2nd Sunday before Advent

15 November 2018

Daniel 12.1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10.11-25; Mark 13.1-8

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DANIEL does not offer his readers any guarantee of deliverance in their earthly lifetimes. The tribulations of human history will end with “a time of anguish, such as has never occurred”. Only then will God’s faithful ones “shine like the brightness of the sky . . . like the stars for ever and ever”.

George Sumner observes that “the oppressed and martyr church” is best placed to understand Daniel’s prophecy (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Esther and Daniel). The promise of eternal vindication is not an “opium” to distract them from the struggle for justice here on earth. Rather, it gives them the courage to bear faithful witness, even when earthly empires seem indestructible.

As Sumner explains,“Daniel is a book about kings, and the central dynamic of its plot is the question: who is the true king of the whole world?” God’s sovereignty over earthly kings is stated dramatically in its two most famous passages, in which King Darius’s decree sends Daniel into the lions’ den, and in which King Nebuchadnezzar condemns Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to the fiery furnace. Facing the flames, these three men do not know whether God will deliver them. Their faithful witness is offered whether or not he chooses to do so (3.17.18). They cannot anticipate how God will exercise his sovereignty, but their trust in his loving purposes is complete.

Stanley Hauerwas argues that such a willingness to live “out of control” is an essential part of Christian discipleship. In his words, any Christian social ethic must be written “from the perspective of those who do not seek to control national or world history but who are content to live ‘out of control’” (“Reforming Christian Social Ethics” in The Hauerwas Reader).

These same questions of kingship and control are at the heart of our Gospel reading. The second Temple (built in 516 BC and renovated by King Herod the Great) was an extraordinary architectural spectacle. “Its façade of white marble was adorned with dazzling gold. The retaining walls of the massive temple plaza rested on blocks of limestone so huge that archaeologists are still unable to explain how they were moved into place” (Mary Healy, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Mark). Jesus puts this religious pomp into perspective: “‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

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The destruction of the first Temple was understood by the prophets to be a judgement on corrupt leadership (Micah 3.9-12). As he prophesies the downfall of the second Temple, Jesus delivers a similar verdict on the religious and political leadership of his own time. As Healy notes, he is “expressing in plain words what was already implied by the withered fig tree” in Mark 11.20.

Jesus’s words remind us that God’s sovereignty exceeds even the most imposing worldly powers. Like the prophecy of Daniel, they call us to live “out of control” — without knowing the time or precise manner in which God will accomplish his purposes. As St Augustine says, while we do not know “what the nature of those signs will be when the end is really near at hand”, what has been revealed to us is that “there are two nations and two kingdoms: namely, one of Christ, the other of the devil.”

The trials faced by God’s faithful people are part of a cosmic struggle between a kingdom founded on violence and greed and a kingdom founded on Christ’s self-giving love. Such tribulations, Jesus tells his disciples, are “but the beginning of the birth pangs”.

This is an image developed further in John 16.21. Here, Jesus observes that, while labour is painful, when a woman’s child is born “she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.” It is the hope of this joyful consummation which is to sustain the disciples, just as it sustained Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the furnace.

While we await “the Day”, our epistle reminds us that Christ’s victory over evil is already secure. In Hans Urs von Balthasar’s words, above the uncertainty that we must endure is “a single certainty that is beyond our manipulation: Jesus has offered the one, single sacrifice for the sins of the world for all time” (Light of the Word). Amid all that we cannot control or anticipate, this promise will sustain us on our pilgrimage.

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