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33rd Sunday in ordinary time: The true apocalypse

Today’s readings: Daniel 12, 1-3; Hebrews 10, 11-14.18; Mark 13, 24-32.

The coming of God’s kingdom, being so radically different from whatever we can imagine, has always been made to coincide in the Scriptures with cosmic upheaval and expressed in apocalyptic language in terms of the end of times. The gospel text and the reading from Daniel speak of a time of distress and powers that will be shaken.

The Scriptures are in no way to be read as predictions of earthly and cosmic cataclysms or as a sort of Nostradamus, the 16th century seer who allegedly predicted so many events. The role of God’s word in our life, as Jesus today suggests with the fig tree parable, is to help us read inside ourselves and bridge the abyss between our life as believers and the rest of our life.

In the cosmic portents referred to in today’s readings there is a sense judgement which is not the sword of Damocles, a sort of haunting and ever-present peril over our heads. It is rather the sound judgement that reveals to us, as Thomas Merton wrote in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, “if we are building a fabulously wonderful world or destroying all that we have ever had”.

This is surely not about the end of the world, but rather about the renewal of everything in the universe. The Scripture envisions the dawn of a new world which first demands that the powers that distort and darken our humanness be toppled. Ultimately, the ‘heavenly signs’ referred to are more ‘earthly’ than we may think.

The ‘end of times’ here is each and every moment we live which, depending on how we live it, can be a taste of everlasting life or everlasting disgrace. But it all starts here because, with a couple of provisos, life is what we make it at the end of the day. Not acknowledging this means that we are resigned to live at the mercy of the powers that be, be they our own attitudes or moods or all that impacts us from outside.

This is practically about the management of our lives, reading of the times now, and accordingly taking measures not to lose the grace of the present moment. Proverbially we speak of the calm before the tempest. Here it is the other way round. The gospel speaks of the upheavals that unmask our spiritual vacuum which a superficial  religion can never fill.

The gospel has always been handed down as good news about life, about the world, about our human existence. It is about life, not disaster, about creativity, not destruction. St Mark, in today’s text, is simply issuing a warning to communities already going through tribulations to consolidate their belief that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away”.

We live in the provisional, and the more time passes, due also to our own carelessness for creation, the world is becoming more and more vulnerable. We also are becoming more vulnerable and insecure, going through a fourth industrial revolution where technology is not simply transforming our way of living but even challenging who we really are and want to be.

Beyond the apocalyptic fantasies that today’s gospel text may trigger, it is this internal upheaval in our very identities that should make us stand up and open our eyes. The apocalyptic language used in the Bible is today no longer mythological but scientifically real, it is basically what we are witnessing before our very eyes and experiencing in our very bodies.

Our apocalypse today is not the darkening of the sun, or that the moon is losing its brightness, or that the stars are falling. The true apocalypse the Scriptures refer to is what realistically is bringing death and destruction around us and what ultimately we already experience as a time of distress. Again, Merton is lapidary: “We think we know what we ought to be doing, and we see ourselves move, with the inexorable deliberation of a machine that has gone wrong, to do the opposite”.

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