Nov 18, 2018: 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Those who lead the many to justice... shall be like the stars forever.

1st Reading – Daniel 12:1-3

In those days, I Daniel,
heard this word of the Lord:
“At that time there shall arise
Michael, the great prince,
guardian of your people;
it shall be a time unsurpassed in distress
since nations began until that time.
At that time your people shall escape,
everyone who is found written in the book.

“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake;
some shall live forever,
others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.

“But the wise shall shine brightly
like the splendor of the firmament,
and those who lead the many to justice
shall be like the stars forever.”

Although the book of Daniel tells us virtually all that we know about the prophet of the same name, the author is unknown. There are unusual changes in construction throughout (e.g., the first person frequently alternating with the third), leading scholars to suspect that multiple authors and/or editors may be involved.

Daniel had four apocalyptic visions which are described in chapters 7 through 12. Today’s reading comes from the ending of the fourth vision: an apocalyptic scene depicting the final struggle of human beings at the end of time.

In those days, I Daniel, heard this word of the Lord: “At that time there shall
arise Michael, the great prince, guardian of your people;

In Judaism every nation has a guardian angel, and Michael was considered the guardian angel of Israel (see Daniel 10:21).  The reference to Michael as a “great prince” is a reference to his status as an archangel.

It shall be a time unsurpassed in distress since nations began until that time.

This probably refers to the final tribulation that will occur before the eschatological reign of God begins.

At that time your people shall escape, everyone who is found written in the book.

The book is presumably the Book of the Righteous (see Exodus 32:32-33; Psalm 69:28). Those whose names are in the book will have to endure the agony of the end times, but they will be saved from ultimate destruction.

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth

A euphemism for death.

shall awake;

The general resurrection believed to be coming at the end of time. This is the earliest mention in Scriptures of the belief in the resurrection of the dead.

some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace. 

Some of the dead are rewarded with eternal life, the others are punished with horror and disgrace.

But the wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, 

The firmament is the sky, conceived as a solid dome.

and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.”

Within those who are granted everlasting life, some are set apart for further distinction.  The wise had been a source of illumination in the lives of others; in the new age they will continue to shine like stars in the heavens, where their brilliance can be seen by all.

Images like these of the endtimes present a view of human history from the end looking backwards, an inspiring countervision for believers suffering with doubts or persecution.  If those who lead the many to justice will shine like stars, Christians living today, in the time between Christ’s ascension and his second coming, are summoned to join those leaders now.

2nd Reading – Hebrews 10:11-14, 18

Brothers and sisters:
Every priest stands daily at his ministry,
offering frequently those same sacrifices
that can never take away sins.
But this one offered one sacrifice for sins,
and took his seat forever at the right hand of God;
now he waits until his enemies are made his footstool.
For by one offering
he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated.

Where there is forgiveness of these,
there is no longer offering for sin.

Today’s reading, the last in our study of Hebrews, describes the unique sacrifice of Christ.  An understanding of the Jewish practice of sin offering is required to fully understand the points being made.

Brothers and sisters: Every priest stands daily at his ministry,

As a gesture of respect for God, Levitical priests stood while offering sacrifice.  They only sat down when their work was complete.

offering frequently those same sacrifices that can never take away sins.

While a sacrifice might be made beyond spatial boundaries (e.g., for an entire nation), it could not be projected into the future.  Therefore, because of the pervasiveness of human sinfulness, there is a need for near-constant expiation.  Over and over again, priests offered sacrifices for their own transgressions and for those of the people.

But this one offered one sacrifice for sins,

In contrast, Christ’s perfect sacrifice transcends both space and time, expiating all transgressions of all people of all time.  His singular status as high priest and the infinite value of his offering (his blood, which is God’s blood) have set his sacrifice apart from all others.

and took his seat forever at the right hand of God;

Because total and complete expiation have been accomplished, there is no need for Jesus to stand and offer another sacrifice.  Therefore, with his work complete, he takes his seat at God’s right hand, the place of highest honor.

now he waits until his enemies are made his footstool.

This image is a reference to Psalm 110, where the kind is enthroned at God’s right hand, with his enemies vanquished under his feet.

The reference to waiting likely refers to the time between Jesus’ enthronement and the parousia, the second coming of Christ.

For by one offering he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated.  Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer offering for sin.

Christ has accomplished what the sacrificial system of Israel, despite its preeminence, has been unable to accomplish.

Gospel – Mark 13:24-32

Jesus said to his disciples:
“In those days after that tribulation
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from the sky,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

“And then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’
with great power and glory,
and then he will send out the angels
and gather his elect from the four winds,
from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.

“Learn a lesson from the fig tree.
When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves,
you know that summer is near.
In the same way, when you see these things happening,
know that he is near, at the gates.
Amen, I say to you,
this generation will not pass away
until all these things have taken place.
Heaven and earth will pass away,
but my words will not pass away.

“But of that day or hour, no one knows,
neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Today we also conclude our study of the Gospel of Mark.  In this reading, set just before Holy Thursday and the Last Supper, Jesus teaches about the apocalypse.

Jesus said to his disciples: “In those days after that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

This echos the writings of several prophets: Isaiah 13:10, Ezekiel 32:7-9, Joel 2:10.

In the ancient world, the rudimentary conflict was between order and chaos.  God’s creative power was seen in his ability to bring primordial chaos under control (see Genesis 7:17-24).  The return of chaos, as described here, was a sign of the complete reversal of the order of creation.

The ancient Israelites believed that such a reversal would occur before the birth of the new age of fulfillment.

And then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ 

Jesus cites Daniel 7:13.  The coming of the Son of Man heralds the advent of the new age.  As in Exodus and Numbers, clouds indicate the presence of divinity.

“This could be taken in two ways: one, that He will come in the Church as in a cloud, as He continues to come now according to His word: ‘Hereafter you shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of the power of God and coming in the clouds of heaven’ (Matthew 26:64). He comes with great power and majesty because His greater power and majesty will appear in the saints to whom He will give great power, so that they may not be overcome by such persecution. The other way in which He will come will be in His body in which He sits at the right hand of the Father (Mark 16:19; Romans 8:34; Colossians 3:1), in which, also, He died and rose again and ascended into heaven” [Saint Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 418), Letter to Hesychius, No. 199, 41].

with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.

Note that he comes in power and glory, not fury and destruction; he comes to gather his elect, not scatter them.

This is the great ingathering of the elect, the time of harvesting, the “Day of the Lord.”  Many of the prophets described this day as one of wrath and judgment (Amos 5:18-20); however, it was originally anticipated at a joyous occasion, when God’s victory would be celebrated.

Here, it’s both: for some it will be a day of terror, for others it will be a time of great rejoicing.  For those in Mark’s audience that were living in a time of persecution, this would have been a welcome reminder that those who suffer are not forgotten in God’s eyes.

“Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates.

The fig is a staple fruit in the Middle East and was often used as a symbol of the messianic age.  In parable form, Jesus points to the tree’s blossoming in the spring as a sign of the advent of ripening figs.  Similarly, when the events he has described take place, it will be a sign that the Son of Man is coming.

Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

Generation (geneá) can refer to a descent group or to an unspecified period of time.  In this case, the second meaning fits better than the first, especially considering the verse the follows.

Some commentators note that a generation was often considered to be 40 years.  In that context, it’s interesting to note that Jesus said this in 30 A.D., and the temple, the center of devout Jewish world, was destroyed in 70 A.D. — one “generation” later.

In the 17th century, Father Cornelius a Lapide wrote that Origen, Saint Hilary, and Saint John Chrysostom took “generation” to mean the generation of believers that sprang from Christ, as noted in Psalm 24:6: This is the generation of them that seek the Lord.  From this perspective, Jesus would essentially be saying, “Christianity will not come to an end until the Day of Judgment.”

“We must not inordinately fix upon the chronology of what is said in Scripture, because frequently the Holy Spirit, having spoken of the end of the last times, then returns again to address a previous time, and fills up what had before been left unsaid. Nor must we look for a specific chronology in apocalyptic visions, but rather follow the meaning of those things which are prophesied” [Saint Victorinus of Pettau (ca. A.D. 280), Commentary on the Apocalypse, 7].

“But of that day or hour, no one knows,

Jesus states that these things will occur within the next generation, but the specific day or hour within the generation is not known.

If we take this literally, the event has either already occurred, as previously noted, or it has lost its meaning.  After all, how many generations have passed since Jesus said these words?  The key is not to reduce the text to a single historical generation, but rather, let it speak to every historical generation.  After all, the end times happen to us all, both in terms of our singular, personal death, and the passing of our entire generation into history.

Within that context, the bottom line is this: be prepared!  Be prepared for death.  Be prepared for a tribulation, or time of distress.  Be prepared for the coming of the Son of Man.  This message is not so much a warning about the end of the world as it is a commentary on living in it.  This day, this moment, this life, is the time to bear the fruit.  Another year has hurtled by.  Seize the day.

Since we do not know the hour of the day, this this be the hour, let this be the day.  Let this be the time that we live.

neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Following a remarkable claim of authority, Jesus states that all things are in God’s hands.  Just as God exercised supreme authority over chaos at the time of creation, so the new creation is the exclusive work of God.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this verse has been used by some as an argument against the divinity of Jesus.  If Jesus is God, and God is omniscient, how could he be ignorant of the day and hour?

Jesus is ignorant not according to his divinity, which sees and knows all things, but according to his humanity.  His divine nature makes revelation to his human nature, and in the case, the revelation has not yet been made.  This is consistent with what St. Luke tells us about Jesus’ upbringing: “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man,” Luke 2:52.

“It is sometimes turned into a reproach against the only begotten God that He did not know the day and the hour. It is said that, though God, born of God, He is not in the perfection of divine nature, since He is subjected to the limitation of ignorance, namely, to an external force stronger than Himself, triumphing, as it were, over His weakness. The heretics in their frenzy would try to drive us to this blasphemous interpretation: that He is thus captive to this external limitation, which makes such a confession inevitable. The words are those of the Lord Himself. What could be more unholy, we ask, than to corrupt His express assertion by our attempt to explain it away? But, before we investigate the meaning and occasion of these words, let us first appeal to the judgment of common sense. It is credible, that He, who stands to all things as the author (see Hebrews 12:2) of their present and future, should not know all things? … All that is derives from God alone in its origin, and has in Him alone the efficient cause of its present state and future development. Can anything be beyond the reach of His nature, through which is effected, and in which is contained, all that is and shall be? Jesus Christ knows the thoughts of the mind, as it is now, stirred by present motives, and as it will be tomorrow, aroused by the impulse of future desires. … Whenever God says that He does not know, He professes ignorance indeed, but is not under the defect of ignorance. It is not because of the infirmity of ignorance that He does not know, but because it is not yet the time to speak, or in the divine plan to act. … This knowledge is not, therefore, a change from ignorance, but the coming of a fullness of time. He waits still to know, but we cannot suppose that He does not know. Therefore His not knowing what He knows, and His knowing what He does not know, is nothing else than a divine economy in word and deed” [Saint Hilary of Poiters (between A.D. 356-359), The Trinity, 9,58-62].

Connections and Themes

  • The central theme of this week’s readings is the end of time and the corresponding apocalyptic events:
    • In the first reading, Daniel speaks of a time “unsurpassed in distress” but followed by a general resurrection of the dead, when those who “lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.”
    • The second reading describes Christ sitting triumphantly at the right hand of God, having completed his atoning sacrifice.
    • The gospel reading conveys the end of Jesus’ eschatological discourse in Mark, in which he predicts the destruction of the Temple and the return of the Son of Man in glory.
  • It’s no coincidence that we read these apocalyptic stories at the end of the liturgical year, when we are concluding our yearly telling of the story of salvation.  However, these readings are helpful to us in any time of struggle or suffering.   They lift us up and remind us to trust in God, who is the ultimate victor.
  • Note that in each of the readings, good triumphs over evil.  The biblical understanding of the endtimes is that it will usher in the reign of God, which will include not only victory, but peace, justice, abundance, and vindication of the innocent.  This future world we envision is in stark contrast to the world we face today, a world we grieve over.  Our hopes should shape our lives as powerfully as our faith and our love.  If we hope for a future of justice and peace, we must work to make that future begin now.

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