Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction and please re-look at the readings for Sunday before continuing (these will open in a separate window for ease of reading):
“About that day or hour no one knows…” This Sunday we come to the last of our readings from the Gospel of Mark for this year’s cycle. Next week, the feast of Christ the King, the reading will be from the Gospel of John then with Advent we begin the Gospel of Luke.
The question raised in the Gospel this Sunday at the end of the Church’s year is “when?”, when will the Son of Man come in glory. This is the second question in the discourse which Jesus gives sitting on the Mount of Olives, the first being “what?”, what are the signs of the end. As I noted last Sunday, I do not include the departure from the Temple with this discourse about the last times even though that is common practice1. The departure from the Temple could easily lead straight on into the account of the Passion. However, the evangelist needs to address these two questions which are in the future for Jesus himself but contemporary for his community and certainly for all ages, for us as well. The evangelist therefore inserts this discourse so as to address these matters. The result is the longest uninterrupted speech by Jesus in this Gospel.
Accordingly, we are told that the four original disciples, Peter, James, John and Andrew, approach Jesus with their two questions. Jesus is already sitting and therefore in teaching mode (as for the Sermon on the Mount). The Mount of Olives is not only across the valley from the Temple it is also the place where the Messiah was expected to appear at the end of time. Jesus’ reply to the two questions, when and what, are best heard as a prophetic discourse addressed, as I have suggested, not so much to the four disciples as to the evangelist’s own community several decades later. This speech is prophecy because it describes and calls upon the community to have the right attitude, that of watching and being alert, during its time of waiting. The message of the prophets across both Old and New Testaments, can be seen as both warnings and encouragement given in particular historical circumstances.
Jesus in his discourse replies to the two questions, taking “what” first. The “what” question is not included among the Sunday Gospels. The “when” question though is presented in two parts. This Sunday we hear about the gathering of the chosen. This leads as I quoted at the beginning to the hour which is not known. That is followed by an exhortation to keep awake and stay alert. That follow-up though was read as the Sunday Gospel right back at the beginning of the year, on the 1st Sunday of Advent last year. If you have my reflection for that Sunday, you will find I made there some similar comments introducing this discourse.
The “what” question therefore is not heard as a Sunday Gospel. Yet we need to look at it because it is closely linked Jesus’ reply to the “when” question. That Jesus’ reply is quite general indicates that it belongs to all ages. So Jesus begins with wars and rumours of wars, a comment which is appropriate today as Remembrance Sunday. As we honour those who gave their lives in war, we need to remember the devastation that war causes. In this small Sussex village 90 names were read out of those who died in the Great War, many clearly from the same family. This Sunday is also World Day of the Poor, a reminder that it is the poor whose lives are wrecked by war, as continues to happen in many places today.
Jesus then continues by speaking of the persecutions of his disciples, of Christians down the ages. He notes that the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Finally, Jesus talks about disasters in much more general terms with a number of echoes from the Old Testament. The original abomination of desolation referred to a Greek statue erected in the Temple, which for the Jews was an act of total sacrilege. We have here a warning about how easy it is to be led astray by false prophets and false messiahs. Jesus then ends the first part of his discourse with the call to be alert and that he has told them everything. This concludes a thoroughly prophetic presentation, Jesus preparing his disciples, the elect, for what is to come.
We now come to second part and the Gospel for this Sunday, beginning “But in those days.” That’s a quite vague answer to the question of “when”. The opening imagery comes from various prophets. The time of distress refers to the Old Testament reading for this Sunday. This comes from the end of the book of Daniel, a notable passage because it is the earliest reference in the Bible to the resurrection of the dead.
Then we see a different Son of Man to the Son of Man who we were told earlier would be handed over to his enemies . Here we have the Son of Man of Daniel about whom we will hear next Sunday. This would be a day of vindication for the people who have remained faithful, the elect.
This is immediately followed by the image of the fig tree and the signs of summer. The fig tree is unusual in Palestine because it is not an evergreen. Again, Jesus is not being pinned down on exactly when this will be. “This generation” has already extended 2,000 years.
So, finally, the discourse ends with the Gospel we had on the first Sunday of Advent last year. There is a repeated emphasis on the need to watch, to be alert. Now is the time, the time for discernment, even though we don't know when the final time will be.
The need to be alert is the final words of Jesus to his disciples and to us before the Passion begins. We can make the psalm our prayer: Show us, Lord, the path of life.
1 The Revised New Jerusalem Bible oddly places a major division between the disciples’ questions and the discourse introduced by those questions.