Advent, as the name itself suggests, is a threshold time, a crossing-over. It is a time when we turn to the anticipated joyful celebration of the birth of Jesus, God with us.
So it is a bit surprising to read the gospel for the first Sunday of Advent, which takes place in Jerusalem toward the last days of Jesus’ life. It is a period when Jesus shares both warnings and promises with his disciples.
Just before the opening words of this morning’s gospel, one of Jesus’ disciples had exclaimed about the enormous size of the stones in the temple. Jesus replied that the temple would be destroyed, that there would be suffering such as has not been from the beginning of the creation and that false prophets would arise.
The gospel for the first Sunday of Advent (Mark 13:24-37) begins after this sobering discussion with an apocalyptic vision.
‘But in those days, after that suffering,
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.
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 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.
To Jesus’ disciples, many of whom were visiting Jerusalem for the first time and being awed by the wonders of the temple, this dark turn in Jesus’ words followed by this promise of his return in great power and glory might have given them whiplash. Here was a rollercoaster of ideas of beauty, destruction and Jesus’ triumphant return, all in a few moments.
Jesus’ apocalyptic vision seems to respond to the opening lines of the first reading for this day, (Isaiah 64:1-2)
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
Mark wrote his gospel after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. When that happened, it must have seemed like the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy, roughly 40 years earlier… except that they did not see the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Some scholars believe that this was a post-destruction commentary, added by Mark, rather than the words of Jesus himself. Others, such as the Anglican bishop N.T. Wright believe that the story is consistent with Jesus’ larger apocalyptic vision … allowing for the tension created by the delay in the arrival of Christ.
The gospel for December 3rd continues,
‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.
It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.
Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’
Recall Matthew’s gospel from the Nov 19th when Jesus told a parable with a similar plot about a man, going on a journey, (who) summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Life went on in the owner’s absence, with the slaves enjoying freedom of action. At an undefined time…you do not know when the master of the house will come… the owner returned and asked for an accounting of what the slaves had done with their gifts. Today’s gospel from Mark also refers to an undefined end time of judgement.
Two questions arise from this gospel. One is: what does this gospel about the end times have to do with Advent and the birth of Christ. The other is: why focus on the end times.
As Christians we answer both question by saying that the incarnation of God is the single most important event in the history of the world… to date. The ultimate important event, the subject of today’s gospel, will be Christ’s return in glory and judgement. Both events involve the physical arrival of Jesus Christ, the son of God among us, first as an infant, born to humble people, and next as the ruler of all.
Last week’s gospel for the feast of the Reign of Christ (Matt 25:31-46) illuminates the significance of the end of the world. In that gospel, as in Jesus’ own life, neither the saved nor damned recognized Christ for whom he truly was. (Recall that neither Mary Magdalene near the tomb on Easter Sunday (John 20:11-16) nor the disciples on the road to Emmaus recognized the risen Christ, (Luke 24:13-32)) But at the end of last week's gospel we heard that,
The Son of Man… will sit on the throne of glory. All nations will be gathered…the king will say to those at his right, “Come, you blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you…for I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me…drink, a stranger and you welcomed me…naked and you gave me clothing, sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.” The righteous will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and give you food, thirsty and give you… drink?… a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?… sick or in prison and visited you?” The king will answer, “… just as you did it to one of…these members of my family, you did it to me.” (As we will hear in the gospel for the second Sunday of Advent, even John the Baptist did not initially recognize Jesus as “the One”.)