Nov 14, 2021: 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 the text (e.g., the first person frequently alternating with the third), leading scholars to suspect that multiple authors and/or editors may have been involved.

The Book of Daniel is an example of apocapytic literature, which enjoyed a great deal of popularity for a 400 year period (200 BC to 200 AD). The imagery of apocalyptic literature was used to describe the cataclysmic experience of persecution. It was always addressed to the same audience (persecuted people) with the same theme: people should remain hopeful because their persecution would end soon. The Book of Daniel was written during the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes around 167-164 BC.

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 time of distress is the time of war and persecution that led up to and included the persecution that the people were suffering under Antiochus Epiphanes.

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

As mentioned, the theme of apocalyptic literature, and of this passage in particular, is to offer hope.

The book referred to here is presumably the Book of the Righteous (see Exodus 32:32-33; Psalm 69:28). The names written there symbolize those who are truly the people of God — those whom God regards as his people because they have stayed faithful to him.

The righteous will have to endure the agony of the end times, but they will be saved from ultimate destruction. God will ultimately triumph.

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake;

Employing a euphemism for death (“sleep in the dust”), Daniel describes the general resurrection believed to be coming at the end of time.

This is the earliest mention in scripture of a hope in life after death — a hope that was brought to fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

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 end times present a view of human history from the end looking backward, an inspiring countervision for believers suffering from 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.

In today’s reading, the last in our study of Hebrews, the author continues his comparison between Jesus, the great high priest, with the Jewish high priests.

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 was 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, was unable to accomplish. He has conquered evil.

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’s gospel reading concludes our study of the Gospel of Mark. It is part of a long speech Jesus makes to his disciples about the apocalypse, which he makes just before the Last Supper.

After Jesus and his disciples observed the poor widow who gave away all that she had to the temple treasury (the story we read in last week’s gospel), they made their way out of the temple area. The disciples remarked with awe about the buildings: “Look, teacher, what stones and what buildings!” (Mark 13:1). Jesus responded, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be one stone left upon another that will not be thrown down” (Mark 13:2).

As they were sitting opposite the temple area, the disciples asked Jesus, “Tell us, when will this happen, and what sign will there be when all these things are about to come to an end?” (Mark 13:4). Jesus told the disciples that there would be a time of terrible persecution. “Watch out for yourselves. They will hand you over to the courts. You will be beaten in synagogues. You will be arraigned before governors and kings because of me, as a witness before them” (Mark 13:9).

Jesus then went on to describe a time of terrible tribulation for all the people: “For those times will have tribulation such as has not been since the beginning of God’s creation until now, nor ever will be” (Mark 13:19). This is the point at which today’s reading begins.

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 echoes 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.

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.

When Jesus had earlier described his coming persecution and death he told the apostles that “the Son of Man” would be turned over to the chief priests and scribes and be put to death. So when he uses the same phrase here, we know that he is referring to himself. Jesus is using apocalyptic imagery to assure his disciples that he will conquer evil.

Note that the Son of Man 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, who 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.

Jesus continues his eschatological discourse by telling the disciples that they must learn to recognize the signs of the times.

The fig is a staple fruit in the Middle East and was often used as a symbol of the messianic age. When the disciples see a fig tree sprout leaves, they know summer is near. Similarly, when the events Jesus 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.

Recall that this long speech was in answer to the disciples’ question, “When will this happen, and what sign will there be when all these things are about to come to an end?” (Mark 13:4).

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 that 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 AD, and the temple, the center of the devout Jewish world, was destroyed in 70 AD — one “generation” later.

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

If we take this literally, the event has either already occurred (as previously noted about the destruction of the temple), 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 or the day, let 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.

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 a revelation to his human nature, and in this case, the revelation has not yet been made. This is consistent with what Saint Luke tells us about Jesus’ upbringing: “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man,” Luke 2:52.

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 end times 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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