ordinary time The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

No One Knows the Day or Hour

DANIEL 12:1-3
HEBREWS 10:11-14, 18
MARK 13:24-32

Speculation about the end of time and the world as we know it is not unusual; seers and sages of all ages have been opining on this subject for centuries. However, whenever a millennial milestone looms on the horizon, speculation seems to soar to fever pitch. As the year 2000 C.E. approaches, citizens of the world can expect to be bombarded with predictions which range anywhere from the horrifying to the amusing. For example, Jeanne Le Royer (1732-1798), a lay sister in a convent in Brittany, predicted that the world would end in the year 2000 following a series of wars, earthquakes, social upheavals and the end of the papacy.

In 1973, a group of 800 people, under the leadership of Richard Kieninger established a community in a rural area 100 miles southwest of Chicago. Believing that the end will come on May 5, 2000, the group hopes to survive by building lighter-than-air vehicles in which to float above the turmoil. French prophet and astrologer Nostradamus (1503-1566) foretold that the world would end when Easter fell on April 25. This has happened in 1666, 1734, 1886, 1943 and will occur again in 2038. In 1379, St. Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419), a Spanish Dominican monk, basing his prediction on the number of verses in the Book of Psalms (2,537 verses), predicted the demise of the world in 3936 C.E.

Scientists, also, have fueled public anxiety by citing a series of possible ways in which the world could come to an end, e.g. (1) Sucked into a black hole. A large dead star which has collapsed and has become so incredibly dense that even light cannot escape it, black holes are thought to be a fatal attraction for any nearby matter; (2) Climate change. Another ice age or glacial period is expected in 2,000--10,000 years; if and when it occurs, over eight billion people will try to survive on 30% less land mass; (3) The greenhouse effect. A predicted temperature increase of 6o F is expected by the year 2030; if this occurs, polar regions will thaw, ocean levels will rise and vast areas of earth will be flooded; (4) Collision. Earth may be hit by a meteorite, asteroid or comet; (5) Cosmic Rays. Earth’s magnetic field is waning at present, making it susceptible to the rays of an exploding supernova and/or solar flares; (6) Nuclear War and its Aftermath. A familiar and frightening scenario, a possibility of nuclear war could wipe out up to 90% of the U.S. population and 50% of that of Russia; (7) The Death of the Sun. Considered as the ultimate disaster, the eventual cooling of the sun will occur only after an intense period of heating up which will boil away earth’s oceans and bake its crust unto lifelessness.

While these grim statistics and forebodings can instill dread within any human heart, the church, in the readings for today’s liturgy, offers a different frame of reference. Those who are concerned about the end, and who would fritter away their energies in this regard, are counseled to entrust the unknown and unknowable future to God’s caring and capable hands. Although the atmosphere may be rife with speculation, and while naysayers and doomsday prophets will abound, believers are called to remember the saying of Jesus quoted in today’s Marcan gospel. . . “as to the exact day or hour, no one knows it, neither the angels in heaven nor even the Son, but only the Father.“ With this statement as their shield, Jesus disciples can fend off any and every prediction and put to rest every inordinate fear. If no one knows the day or hour, then, speculators and their speculations should receive none of our attention; if no one knows the day or hour, then no prediction should warrant any measure of dread or anxiety.

Rather than focus on a day and an hour which is not ours to know or to determine, the author of Daniel (first reading) invites his readers to concern themselves with living wisely and justly in the present (v. 3). Those who do so are promised a share in everlasting life.

Similarly, the Hebrews’ author consoles believers with the knowledge that Jesus, who sits forever at God’s right hand, is our mediator. Through his sacrifice, we are forgiven of our sins and are being perfected and sanctified. Strengthened and encouraged by this knowledge, we look to the future with hope and serenity. Let the millennium come; it should not evoke fear but only joy at the prospect of yet another opportunity for loving and being loved by God.

DANIEL 12:1-3

Just as the millennial year will produce a bumper crop of misinterpretation and misunderstanding, so also does the literary genre known as apocalyptic literature. Intended by its authors as a source of encouragement, apocalyptic writings have often (albeit, unwittingly, and through ignorance) been abused; rather than provide comfort, this special genre has been wielded as a literary weapon in order to strike fear and remorse into the heart of the naive and trusting occupant of the fundamentalist pew.

A literature spawned during a period of crisis, apocalyptic flourished during the period of endangered hopes, persecuted ideals and tested faith which characterized the last two centuries B.C.E. and the first two centuries C.E. In order to encourage their suffering contemporaries to persevere in the faith, the originators of the apocalyptic genre offered their readers vivid images and visions of the invincibility of God’s reign and the satisfying notion that the just would be vindicated. While purporting to write of the past, the apocalyptic authors were actually concerned with their contemporary situation. Using cryptic language, numerology, bizarre dreams and visions, the apocalypticists were able to comment on and interpret their present experiences. For example, the author of Daniel couched his message in a sixth century B.C.E. literary setting, but he was actually writing ca 167 B.C.E. to encourage his fellow Jews to remain loyal to their religious traditions despite the allure of foreign cultures and the threat of persecution by their oppressors.

Determined to unite his vast empire, the Greek leader of the Seleucid dynasty, Antiochus Epiphanes IV attempted to homogenize all of its disparate elements under the one umbrella of Hellenism. In order to do so, the Greek despot outlawed the Hebrew faith and forbade its practice under pain of torture and even death (1 Maccabees 1:60-64); 2 Maccabees 6-9), burned its sacred books (1 Maccabees 1:56ff) and persecuted its adherents.

To enable his contemporaries to face the trials that were heaped upon them by Antiochus’ policies, the author of Daniel composed a series of vignettes and visions. The vignettes which comprise the first six chapters of Daniel are edifying stories about courageous heroes and heroines who endured and survived similar difficulties. The vision which comprise the second half of Daniel represented the history of the world as it had evolved up until the time of the author and his contemporaries.

Today’s first reading is a short excerpt from the second portion of Daniel; in it the author expresses his belief that the future will bring peace and fulfillment to those who remain faithful to God during their present experiences of persecution. Looking beyond the struggle and the troubles in which they were mired, the author of Daniel promised his readers that tribulation would yield to deliverance and life everlasting, even for those who died, rather than surrender their traditions to Hellenism and abandon their faith. “Those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake,” he promised, “some shall live forever,” while “others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace” (v. 2). This is a landmark text in the Hebrew Scriptures in that it is the first clear attestation concerning final resurrection, retribution and eternal life.

It is significant that those who will be resurrected to life will be radically transformed; they shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament and shall be like stars forever (v. 3). As Reginald Fuller (Preaching the New Lectionary, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: 1974) has noted, this apocalyptic concept of radical transformation is taken up again in the New Testament where the synoptic Jesus speaks of it as a life like that of the angels in heaven (Mark 12:25 and parallels) and where Paul speaks of the spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15; Philippians 3:21). Thus it is important to note that resurrection is understood, not as a resuscitation, wherein the same mode of existence is resumed, but as a complete transformation.

While each of us longs for this transformation, we are reminded that the manner in which we respond to the challenges of daily living and the effort we put forth in remaining faithful to the good news enables us to anticipate that transformation; this anticipation brings the blessings of everlasting life and fulfillment to bear upon the tragedy and turmoil of the present age. In this way we are strengthened in our hope for the age to come.

HEBREWS 10:11-14, 18

Those troubled by eschatological angst or by the thought of what they may encounter on the other side of the grave should be encouraged by these words from the unknown author of Hebrews. Jesus Christ, dead and risen to glory has already traversed the passage to eternal life. Seated at God’s right hand, his work complete, he now waits to welcome all who will follow him through death to life. Christ’s one sacrifice for sins has made unnecessary and ineffectual the sacrifices of the Old Covenant which were daily offered by the levitical priesthood.

According to the prescribed ritual recorded by the priestly authors of Leviticus, the former dispensation legislated five main type of sacrifice:

(1) the olah or holocaust required that the offering be completely consumed by fire on the altar as an act of praise to God on behalf of the community and/or in atonement for individual sin. (2) Minhah were cereal or grain offerings which were baked into cakes with fine oil and incense. Part of the minhah was burnt in sacrifice and the rest was allocated to the priests and their families. (3) Zebah Shelamin or peace offerings were of different types, e.g. (a) the offering of an animal in fulfillment in thanksgiving to God; (b) the votive offering of an animal in fulfillment of a vow of obligation; (c) the free will offering or a spontaneous gift. A portion of the peace offering was burned and the remainder was shared by the offerer and his/her family in the presence of God. Also called a communion sacrifice, the peace offering was thought to promote harmonious relations between God and those who offered it. (4) Hattah or sin offerings were prescribed for the expiation of some uncleanness, whether of an ethical or physical nature. (5) ’Asam or guilt offerings were made in the case of serious sin.

The recipients of Hebrews were well aware of these traditional sacrifices, hence the fact of Jesus’ one, unique and irrepeatable sacrifice was all the more poignant. Through Jesus’ saving gift of himself, perfect praise (holocaust) has been offered to God; sin and guilt, have been expiated (sin and guilt offerings) and absolute intimate union has been achieved (peace or communion offering). Whereas Israel’s priests had to return day after day to offer repeated sacrifices, Jesus’ sacrificial work has been fully accomplished. As Roland J. Foley (Footprints on the Mountain, Paulist Press, New York: 1994) has explained, the standing posture of the priests in their endless work contrasts with the seated posture of Jesus whose work has been realized (v. 12). The image of Jesus enthroned and waiting for his foes to be finally vanquished directly echoes Psalm 110, a Davidic royal psalm. Reginald Fuller (Preaching the New Lectionary, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: 1974) agrees that in relation to his death, resurrection and ascension, Christ’s work is completed - hence he can sit enthroned and wait for the full effects of his victory to be gathered in at the parousia (until his enemies shall be made a footstool for his feet: Psalm 110:1).

Nevertheless, in relation to the ongoing life of the Christian community and in the interim between his two advents, Jesus’ priestly work continues. He still makes intercession for us in the presence of God. While we have been “perfected” by Jesus saving activity, we are still in the process of “being sanctified” (v. 14). “Perfected” does not denote moral or ethical flawlessness; it means rather that, as the beneficiaries of Christ’s sacrifice, we have been fully initiated. As such, we have been granted full access to the God for whom and by whom we were created and with whom we have been intended to be united for all eternity.

Given these assurances, believers need not fear whatever may lie beyond the grave or allow eschatological angst to diminish their hope. With Christ as our perfect priest and sacrifice, we yearn for the full experience of the life to come.

MARK 13:24-32

In the Coptic version of the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas the disciples of Jesus inquired of him, “On what day does the kingdom come?” Jesus responded, “It does not come when it is expected. It will not be said, ‘Look here!’ or ‘Look there!’ Rather the kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth and people don’t see it!” (113:1-20). Elsewhere in this same gospel, Jesus is quoted as telling his followers, “God’s imperial reign is within you and outside you” (3:3). It would seem that this recently discovered gospel has preserved the notion that the eternal reign of God is not simply something in the unknown future for which to hope, but that it is also a reality that is somehow proleptically part of the present experience. This same insight is communicated in each of the canonical gospels and should put to rest all inordinate fear of the future. What has already been established through the words and works of Jesus during his first appearance will surely reach to its full and final culmination on the day when Jesus returns again at the end of time. Therefore, those who search the skies in dread for portents of that day would do well to attend more properly to the message of today’s gospel. What is called for is not worry but vigilance; what is being communicated is not chastisement but comfort because the Son of Man who has come will come again.

Mark’s vision of the Son of Man “coming in the clouds with great power and glory” (v. 26) can be understood as the eschatological climax to all of Jesus’ actions as Son of Man while on earth. As Son of Man, he had forgiven sins (2:10) and taught with authority (2:28). As Son of Man, Jesus had been rejected by the authorities and put to death (8:31; 9:31; 10:33). As Son of Man he had served and had given his life for the many, i.e. for all (10:45). In so doing, Jesus won a definitive victory over evil, defeating both sin and death. For those who still struggle in the heat of battle to appropriate in their own lives the victory of the Son of Man (viz., Mark’s persecuted contemporaries and their descendants through the ages unto the present day), the vision of the glorious, powerful Son of Man was and continues to be a source of strength and hope.

In the image of the fig tree, the Marcan Jesus teaches a lesson concerning the imminence of the expected Son of Man and the imperturbable approach of God’s reign. A symbol of abundance and peace, the annual revival of the fig tree with its gifts of fruit and shade came to be associated with the blessings of the messianic era.

Because of Jesus’ disclaimer, “no one knows the day or hour, not even the Son. . .” some have doubted the authenticity of this statement as a saying of Jesus. Arguing that Jesus was omniscient because he is God, these skeptics have attributed the saying to the early church. Regardless of its origin, this saying of Jesus (which is generally accepted as authentic) should not be interpreted via a Chalcedonian christological insight which evolved only in the fifth century C.E.

Readers of Mark should realize that the point of the statement in verse 32 was not to underscore Jesus’ limited human knowledge but to affirm the futility of speculating and worrying as to when the Son of Man would return. Today’s narrative is best understood as an invitation to vigilance and preparedness for the coming of the Son of Man. To interpret this gospel as anything else, i.e. as a time table of the end time or simply as a threat of cataclysmic phenomena (trials, darkened sun and moon, quakes, etc.) would be to misinterpret the apocalyptic genre in which it is couched. Such a misinterpretation serves only to perpetrate an injustice against the living word of God.

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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