Daniel 12.1-3; Hebrews 10.11-14 [15-18] 19-25; Mark 13.1-8
EVERY child at a pantomime knows the excitement of the moment when the curtain rises and a new world opens before us, one in which strange possibilities emerge that will reconfigure the potential of this world as we experience it.
In contrast, there are also occasions, perhaps not at the pantomime, when the curtain falls on a scene of unbearable pathos and tragedy. We are not lifted to our feet with applause, but soak up instead the astonishment of a momentary silence, profound, explicit, and collective. Something real has emerged from the stage. Theatrical construct has played a trick on us to reveal a terrible truth for which the programme notes had not prepared us.
The end of the remarkable film The Pianist is a bit like that; so was the ending of English National Opera’s recent production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. In both instances, we are made to feel distinctly uncomfortable, and know that we ought to be.
The curtain plays an important part in the Old and New Testament readings appointed for today. It is an apocalyptic part, to use a word derived from Greek, or of revelation in the more familiar Latin derivation. But, in fact, the Greek word is important here, because it is a technical term that describes a particular type of literature that is characteristic of Judaism.
The Book of Daniel is Jewish apocalyptic writing. We are familiar with it in its use of dreams and their interpretation as a way of drawing back the curtain to allow a vision of the future (2.19; 7.1), or allowing the curtain to fall by way of warning and prophecy (5.1-end). Today’s Gospel reading from St Mark has long since been identified as the “Little Apocalypse” — a distinct episode of a particular type of writing.
One characteristic element in apocalyptic writing is that it re-uses Old Testament imagery in new ways. This is a bit like the way in which Salvador Dali explores religious themes in his surreal painting, re-using New Testament images. So, in his famous painting Christ of St John of the Cross, the image of a dark night, conjuring up betrayal (John 13.30), is also used to express the concept of the risk and mystery of faith. The cross hangs, improbably, in the darkness: it is not defined by time and place.
Similarly, as the painting views the crucifixion from above, looking down on the head of Jesus, our eye is drawn inevitably down the length of the cross, beyond a daylight sky to where we hit the Sea of Galilee, and two fishermen and their boats. This is where another New Testament image takes on fresh meaning. Discipleship is now viewed in the light of the cross. The perfectly mundane routine of life is lived in the context of something cosmic: redemption is not for Sunday, it is for every day.
It is perhaps pushing the analogy a bit far to say that Jewish apocalyptic is like surreal art, but I think the comparison gives us an idea about how, in both cases, familiar images are used, sometimes weirdly, in order to express a reality that does not fit the confines of rational description.
It is also worth noting that apocalyptic literature tends to emerge from circumstances of persecution. This is certainly the case with the Book of Daniel, as we know from Daniel’s experience in the lions’ den. A similar context of persecution also confronts the Early Church, which collected together these apocalyptic sayings of Jesus.
Here, again, we find that extreme needs produce an extreme, complex medium. Not simply the extremity of believing in mystery, but also the extremity of suffering and powerlessness which feeds the apocalyptic imagination. Once again, art understands this literary convention well. Picasso’s Guernica jumbles human body parts, domestic detail, and the animal kingdom in a kaleidoscope of suffering which is artistic protest, declaring an incredulity and outrage that feed off the potency of the mind.
These elements combine in today’s readings. The basic theme is the vindication of righteousness — not the exclusive preserve of Christians, let it be noted, but a term that describes those who are wise and promote virtue in others (Daniel 12.3). The Gospel reading pulls together a number of Old Testament themes, of which the destruction of the city, or of the temple, is one, and encounter with false prophets is another. Warfare is also a familiar Old Testament context for demonstrating faithfulness to God in the most perilous of times, with salvation as the gift for those who endure to the end.
Reference to the artistic imagination will, I hope, enable us to see that apocalyptic writing expresses faith through an impressionistic, not factual, genre. But that does not make it unreal. Indeed, in every eucharist this impressionistic truth is given real expression in a human being who embodies the priesthood of Jesus Christ, making visible an invisible reality, the life of heaven.
The eucharist is thus the original protest drama, worship that celebrates the vindication of wisdom and justice. Here the curtain between earth and heaven parts: everyday life becomes, “surreally”, a theatrical celebration of heaven anticipated.
Canon Warner is Treasurer of St Paul’s Cathedral and the Bishop-designate of Whitby.
Text of readings
In the third year of King Cyrus a word was revealed to Daniel. 1‘At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. 2Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.’
11Every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. 12But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God’, 13and since then has been waiting ‘until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.’ 14For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,
16‘This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds’,
17he also adds,
‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’
18Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
19Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
1As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ 2Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
3When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ 5Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.’