19 November 2014
Mark 13: 24-37: ‘the Son of Man coming
in clouds’ on the First Sunday of Advent
In this tutorial group we are looking at the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for Sunday week. The Sunday after next, 30 November 2014, is the First Sunday of Advent.
The First Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new Church year, and we begin a new cycle of readings. There is a three-year cycle in the Revised Common Lectionary, and we are about to begin reading from Saint Mark’s Gospel in Year B, which begins on Sunday week. But instead of beginning at the beginning, with the first coming of Christ at his Incarnation, we begin with looking forward to his Second Coming.
The readings for that Sunday are: Isaiah 64: 1-9; Psalm 80: 1-8, 18-20; I Corinthians 1: 3-9; and Mark 13: 24-37.
Mark 13: 24-37:
24 Ἀλλὰ ἐν ἐκείναις ταῖς ἡμέραις μετὰ τὴν θλῖψιν ἐκείνην
ὁ ἥλιος σκοτισθήσεται,
καὶ ἡ σελήνη οὐ δώσει τὸ φέγγος αὐτῆς,
25 καὶ οἱ ἀστέρες ἔσονται ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ πίπτοντες,
καὶ αἱ δυνάμεις αἱ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς σαλευθήσονται.
26 καὶ τότε ὄψονται τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐρχόμενον ἐν νεφέλαις μετὰ δυνάμεως πολλῆς καὶ δόξης. 27 καὶ τότε ἀποστελεῖ τοὺς ἀγγέλους καὶ ἐπισυνάξει τοὺς ἐκλεκτοὺς [αὐτοῦ] ἐκ τῶν τεσσάρων ἀνέμων ἀπ' ἄκρου γῆς ἕως ἄκρου οὐρανοῦ.
28 Ἀπὸ δὲ τῆς συκῆς μάθετε τὴν παραβολήν: ὅταν ἤδη ὁ κλάδος αὐτῆς ἁπαλὸς γένηται καὶ ἐκφύῃ τὰ φύλλα, γινώσκετε ὅτι ἐγγὺς τὸ θέρος ἐστίν. 29 οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς, ὅταν ἴδητε ταῦτα γινόμενα, γινώσκετε ὅτι ἐγγύς ἐστιν ἐπὶ θύραις. 30 ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἡ γενεὰ αὕτη μέχρις οὗ ταῦτα πάντα γένηται. 31 ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ παρελεύσονται, οἱ δὲ λόγοι μου οὐ μὴ παρελεύσονται.
32 Περὶ δὲ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης ἢ τῆς ὥρας οὐδεὶς οἶδεν, οὐδὲ οἱ ἄγγελοι ἐν οὐρανῷ οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός, εἰ μὴ ὁ πατήρ. 33 βλέπετε ἀγρυπνεῖτε: οὐκ οἴδατε γὰρ πότε ὁ καιρός ἐστιν. 34 ὡς ἄνθρωπος ἀπόδημος ἀφεὶς τὴν οἰκίαν αὐτοῦ καὶ δοὺς τοῖς δούλοις αὐτοῦ τὴν ἐξουσίαν, ἑκάστῳ τὸ ἔργον αὐτοῦ, καὶ τῷ θυρωρῷ ἐνετείλατο ἵνα γρηγορῇ. 35 γρηγορεῖτε οὖν, οὐκ οἴδατε γὰρ πότε ὁ κύριος τῆς οἰκίας ἔρχεται, ἢ ὀψὲ ἢ μεσονύκτιον ἢ ἀλεκτοροφωνίας ἢ πρωΐ, 36 μὴ ἐλθὼν ἐξαίφνης εὕρῃ ὑμᾶς καθεύδοντας. 37 ὃ δὲ ὑμῖν λέγω, πᾶσιν λέγω, γρηγορεῖτε.
24 ‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26 Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake — 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, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’
With the onset of winter, the sunsets are earlier each evening, and the sunrises are later each morning. So late that most mornings I am awake and out on my way to work long before sunrise begins to the east of the open space beside our house.
Most mornings these weeks, the sunrise is shrouded in grey clouds and the sky is filled with rain. But one morning last week, as I was heading out, there was a clear sunrise to the east, and the clouds in the sky were streaked with distinctive shades of pink and purple, with tinges of red and orange.
It was almost a heavenly pleasure.
I was only back from a city break in Lisbon, in warm autumn sunshine in Portugal. But in a moment of idleness that winter morning last week, I thought how this year, throughout this year, throughout 2014, I have managed to find myself visiting places that are snatches of heaven to me – waking up looking out onto the banks of the River Slaney on a crisp autumn morning; a few days here and a few days there back in Lichfield, in Cambridge, and in Greece; walks on the beaches in Skerries, Portrane and Bettystown. And there were tender moments of love with those I love and those who love me; and prayerful moments of being conscious of and anticipating the presence of God.
And I mused, in that idle moment that morning, that if these were my last days then this year alone I had managed to visit and to stay in places that are so close to my heart.
It is natural, as the year comes to an end, to think of final things and closing days. Earlier in the month, we had All Saints’ Day, (in some churches) All Souls’ Day, and Remembrance Sunday:
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
At the end of November we then move towards thinking of the end, not in a cataclysmic way, but because with the beginning of Advent we begin to think of the world as we know it giving way to the world as God wants it to be, to the Kingdom of God.
What does the future hold?
For many people in Ireland today, the future is full of uncertainties. Although the government and economists assure us we have come out of the recession and there are many signs of economic growth, for many ordinary people they are still leaving under mountainous burdens of debt, with uncertainty about paying bills – figures published last week revealed the awful number of families who have no many left at the end of the month, which means they cannot plan for the future, they have been robbed of hope for their future.
Since the economic collapse of 2018, businesses have closed, jobs have been lost, savings and investments have withered away, and large question marks still hang over their pensions and their provisions for the future.
There is no doubt that in this country two of the major contributors to, causes of, poverty are ill-health and inadequate access to education.
Charging more for health care and for education ensures that more people are going to join those who are in the poverty trap, those who cannot pay more for health care and access to education, and those already there, cannot find hope for the future.
They may feel they are being fed with the bread of tears and given the abundance of tears to drink referred to in the Psalm in these readings (Psalm 80: 6), that they are to become the derision of their neighbours (Psalm 80: 7).
Many feel that we are still teetering on the brink of collapse. And when I looked at the poverty on the streets of Greece this year, and in some parts of Lisbon away from the gaze of most tourists, I realise what was waiting around the corner for this country, for the whole of Europe, and wonder whether we have had a fortuitous escape, or whether it is still threatening us.
The Bank of Greece ... is every European country still waiting for a similar economic collapse? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The word often used to describe these fears is apocalyptic – we talk of apocalyptic fears and apocalyptic visions.
Our Old Testament and Gospel readings for this Sunday morning are classical apocalyptic passages in the Bible. The passage in the reading in Saint Mark’s Gospel is part of what is sometimes known as the “Little Apocalypse.”
You can imagine the first readers of Saint Mark’s Gospel in, say, Alexandria. They have heard of – perhaps had even seen – the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Like their fellow Christians in other parts of the eastern Mediterranean, perhaps these first Christians in Alexandria have been thrown out of the synagogues, have been disowned by those they once worshipped with, they have been disowned by friends, perhaps even by their closest family members, and face discrimination, loss of social standing, and perhaps even loss of income.
The world as they knew it was coming to an end. They saw their heaven and their earth torn apart (Isaiah 64: 1). And they, like us today, needed some reassurances of love and we, like them, need some signs of hope.
But the tree bearing fruit is a sign that God promises new life. In darkness and in gloom, we can know that God’s summer is always new, there are always rays of hope and glimpses of love (Mark 13: 28).
And everywhere the messengers of God’s good news, the angels, appear in the Gospel, they almost always begin to speak with the words: “Be not afraid.” These are the angel’s opening words to Zechariah in the Temple as he is about to be told of the imminent birth of John the Baptist (Matthew 1: 13). These are the angel’s words to the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation (Luke 1: 30). These are the angels’ opening words to the shepherds on the hillside on the first Christmas night (Luke 2: 10). These are the angel’s opening words to Joseph wondering whether he is facing a future of disdain and a family disaster (Matthew 1: 20).
If we believe in God’s promises, we must not only set aside our fears, we need too to show others how we believe, how we expect and how we look forward to being the beneficiaries of hope, being the recipients, the agents and the messengers or ministering angels of love.
Planting for the future
It is said that Martin Luther was once asked what he would do if he was told the world was going to end tomorrow, and he replied he would plant a tree.
Some years ago, I was given a present of an olive tree and I was hoping to see it grow in my back garden. But heavy rains soon fell in the garden, and as winter closed in its leaves faded and it was taken away with the rains and the wind (see Isaiah 64: 6).
The dead olive tree was replaced with another one, and three years later it is in a much better state of health. But, if these were my closing days, I too would like to plant an olive tree, despite the unmeasurable variations in weather we are experiencing in Ireland in recent winters.
Some of us receive bad news from time to time. More of us know and love someone who has recently received truly bad news.
But if you were told the end is coming, if you were told there was no tomorrow, or no next week, what would you do?
Would you want to spend those last few days closing that business deal?
Would you finish a long-delayed project?
Would you want to take that world cruise?
Would you finish that great novel?
Would you join me in planting another olive tree?
Or would you rise early to glory in the sunrise, listen to the waves rolling in onto the beach, stand beneath the last autumn leaves falling from the trees by the river bank, or prayerfully watch the sunset?
And even though all those are true pleasures and blessings at one and the same time, I think, if I was told that the end is coming, that these are my final days, then most of all I would want to tell those I love how much I love them, and hear once again, what I know already, that I too am loved.
And I would want to tell God how much I love God and to thank God for all the blessings, all the love, that I have received throughout my life. Because of God’s generosity I have not been lacking in anything … in anything that really matters at the end of my days (I Corinthians 1: 4, 7).
So, if that is what we would do if we were told these are the closing days, maybe we should ask: Why not do that now?
Would you tell your children, your partner, your parents, your brothers and sisters, that one last time, that you love them?
Would you wrap the person you should love the most in one long, tender embrace?
We are the doorkeepers of our souls and our hearts (Mark 13: 34-37).
And if Christ comes this evening, tonight, early in the morning, or on my way to work tomorrow morning, will he find me sleeping on my responsibilities to be a sign of hope and a living example of true, deep, real love? (Mark 13: 35-36).
Will he find the Church sleeping on its call, its mission, to be a sign of the kingdom, a beacon of hope, a true and living sacrament of love?
In days of woe and in days of gloom, the Church must be a sign of hope, a sign of love, a sign that if even if things are not going to be get better for me and for others in my own life time, God’s plan is that they should be better (Mark 13: 27, 31).
In a world that needs hope, in a world that is short on love, then the Church, above all else, must be a visible sign of hope, must be a visible sign of love. If we cannot love one another in the Church, how can expect to find signs of hope and love in the world?
Advent calls us again to be willing to be clay in the hands of God who is our Father and who is the potter (Isaiah 64: 8), so that we can be shaped into his vessels of hope and of love, so that we can be signs of the coming Kingdom, so that our hope and our love give others hope and love too in the dark days of our winters.
On Monday week [1 December 2014], I am talking in the chapel about a “Spirituality for Advent.” Advent calls on me to create new space and to reorder my priorities. To be still. To experience some quiet. To be reminded who we are – God’s beloved children.
Mark Twain once said: “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
What would you do if the world were to end tomorrow? You do not need to wait. You can do those things now.
Finish the work you started. Be reconciled to those who need you. Be faithful to the people and tasks around you. Undertake some small and wonderful and great endeavour. Be a sign of hope. But most of all – love the ones you want to and ought to love.
Why not? For Christ has come, Christ is coming, and Christ will come again, in the name of love.
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Post Communion Prayer:
God our deliverer,
Awaken our hearts
to prepare the way for the advent of your Son,
that, with minds purified by the grace of his coming,
we may serve you faithfully all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on 19 November 2014.