into the trap of seeing the violence in the Bible so thoroughly and pervasively that he doubts the message of salvation about violence. He references a Girardian view twice (p. 11, n. 41, and p. 19, n. 79), calling it a “selective reading.” After quoting Girardian James Williams on the “God of victims,” Collins writes:
Such a selective reading, privileging the death of Jesus, or the model of the suffering servant, is certainly possible, and even commendable, but it does not negate the force of the biblical endorsements of violence that we have been considering. The full canonical shape of the Christian Bible, for what it is worth, still concludes with the judgment scene in Revelation, in which the Lamb that was slain returns as the heavenly warrior with a sword for striking down the nations. In short, violence is not the only model of behavior on offer in the Bible, but it is not an incidental or peripheral feature, and it cannot be glossed over. The Bible not only witnesses to the innocent victim and to the God of victims, but also to the hungry God who devours victims and to the zeal of his human agents. (p. 19-20)
This misunderstands the Girardian reading that does not gloss over the pictures of a god who devours victims. Part of the Girardian reading is to acknowledge that the Bible is also honest about its idolatrous images of a violent God even as it is the process of revealing that god as idol. On the journey to reveal the false gods of sacred violence, the Bible itself still partakes of those false gods in a forthrightness about the violence. In mythology one has a gradual covering over of the violence. In the Bible, one witnesses a gradual unveiling of the violence. As such, it is typically filled with more violence than mythology.
3. Mark Heim, ch. 3, “The Voice of Job,” in Saved from Sacrifice. Perhaps the best Girardian explanation of why there is so much violence in the Bible can now be found in Mark Heim’s chapter on the Hebrew Scriptures. I quote from his concluding section of this chapter:
What is violence doing in the Bible? It is telling us the truth, the truth about our human condition, about the fundamental dynamics that lead to human bloodshed, and most particularly, the truth about the integral connection between religion and violence. There is no way to be truthful without exhibiting these things. If we complain that the tales of Genesis and the bloody sacrifices of Leviticus, and the fire for revenge in the Psalms, are too sordidly, familiarly human to have any place in religious revelation, we make an interesting admission that they reveal our humanity all too well. We always knew this was the way things were, we claim. We don’t need a religious text to tell us so. We need cures, not diagnosis. But is that true? What if our cures need diagnosing?
Chapter 2 suggested that there are at least some crucial kinds of violence whose nature has not been evident to us at all, those kinds of violence whose very role is to stem our conflicts. A simple way to put it would be to say that our reconciling violence is not evident to us, but always goes under another name: revenge, purification, divine sacrifice. If that is a basic fact of human life, then where violence is not being faced it is being justified. Where it is not being explicitly described, it is not absent, but invisible. To exhibit violence is to run the risk of enflaming people’s appetite for it. But to veil it under euphemism and mythology, to be piously silent before its sacred power, is to make its rule absolute.
In places (such as the passage from Leviticus that we quoted above) the only real revelatory dimension we can see in the text is that it begins to show us what was usually hidden (not what should be our ideal). Yet even that small step is harder than we understand. Critics of Christianity attack the “violent God of the Old Testament” as the sociopathic cousin in an extended family of much better adjusted deities. But the offense of the Bible might be put the other way around. It suggests that the better-adjusted deities are (literally) a myth. Take the crudest form in which the biblical God appears — a vengeful divine warrior crushing enemies, a deity who delights in blood as the cost and sign of commitment and reconciliation. This is the place to start because this is what the gods of the traditional sacred are. And they are no less powerful where people have stopped going to the religious temple or altar.
The God described in the Bible appears in a variety of characterizations. The God represented in the passage about collective stoning in Leviticus looks different from the God presented in Amos or Isaiah, for instance. Such diversity is a cue for valuable critical-historical investigation. That investigation can lead to a strategy of interpretation in which some textual traditions are preferred over others or earlier, more “primitive” ideas of God may be disregarded in favor of what are taken to be later, more sophisticated ones. If applied narrowly, this approach would suggest that there is no truth revealed in the earlier or the contrasting pictures of God that would be lost when we pass on to later, preferred ones. And this leads us to wonder why the historically or theologically less valued elements should have a place in scripture at all. But at least in some cases this variety embodied in the biblical narrative may be a crucial part of the truth that it has to impart. According to the picture we have been building, certain characterizations of sacrificial violence and God’s relation are a crucial part of the whole narrative. They reveal something very important, something not duplicated elsewhere, and something of continuing relevance. They are a necessary part of our understanding, even while they are not themselves a sufficient model for our behavior.
Why, then, doesn’t the Bible just describe these things as the nature of other gods and religions, and make it clear that this does not apply to the true God, the biblical God, our God, who is always untouched by them? Then we could have the benefit of the analysis of such practices without any suggestion that they belong to our own faith. But such externalization would dramatically amplify the dangers of triumphalism that have been real enough as it is. Instead, the Bible’s presentation makes it uncomfortably clear that this description does apply to our God and our religion, since they can easily be entangled in just the same sacrificial dynamic and have been. The scapegoat critique in the biblical tradition emerges as a critique of that tradition. This is the weight of the prophetic voices, who reminded Israel that despite the calling of the new and true God they steadily fell away into the old ways, doing so even in the name of God. The way the story is told to us who belong to it forbids that we should suppose we are exempt from the danger it discovers.
What is violence doing in the Bible? It is showing us the nature of the mimetic conflict that threatens to destroy human community. It is showing us the religious dynamic of scapegoating sacrifice that arises to allay such crisis. It is letting us hear the voices of the persecuted victims and their pleas for revenge and vindication. It is showing God’s judgment (even violent judgment) against violence, and most particularly, God’s siding with the outcast victims of scapegoating persecution. The Old Testament is an antimyth. It is thick with bodies, the voices of victims and threatened victims. This landscape is either the product of an idiosyncratic, bloodthirsty imagination or the actual landscape of history and religion. If the latter, then what is remarkable is not that the scriptures describe it, but that we should think it normal not to. (pp. 101-103)
I highly recommend getting and reading not only the whole chapter but the entire book.
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18), 19-25
1. See the extensive bibliography on Hebrews for Proper 23B.
Reflections and Questions
1. For me this lesson connects this week with the destruction of the Temple and the fact that Jesus came to offer us an alternative to end sacrifice. It beautifully focuses our attention on that alternative to sacrificial violence: forgiveness of sins.
1. In these verses, we also have the first of numerous occurrences of words meaning “see” in this chapter:
“ide”/”eidon”/”horao” = “look,” “see” (vv. 1, 14, 21, 26, 29)
“blepo” = “to see,” “watch,” “be alert,” “beware” (vv. 2, 5, 9, 23, 33)
I have a personal theory about Mark’s gospel (based primarily on Mary Ann Tolbert‘s reading of Mark in Sowing the Gospel), that one of his primary structuring elements is his quote from Isaiah 6 about the people having eyes but not seeing, and having ears but not hearing. There are only two extended ‘discourses’ in Mark, chapters 4 and 13. The first sermon features the quote from Isaiah and the catchword “Listen!” In between come healings of deaf people and then blind people. Then, the catchword “Watch!” is featured in the second sermon. In the face of the difficulties of seeing and hearing (posed by the veil of the Sacred), Jesus pleads with his disciples to listen and to watch. They fail the test of listening earlier, and the final test for watching comes in the Garden of Gethsemane, which they also fail. Perhaps they can only begin seeing what they need to see when the veil to the Holy of Holies is torn apart upon Jesus’ death. For more, see comments on the gospel for Proper 25B.
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 35-40. Remember, Hamerton-Kelly begins his commentary on Mark’s gospel with chapter 11, since he takes Jesus’ main focus to be the revelation of the Sacred as focused in the Temple of Jesus’ time.
2. James Alison‘s book Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination sketches out the transformation from sacralized apocalyptic imagination, which “is still stuck within a notion of a violent God” (p. 125), to that of Jesus’ eschatological imagination:
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 (p. 125).
That something different is what Alison sketches out, including pruning God of violence, the revelation of God as love, and creation in Christ.
So how does he deal with passages like Mark 13? I’ll close this week’s notes with Alison’s extended comments on Mark 13 (pp. 145-149) [Two notes that help in reading this passage. (1) The previous section has commented on the evangelist John’s theology of the Paraclete as Defense Counselor. (2) The previous chapter has concluded with Alison’s parable of Abel coming back to confront his brother Cain, who expects terrible vengeance, but instead receives mercy and forgiveness.]:
iii. Mark: the subtlety of the Hour
Mark 13 is probably the earliest among the eschatological discourses we have in the synoptic Gospels, and it begins, significantly, with the prophecy of the destruction of the Temple. Shortly afterwards, Peter, James, John and Andrew ask Jesus: “Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be brought to an end?” (Mk 13:4)
Please notice that the link between the prophecy of the destruction of the Temple and the end of everything is made not by Jesus but by the disciples, and immediately afterwards we have one of Jesus’ famous non-replies. He does not answer their question directly but begins to give instructions for how to live in the period which is to be inaugurated by his death. And his instructions are negative rather than positive.
In the first place: pay no attention to people who come as Messiah, or some sort of savior, leading many people astray. Jesus gives to understand that his own coming will not be of this sort. As we shall see later, his coming will be absolutely manifest, but not with that sort of manifestation. Secondly: do not be alarmed by the wars, battles and portents which are to come. That is to say, not only should they not pay attention to the possible theological value of the prophets who come, but they must also learn to distance themselves from attributing theological importance to the violent events of this world. They have no such importance. Of course, these things are going to happen, and Jesus knows very well that, precisely because he has invalidated the easy formula for making peace, there will be wars and nations will rise up against nations: these are the first pains of what has been produced by him. They are, so to speak, the negative counterpart of what he has inaugurated, this continuous process which we have seen in the time of Abel, the flight from false sacralization to false sacralization, without ever leaving reciprocal violence.
In the midst of all this, the disciple must walk with care, for he cannot associate himself with this process. Rather, this is a description of the reality in whose midst the disciple must give witness to his following of Jesus, of his belief in another kingdom, distinct from the kingdoms which seek to found themselves on reciprocal violence. In the midst of this process the disciple will always be an outsider, and always a potential victim, potential traitor, potential subversive, and so on. In the midst of all this conflictual reality, the good news about God, and the coming into existence of the arduously constructed kingdom of universality which we have already seen, will be borne slowly and almost silently to all nations.
It seems to me very significant that it be in this context that Jesus warns against being worried in advance about what to say before the tribunals. In a world ruled by the lynch mechanism, a typical attitude which will come about will be that of those who considers themselves victims, and for that reason are always preparing themselves against accusations. Which of us has not fantasized a trial, in the midst of accusations which we manage to rebut by the power of our argument? Isn’t this one of the ways of proving our worth? An extraordinary and triumphant self-justification? Well, Jesus prohibits us this fantasy. The Holy Spirit, the defense counselor is the one who will defend us, so that it is in the degree to which we cease to worry about defending ourselves, which is the same as saying, cease to worry about justifying ourselves, that the defending Spirit will declare innocent the victims. Let us be clear that this is not a guarantee that we’re going to get off unharmed from the trials and ‘legal’ lynchings of the world, for many have indeed perished under just such circumstances, most notably Jesus. However, in the long run, the innocence of the victim will be established. Another way of saying this: if we are preoccupied about our defense, then we are still prisoners of the violence of the world. Our paranoia, our anxiousness to defend and to justify ourselves is nothing other than that. Jesus tells us that the Defense Counselor gives us such freedom that we do not even have to justify or defend ourselves, and that this trial, this process, of those who are learning to live free in the midst of the persecuting turbulences of this world, is what discipleship looks like in the time that is installed by his death.
It is in this context of the collapse of all the normal forms of building human unity, including that within the family, where children, parents and siblings hate each other, that the patient universality of the kingdom which does not cast out is to be built.
Jesus then moves on to a description of something which in all probability refers to the fall of Jerusalem, to judge by the references to Judea: that fall will be a terrible reality, as indeed it was. But not even that, for all its horror, is to be read in a theological key. All of that has nothing to do with the coming of the Messiah, and the disciple must learn not to read that fall in theological terms, not to pay attention to supposed signs and prodigies which will so give the impression of coming from God, that even the elect will run the risk of being lead astray by them.
After having laid the foundations about that to which one must not pay attention, Jesus turns to describing his coming. In the first place he uses apocalyptic language, taken from the book of Daniel: the sun will be darkened, the moon will give forth no light, and so on. Now, please notice that this way of talking does not indicate some supposed divine intervention shaking up these heavenly bodies. The language depends on the Semitic vision of earth and sky as a single reality where the stars, the sun and the moon were hung in the vault of heaven. What is being described is the way in which earthly, that is to say, human violence, shakes all of creation. We are speaking, once again of human violence, a social and cultural upheaval of ever greater magnitude. It is in the midst of a human violence which shakes the foundations of all creation that the Son of man will be seen on the clouds, in strength and majesty. That vision of the Son of man, as we have already seen, comes from Daniel, and the clouds will be appearing again shortly. It is starting from this appearance of the Son of man that the angels will come out to gather together the chosen ones from every corner of the earth.
After this Jesus speaks to the disciples about the fig tree. You will remember that, not long before, he had cursed the fig tree which was barren, even though it was not the season for figs (Mark 11:12-14). The fig tree symbolizes both Israel and the Temple, and Jesus is bringing about a new fig tree, which will produce fruit, and it is in the degree to which this new fig tree produces fruit in the midst of the circumstances which Jesus has just described that the disciples will start to understand that the coming of the Son of man is at the door. And all this will happen in this generation, the generation which begins with Jesus’ death, and which will begin to live the fruits of the uncovering of the innocence of the victim. Jesus is quite clear: heaven and earth will pass away, but his words will not pass away. That is to say, the teaching which he has come to bring, leaving open and exposed the mechanism of the randomly chosen victim will be, from now on, the inexorable, though hidden, dynamic of history, and it is in its light that everything will be reconceptualized — which has in fact happened. Once said what Jesus said, it can never be totally hidden again, and any attempt to do so (like, for example, the Nazi attempt) fatally fails in the long run.
At the end of his discourse, Jesus returns to the initial question of his disciples, so as to refuse them an answer to their question “when?”. It is not a matter of a “when”; it’s about how always to be alive to the presence of the victim. It is a question of the basic attitude of the disciple in the time inaugurated by Jesus’ death: always to have the capacity for a flexibility of vision so as to recognize the victim, wheresoever that victim be, and under whatsoever form they appear, so as to know how to go out to meet them. The whole of the time between the death of Jesus and the end of history gyrates around this dynamic of having sight made flexible by knowing how to receive the victim.
After this there follows one of the most brilliant passages in Mark, which in a certain sense gives the key for reading all that has gone before. The master goes off, handing out tasks, and demanding that the servants remain alert: “Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning: lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping…” (Mk 13:35-36)
With this we understand something fundamental about Mark: that he writes in a self-referential way. For this passage, the last before the beginning of the Passion, refers exactly to the events of the Passion which are to unfold. The coming of the master will take place in the handing over of Jesus, for it is at evening that he hands himself over to the disciples in the form of the Eucharist, at midnight that he is handed over by Judas, who comes when the disciples are asleep; at cockcrow he is betrayed (handed over) by Peter, and at dawn he is handed over by the High Priest to the Romans for execution.
Just in case we have not understood this, Jesus repeats before the High Priest the phrase about the coming of the Son of man on the clouds, telling him that he will himself see this phenomenon: “. . . and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power and coming in the clouds of heaven.” (Mk 14:62)
Then, in the scene of the crucifixion, even though it was midday, the whole sky was darkened (the raised Son of man coming on clouds), and immediately after Jesus expires, that is, hands over his Spirit, there begins the process of the angels who seek out the chosen ones from the four winds, for it is a Roman centurion who says: “Truly this man was the Son of God.” (Mk 15:39)
I hope that you see some of the threads of subtlety which are to be found beneath Mark’s text. The so-called apocalyptic discourse of Jesus is nothing other than a brilliant exercise in the subverting from within of the apocalyptic imagination. It has as its end to teach the disciples how to live in the times that are to come, the time which I called ‘of Abel.’ Above all it seeks to train the disciples with respect to what must be their deepest eschatological attitude: the absolutely flexible state of alert so as to perceive the coming of the Son of man, the one who is seated at the right hand of God, in the most hidden and subtle forms in which, in fact, he comes. That is, we are dealing with instructions as to how to live with the mind fixed on the things that are above, where Christ is seated with God: not glued to some fantasy, but learning to perceive the comings of the Son of Man in the acts of betrayal, of rejection, of handing-over and of lynching. We can compare this with the experience of Elijah on Mount Horeb, who had to learn that God was not in the tempest, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in the still, small voice which passes by unperceived (1 Kings 19:11-13). Well, we’re dealing with a similar experience: Jesus was explaining to the disciples that the state of alert in the face of his coming is a training in the perception, not of that which is bruited abroad, nor of what glistens appealingly, but of the way that all the majesty and splendor of God is to be found in the almost imperceptible victim, on the way out of being. [Conclusion of an extended portion from James Alison’s Raising Abel, pp. 145-149.]
3. James Alison, On Being Liked, ch. 1, “Contemplation in a world of violence,” uses segments of Mark 13 for insightful reflections on the Twin Towers tragedy; a talk originally given Nov. 3, 2001. Here is a small portion of his wisdom:
The second passage I want to give you is even more explicit, for it is the passage called the Markan Apocalypse. Wrongly, in my view, for it is specifically concerned with undoing the apocalyptic worldview.
Jesus starts by publicly de-sacralizing the Temple. He takes seriously neither its sacred splendor when standing, nor the apocalyptic meaning to be derived from its being razed to the ground.
Mark 13:1 And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” 2 And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.”
Peter, James and John come to him to ask him when these things will be, and what are the signs — they show, in other words, that they are caught up in the apocalyptic imagination. And, as in the passage from Luke which we have just seen, Jesus commands them to look with different eyes.
“Take heed that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is not yet. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places, there will be famines; this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.
The first instruction is not to allow themselves to be lured or seduced into the apparently sacred world of apocalyptic meaning, not to allow themselves to be pulled by their desire into the world which others will want to create. Any other messianism is false. Wars and rumors of wars have no sacred meaning at all, and the one who is looking at what happens through Jesus’ eyes will not be frightened of these things, not driven by them in any way. For they are merely the signs of the collapsing world maintained and reinforced by sacralized violence, and that collapse is itself a sign that something very different is coming to birth.
4. N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, pp. 339-367, 510-519. Mark 13 is a crucial passage for Wright’s entire presentation of the Historical Jesus, since he paints Jesus as a first-century Jewish apocalyptic prophet. But he differs from Schweizer who thought that Jesus expected the “end of the world” or an imminent “Second Coming.” Rather, from Wright’s perspective, Jesus correctly prophesied that continued reliance on military rebellion would result in the destruction of the Temple and end of Jewish life as they knew it. Along with the Temple action (the so-called “cleansing” of the Temple, which Wright interprets as a prophecy, not a “cleansing”), Mark 13 and parallels are Exhibit A for his argument.
5. S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, chapter nine, on “Two Kinds of Apocalypses,” another good Girardian reading of apocalypse. Mark 13 is mentioned on page 266.
6. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from November 19, 2006 (Society of St. John, Palo Alto, CA).
7. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2015, “We Must All Speak for the Scapegoat Now“; and in 2018, “Undermining the World Order.”
Reflections and Questions
1. It is a likely proposition that the impetus to write a Gospel in the first place came from the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. The Jewish world was in complete turmoil as one of its central orienting symbols of faith was destroyed. The two Jewish sects that relied on the Temple the least were poised to move on with the greatest success — namely, the Pharisaic centering around the synagogue and Torah rather than the Temple and the Messianic Judaism that became Christianity with its centering around the person of Jesus Christ as the focal point of God’s Shekinah (presence) in the world. Jesus had prophecied the destruction of the Temple. When that came about in 70 AD, it was time to get the traditions of this prophet, the Messiah, the Son of God, down on paper. The destruction of the Temple meant that Messianic Judaism was now a more major player amidst the diversity of Judaism
2. I recently heard James Carroll speak (2006, author of Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews — A History) and he cautions Christians about triumphalism about the Temple. The roots of anti-Semitism are linked to a fanatical obsession among Christians with the Temple’s destruction.
3. N. T. Wright sometimes uses the helpful contemporary phrase “earth shattering” to ‘translate’ the apocalyptic language that sounds like the “end of the world.” The stars falling to earth sort of imagery was also used by the great prophets to prophecy about “earth shattering” events that would befall the people of Israel is they didn’t repent — real, historical events like the sacking of Jerusalem and the taking into exile by the Babylonians. Mark 13 prophesies precisely one of these “earth shattering” events if God’s people did not repent of their reliance on military rebellion as the way to freedom from enemies. The destruction of the Temple was an event that turned the Jewish world upside-down.
Parishioners can relate to such “earth shattering” events in their own lives around sudden, unexpected loss. The death of a child in an accident, for example, can change one’s world forever. It can seem at first as if the sun has fallen from the sky and no longer shines. Nothing is quite the same.