As always happens at this time of the year, the Church asks us to proclaim passages from the Scriptures that fall into the genre of apocalyptic literature. Of the various forms of writing used in the Scriptures, apocalyptic writing is the most difficult to understand and raises the most questions. These questions arise because of the great mystery that faces all of us; namely, the end of life issues that are part of every human being’s existence. What happens when we die? What will happen when the world comes to an end? Will Jesus return as he said? How will he return?
Apocalyptic writing is focused in vivid language about the signs that will herald a new age. This literature is often misinterpreted as being predictions of the future. It is actually written as a response to trauma and disaster that has already been experienced. Apocalyptic literature does not narrate nor prognosticate the future; yet, it helps us to come to an understanding of the future by referencing the past. All of the things that are “predicted” have happened over and over again. Typically arising during periods of crisis, apocalyptic words and images map survival strategies. Their intent is not to evoke fear but to encode hope.
Human culture and human society is built upon the great human institutions. Our culture, for instance, is grounded upon our families, our political system, our economic philosophy, our educational institutions, our places of worship, and our health care mechanisms. The culture and society of first century Israel was much simpler. There were only two institutions that formed the social constructs of Israel at the time of Jesus; namely, the family (which was the private side of society) and the Temple (which was the public side of society). All the other institutions were taken care of in either the family or the Temple. For instance, education was a function of the family as the traditions of the children of Israel were handed down from one generation to the next. The economy of the time was also embedded in the family as material wealth was handed down from father to son. The best choice of a life partner was a cousin so that family wealth stayed in the family. Health was also the province of the family as certain people within the family structure were skilled in the area of natural medicines. The Temple, on the other hand, was the place where political and religious structures were determined by the priests who were designated by God as the leaders of their communities.
In our culture, if one of the institutions fails, it causes disruption; but frequently one of the other institutions takes over the tasks that were accorded to it. So for instance, as our families are disrupted by divorce, by abortion and other forms of secularization, schools have had to take over many of the tasks that were done in the family. Now imagine for a moment if one of the two pillars of Jewish society were to be destroyed. We know that approximately thirty-five years after Jesus died in Jerusalem and rose from the dead, the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire in an effort to control a rebellion that had been brewing throughout the time of the Roman occupation. Literally half of the social structure of Israel was lost in that single event. To understand a little of what this must have meant to the people of that time, think back to September 11, 2001, or December 7, 1941. Then multiply what we felt on those dates a hundred fold. To the people of first century Israel, it must have seemed like the end of the world. Apocalyptic writing referencing an end to the world channels thoughts of society and culture simply crumbling in language that is both poetic and fantastical. Both The Book of Daniel and the Gospel of St. Mark appear in those dramatic times.
The Book of Daniel recalls a time in Jewish history that had catastrophic consequences. This work was composed during the bitter persecution carried on by Antiochus IV Epiphanes (167–164 B.C.) and was written to strengthen and comfort the Jewish people in this ordeal. The persecution was occasioned by Antiochus’s efforts to unify his kingdom, in face of the rising power of Rome, by continuing the hellenization begun by Alexander the Great; Antiochus tried to force Jews to adopt Greek ways, including religious practices. Severe penalties, including death, were exacted against those who refused. Stories of these persecutions can be found in the two books of Maccabees.
The Gospel of Mark was written either immediately before or immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and signaled the beginning of Roman persecutions of Christians that lasted for three hundred years.
In an era when the people’s identity was imperiled, the book of Daniel sought to inspire perseverance. When the St. Mark’s community was dealing with the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, he sought to encourage them to persist in faith. As the worlds their people knew were literally and figuratively passing, the book of Daniel and the Gospel of Mark urged their communities on. Despite all appearances to the contrary, God had not abandoned them and a new age was imminent.
As we are now living through a time when the entire world is being threatened by a pandemic and by climate change and all sorts of social unrest, you can be sure that apocalyptic type stories are being written or filmed. I can think of several films that feature post-apocalyptic stories. Just as Daniel and Mark urged their communities to hold on to the truth that God would ultimately triumph over the tribulations of their age, we must also hold on to the truth that God has not abandoned us. As we proclaim every Sunday in the Creed: We believe that “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator