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“SON OF MAN” AND APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE, EXPLAINED
THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – YEAR B
November 15, 2015
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. Dcn. David Justin Lynch
Daniel 12:1-3 Psalm 16:5;5-11
Hebrews 10:11-14;18 Mark 13:24-32
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Today’s Gospel reading is a bit scary. It’s what’s called an apocalypse, what the dictionary describes is a destruction of the world on a truly catastrophic scale. Imagine the wind and water of Hurricane Katrina in two thousand five, plus an earthquake like the one in San Francisco during the nineteen eighty nine World Series, plus the fire of the nine-eleven attacks of two thousand one, all occurring at the same time, in the same place, with only a small and lucky percentage of the population surviving. And just a few days ago, the people of France experienced an unfortunate foretaste of mass disaster, which I am sure they perceived as apocalyptic.
The Bible as we know it has two major examples of apocalyptic literature, Daniel, from which we heard today, and Revelation, from which we read on All Saints Day. And there are snippets of apocalyptic material throughout the rest of the Bible. Today we consider the apocalyptic passages in the Gospel of Mark. Similar material appears in Matthew and Luke. All appear at the same place relative to the timeline of the life of Jesus, just before He entered Jerusalem to be crucified. The world as He knew it was coming to an end. Jesus, being human as we are, was scared. He shared the same feelings we would have if we were about to be crucified.
In scripture, apocalyptic passages have predictable characteristics. The person telling the story, who is usually a prophet of some kind, first presents a selected series of historical events up to the moment of writing, then predicts future historical events somewhat vaguely, and finally foretells the cosmic and traumatic events. Apocalyptic events have both supernatural and temporal aspects. They involve supernatural beings or events culminating in the end of the world as we know it, the so-called End Times, when God’s judgment will issue punishments and rewards. When one looks at apocalypses, the natural and supernatural worlds converge. Earthly events are seen as having repercussions in the supernatural world and are often seen as God’s reaction to human behavior. An example of the supernatural and earthly worlds interacting with each other can be found in our first reading, which comes at the end of a section of the Book of Daniel where the archangel Michael, a supernatural being, purportedly went to war against Greeks as guardian of the Jewish people.
In today’s world, our conservative sisters and brothers often proclaim that the AIDS epidemic and other traumatic events are God’s judgment on a sinful society. They believe in an Armageddon, a final battle resulting in the destruction of the world. Many of these Christians take these apocalyptic passages literally. They believe that the end of the world will come in the relatively near future, and that at that time God will judge humanity, saving some and damning others, and that this will be followed by Christ’s return to reign for a thousand years. They have often used, or should I say, abused, apocalyptic concepts to promote their idea of a punitive, judgmental God. They proclaim that only if we live as they think we should, can we avoid mass destruction.
A literal interpretation of scriptural apocalypses is severe biblical ignorance, not sincere faith. Literalism and apocalypses don’t go together. Literal interpretation of apocalyptic literature doesn’t account for what was happening in the environment when and where these passages originated. If the literalists would do some research, they’d find out that apocalyptic literature was usually composed in times of crisis or persecution. It was a metaphorical representation of what was going on around the authors at the time. In the case of the apocalyptic passages in the Gospels like the one for today, we need to keep in mind that Mark, Matthew and Luke, written in that order between sixty and eighty five A-D, originated during the events in Palestine leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman Armies in seventy A-D and the chaotic aftermath of that. At the time these Gospels were compiled, both Christians and Jews were the subject of persecution by the Roman empire. In the year A-D sixty-nine, one cruel and oppressive Roman emperor succeeded another. There were four in all, Nero, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian. Each brought more violence, murder and civil war. And as Vespasian made his way to Rome to be crowend as emperor, his adopted son Titus entered Jerusalem, burnt the Temple, destroyed the city and crucified thousands of Jews. That’s the back story behind today’s Gospel reading.
Not surprisingly, Christians of that era also believed the end of the world was at hand. The Gospel writings like we heard today reflect their hope for the return of Jesus to fix the situation. The biggest question for them was not “if” that would occur, but “when.” This was especially true for the audience to which Mark wrote, a community in Rome undergoing severe prosecution at the hands of the Roman emperor Nero. Note that our conservative sisters and brothers in recent years thought that the rest of society, particularly progressive people like us, are persecuting them in the same way the Roman empire persecuted Christians in the first century.
Similarly, the Book of Daniel was written in the last two centuries before Christ, during the time that the Jewish people in Palestine suffered under the persecution of an oppressive ruler named Antiochus four Epiphanes, and relates in part to the ongoing battles between the Greeks, the Syrians, Egyptians and Persians. Put another way, events, particularly conflicts and traumatic events, influence what people write, even those who write scripture. That’s because that authors of scripture, most of whom are anonymous, are people, just like you and me. We can see this same kind of thing in our own day. Just go back a little over fourteen years and read what was written journalists and politicians after the nine-eleven attack. One can truly sense the pervasive fear that was part of the atmosphere at the time and to some extent continues to influence our society, particularly some people’s perceptions of Muslims. Sadly, we may be hearing more of that kind of rhetoric due to the recent events in France.
Not surprisingly, today’s biblical literalists believe when Jesus returns, God will judge us progressive Christians as their persecutors. This idea demonstrates that their judgmental version of Christianity is driven primarily by fear of harm from other persons. The play to the fears many people have of those who are different from themselves. We can see this from some actors on the contemporary political stage exploiting this tendency by demonizing undocumented persons and our L-G-B-T sisters and brothers.
The readings about the so-called end-times come towards the end of the earthly life of Jesus. Chronologically, for us, these readings occur at the end of the Church year. In two weeks, we will begin another liturgical season, starting with the First Sunday in Advent, which is, functionally, the church’s “new year.” The readings for today anticipate a second coming of Jesus. In our tradition, we celebrate multiple comings of Jesus each year at Christmas. We celebrate Jesus arriving enfleshed as a human person.
Today’s Gospel reading describes the coming of Jesus as “the Son of Man.” I’ve always been perplexed about what that phrase means in scripture. All male persons are the sons of a man. So what’s the big deal with Jesus? What special meaning does “Son of Man” have, when applied to Jesus? The meaning of that expression in the New Testament has remained challenging and the subject of ongoing debate among scholars. What we do know, from a cursory reading of the text, is that Jesus uses the phrase to describe Himself, in three contexts: his earthly work, often under adverse conditions; his coming suffering, death and resurrection; and, as used in today’s Gospel reading, his coming in glory with sovereign power to issue a so-called final judgment. Why would Jesus describe Himself in this way? At other places in the Gospels, particularly the high priestly prayer in John, Jesus describes Himself as having a Father-Son relationship with God. The Common English Bible, a relatively recent ecumenical translation into contemporary language, translates the original Greek as “the Human One.” That would tell me Jesus described Himself in that way to remind the people listening to Him that He was human as well as divine. In calling Himself “Son of Man”, or “the Human One,” Jesus exalted the dignity of the human person and human existence. One might say that Jesus presented Himself as the ideal human, the epitome of human existence, an example of what we should all want to be, and if you look at what Jesus taught and what Jesus represents, it’s not difficult to come to that conclusion. In contrast to all other forms of life, humanity alone articulates, as a community, a relationship to God the creator, to Jesus as redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as sanctifier. Humanity alone seeks meaning and order in our lives and in the world. Genesis tells us that God created humanity alone, and not any other form of life, in God’s image. That is why through the understanding of human existence, we progress towards understanding God. Jesus became a human person to understand humanity. If, in fact, Jesus comes again and declares a so-called “final judgment”, we can expect He will demonstrate the inseparable unity of His divine and human natures by looking upon humanity with the compassion that He taught, originating from His empathy with the human condition. The humanity of Jesus is what gives Jesus credibility with us as a Savior and Messiah. He suffered as we suffer. He knows what it’s like to be one of us. That is why we can reliably seek Jesus to comfort us, to allay our fears about what besets us in this life, and whatever might happen in the next life.
All of that gives us to a reason to eagerly await the celebration of His coming, again, at Christmas to bring hope that another coming of Jesus, albeit symbolic, will give birth to hope for the improvement of our lives. Rather than think of a Jesus who will render a punitive judgment, we should imagine a judgment that will be God’s great act of reconstruction. We can be sure that God will produce something unimaginably new and great.
Our world needs the message of Jesus coming again now, more than ever. So much of the world suffers so much distress. Every three days, more people die from malnutrition and disease than from the bombing of Hiroshima. Every year, more people die from preventable hunger than died in the Holocaust. One out of every four human beings has no access to safe drinking water. The world has between one and two billion unemployed adults. In the United States, the wealthiest three percent of the population controls fifty-five per cent of our country’s assets. The poorer countries have sixty percent of the world’s students, but only twelve percent of the world’s total education budget. More than half of the world’s adult population cannot read or write. More than half of the countries of the world violently abuse their own citizens through torture, brutality, and summary executions. Here in our own country, homelessness, people without healthcare due to lack of money, sexism, racism, and mass incarceration top the list. We need a Messiah. We need a savior. We need Jesus to fix all this.
At the end of the first reading, we find a glimpse of that hope, the author telling us that the wise shall shine brightly and that those who lead others to justice will shine perpetually as stars. And, we can take comfort from the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare, not for woe! I have plans to give you a future full of hope. When you call me, when you go to pray to me, I will listen to you and bring you back.” These are words of hope, and our hope is in Jesus. Our faith, our trust in Jesus, gives us hope that all of the bad things of our lives can be changed. As the Blessed Virgin Mary said at the time of the Annunciation, “nothing is impossible with God.” AMEN.