Homily for the Second Sunday before Advent Year B
Daniel 12.1-3; Hebrews 10.11-14; 19-25; Mark 13.1-8
Imposing buildings have always communicated something of the power and wealth of their builders: this has been part of their purpose. Herod’s Temple was a wonder of the world, the largest and finest building that most who saw it would ever see. When the disciples encounter these ‘large stones and large buildings’, one of their first instincts is perhaps to wonder whether it’s absolutely wise to be picking so many fights with the people in charge. They’ve only been in town for three days, but Jesus has already announced the apostasy of the Temple regime, symbolically causing a fig tree to wither, and enacting a parable of the Temple’s destruction by overturning money-changers’ tables and driving out the traders. His parable of the wicked tenants is a public denunciation of opponents who understand his meaning and are in consequence angry and vengeful.
It is conceivably an awareness of this dangerous atmosphere that prompts the disciple’s exclamation at the beginning of chapter 13. But Jesus is in no mood to be impressed or emollient: all of this will fall down, he promises: it will all be dust. Whether by dint of gratuitous Roman force or the divine abandonment of faithless Israel, the Temple will offer no salvation to God’s people. Not one stone will remain on top of another. All will come tumbling down.
But when will this be? ask the incredulous disciples, perhaps convinced that this Titanic of temples is indestructible. Their question receives no answer: only the Father knows such things. No doubt one of the many impostors who will claim to be the Chosen One or Jesus-returned-to-earth will be more than happy to offer a precise date for the Temple’s destruction, or even for the ending of the world. But Jesus permits no such speculation: the only task for his disciples, for Mark’s readers and for us, is to remain alert, to avoid alarm, and to endure to the end: in short, to Keep Calm and Carry on.
There will be many things to alarm and distract them: there will be wars and natural disasters; betrayals and persecutions; they will be caught up in the bloody fall-out of imperial power-struggles and the brutal quelling of Jewish revolt. The fall of a building as significant as the Temple will be a moment of far-reaching consequence: well might they ask the question when?
But none of these events is to be taken as a sign that the Lord is about to come in glory, to establish his reign, put an end to suffering and reward the righteous. They are simply —to use the ubiquitous image of the Old Testament— just the beginnings of the birth pangs of God’s coming kingdom. The end is not now. Evil has more work to do. In a gradual unravelling of the work of creation, the sun and the moon will be extinguished and the stars will fall from the sky. In such deep darkness, the only recourse will be flight to the mountains, without even stopping for a winter coat.
When then might we expect our God to intervene? This is the repeated question of those who suffer. God, where are you? Are you busy? On a journey? Are you asleep? This is the question heard in the trenches of the First World War; it was asked by those who died in the concentration camps of the Second World War; it will be asked by those who perish, and by those who remain to witness the ongoing violence of Burundi, the conflagration of Syria, the hellish refugee camps that punctuate the globe in its poverty and suffering; and it is of course the question asked all weekend as we turn our eyes to the incomprehensible suffering of our near neighbours in Paris. God, where are you? When will you intervene?
The biblical tradition is rich in images of God sitting in judgement on faithless Israel, only to relent, defeat the various enemy armies and then lead God’s flock to eventual freedom. It is in order to capture some of this story that St Mark sets chapter 13 on the Mount of Olives. What may look like a superfluous geographical detail is in fact reminiscent of the prophecy of Zechariah, in which God sits on the Mount of Olives as on a judgement seat, then causes it to split in two (like the Red Sea), providing an escape route for the trapped Israelites. And on this day of deliverance there will be no darkness but only light; and the Lord will become king over all the earth (cf Zechariah 14. 4-9).
As he and his disciples look across from this same Mount of Olives, Jesus foresees no easy escape from the suffering of Jerusalem, and no future role for the Temple in the work of salvation. This work, as the early followers of Jesus are clear, is taken on by Jesus himself: as today’s epistle has it, all necessary sacrifice is made in the flesh of Jesus himself: we in turn are sprinkled not with the blood of beasts, but with the water of baptism, by which we are incorporated as living stones into the Temple of the Lord’s body, empowered for his redemptive work in the world.
And perhaps we ‘living stones’ are destined for destruction and obsolescence as surely as the mighty stone Temple of two millennia ago? There are plenty who would happily see an end to any sense of the divine and any understanding of religious tradition and belonging. As a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist put it on Friday night, ‘Friends from the whole world, thank you for #prayforParis, but we don’t need more religion! Our faith goes to music! Kissing! Life! Champagne and joy! #Parisisaboutlife’.
History will reveal how much time we have. For the moment, we can only respond faithfully and patiently to the gospel command to remain alert and endure suffering. In most western parishes, this will be confined to the usual human experience of sickness and frustration and an occasional broken heart. But we cannot know the day or the hour when we may be required to experience such pain as is suffered today in France. We must ready ourselves for this possibility, not with hatred or suspicion or incarceration behind high walls. Rather, we must (as the epistle puts it) ‘hold fast to the confession of our hope, without wavering’, living in ‘the way that Jesus opened for us, provoking one another to love and good deeds.’
We must resist the lure and wasted energy of speculating about the Lord’s return, preferring to proclaim and model his love and forgiveness as powerful weapons, demonstrating his welcome to all people, not to make them like ourselves, but to delight in them as they are. This is the way of life that will respond most effectively to the current darkness, offer comfort to the grieving, support to the bewildered, confidence to the fearful and companionship to any who feel corralled by suspicion and earmarked for retribution.
In six weeks, we will celebrate the birth of Christ, whom we acknowledge as the light who shines in the darkness without ever being quenched. All of us who are part of the Temple of his body must communicate this character and his work of redeeming through unstoppable love. This will never inoculate us against the pain of profound loss, but it will at least place us firmly at the Lord’s side, close enough to be formed by contact with him, to study him closely and thus to imitate him most convincingly in these bewildering and unsettling days.