“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And 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.
“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. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Certain passages in Scripture defy any attempt on our part to simply extract a “point” or meaning from them. They are mysterious, sometimes even apparently impenetrable to our twenty-first century eyes in their rich and, often, intimidating imagery. They demand to be read within their context—not only the source in which they are found (in this case the Gospel of Mark and, more immediately, the surrounding passages), but also in the light of all of Scripture as a whole—and yet even then they remain difficult to understand.
They are, in that sense, an invitation. To what, you ask? To the mystery of Faith.
By this, I don’t necessarily mean the explicit formulations that are repeated in the Eucharistic liturgy (i.e. “Save us, Savior of the world, for by your cross and resurrection, you have set us free,” etc), although these are, in fact, deeply connected to mystery to which I refer. Rather, these texts are an invitation to surrender ourselves to the entire story that is our Faith, the story that is contained as a microcosm within those formulations, but nevertheless cannot be distilled into simple bullet-point statements or lessons, lest the fullness and richness of its meaning be diminished and, ultimately, lost.
It is a story that spans all of time, in which the moments of history are pregnant not only with immediate import, but also with timeless–even eternal—significance that is revealed both in time (that is as history continues to unfold) and across time. There is a stunning inter-connectedness among the events of this story that bears witness to the handiwork of the One whom Ravi Zacharias beautifully calls The Grand Weaver.
It is precisely this dynamic that makes passages like the one above both stunning if also a bit intimidating, for in it we get a glimpse of the intricate inter-connectedness of the images and events of redemption history through which we see unfolding what Jerry Sittser calls “an epic that would give Homer a run for his money”. But the images are dark and foreboding; they are not, at face value, the type of story in which we naturally want to find ourselves, epic or not.
Throughout chapter 13 Jesus speaks of horrific realities to come for his disciples: persecution, the rending apart of families, earthquakes, famine, and perhaps most dramatic for those listening (though hard for us to fully grasp) the destruction of the Temple, whose enormity and grandeur made it one of the wonders of the Roman world. But notably he does so using the language and imagery of earlier prophets, most especially Daniel, signaling the fact that these horrific images and events to come are somehow mysteriously connected to those of the past—not only in their nature, but also in their significance. There is a design at work in and through them. Though they remain terrible and tragic events, they will not be left senseless. They will become integral parts of God’s redemption of the world.
This is what we see come to a head in todays passage, as we are told that “After these days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” It is as if the evils and horrors finally become so great that they ultimately break into a “heavenly chaos”, an undoing of God’s creation leading to the end of the world as we know it (Mary Healey).
And in many ways it does, for this is what evil in its nature does. But the image of today’s passage also points to two contemporary events that powerfully sweep us into the epic of God’s redemption of creation against the destructive powers of evil, and its breathtaking revelation through Scripture. The heavenly bodies alluded to here suggest the images of stars and constellations that adorned the Temple veils and were, likewise, symbolized in the menorah, which represented the sun, the moon and the five known planets. Their cataclysmic fall here points to the destruction of that same Temple, which as predicted by Jesus, would come within a generation (40 years, by Jewish reckoning) when the Roman legions under Titus reduced the temple to charred rubble. That world ended, never to be revived again.
But the image also points to the destruction of another temple prior to this one, one “not made by human hands”, who himself is “the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars” (Dante) incarnate. We are told that, at his crucifixion, “darkness covered the whole land” (Mark 15:33).
Both were cataclysmic events in which it would have seemed the world had entirely ended (Mark does a masterful job at weaving together all three of these layers of meaning!) and in some ways it did. The center of the Jew’s universe, the place where heaven and earth met, was entirely destroyed, bringing about the permanent end of the entire sacrificial system.
But death and destruction did not have the final say in the crucifixion of our Lord; they were ultimately conquered in his resurrection. His death was not the end, but the beginning of the end which will culminate in his coming in glory and the establishment of a New Heavens and New Earth, where the dwelling place of God will not be in a Temple, but among men:
“He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:3-4, emphasis addd)
This is the epic story in which we are invited to find ourselves, for it is our story. It is not an easy story, for many of the hardships which Jesus predicts for his disciples will be faced by us, as well,along with many others. It cannot be otherwise, for evil is real and, this side of heaven, death and destruction still reign as enemies.
But, thanks to the cross, they are vanquished enemies.
Sam: ….It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.
Kathleen Durham is a Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.
Photo Source: http:LOTR Wikia