Thought for the day
Beginning again is an invitation to look in two directions. What happened for me in the last year, both in my ordinary life and in my life as a believer, a person of faith? For what do I ask forgiveness? For what do I give thanks? We also look forward and the new beginning gives us a chance to start again on the Way of discipleship. Both thanksgiving and renewal are to be found in today’s readings. The Gospel is in invitation to wake up, to keep watch, to live fully the present moment under God, in whom we live and move and have our being. Amen.
Wake us up, O God, and rouse us from the slumber of the everyday that we may recognise you in every moment and in every person, today and every day of our lives.
Mark 13:32 “But as for that day or hour no one knows it—neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son —except the Father. 33 Watch out! Stay alert! For you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey. He left his house and put his slaves in charge, assigning to each his work, and commanded the doorkeeper to stay alert. 35 Stay alert, then, because you do not know when the owner of the house will return—whether during evening, at midnight, when the rooster crows, or at dawn— 36 or else he might find you asleep when he returns suddenly. 37 What I say to you I say to everyone: Stay alert!”
In the narrative of Mark, chapter 13 stands between Jesus’ presence and disputations in Jerusalem (chapters 11-12) and the Passion Narrative (chapters 14-16). Chapter 13 is often called the Markan Apocalypse or the Little Apocalypse. The lectionary omits v. 32 but it is included here because it makes a more natural introduction to the warnings. If even the Son does not know, then a fortiori the disciples need to be on the watch.
The writing here is apocalyptic, which requires very careful handling (see below). Apart from that, the threatening tone could grate on our ears today. In general, apocalyptic is meant neither to be a prophecy nor a description of the future. It interprets the present and tries to promote fidelity and steadfastness. Mark is facing three situations: (i) it is probable that the communities for which the Gospel was written had experienced tribulation of some kind, with the consequent temptation to give up; (ii) complacency engendered by the apparent delay in Jesus return; (iii) feverish identification of the signs of the end. For Mark, the tribulations are the birth pangs of the end; his teaching is an invitation to be both steadfast and alert.
In Mark’s narrative, the location is the Mount of Olives in view of the Temple (Mark 11:11, 15–16, 27; 12:35); the topic takes up issues anticipated Jesus’s arrival in the Temple (11:1-10) and his judgment of it (12:1-11); the audience —Jesus, Peter, James, John and Andrew—reminds us of the opening scene of the Galilean ministry (1:16-20).
Kind of writing
This is written in apocalyptic language. The best Old Testament example is the book of Daniel and the best New Testament example is the Apocalypse, the book of Revelation. In general, an apocalypse interprets the present and, so to speak, “names the times we live in.” On foot of the description, certain attitudes or actions are taught, to help us live these times in an authentic way. The great virtues are steadfastness (stickability!) and watchfulness.
Old Testament background
The biblical background for Mark 13 as a whole is the book of Daniel 7-12.
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13–14)
New Testament foreground
(1) Context in Mark: it may help to notice that there are good links between all of chapter 13 and (i) the initial preaching of Jesus in Mark 1:14; (ii) the proclamation of the Kingdom in parables in Mark 4:1-34; and (iii) the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane in Mark 14:32-42.
(2) Mark 13 itself: the evangelist has gathered together disparate items of Jesus’ teaching. It is likely that a certain amount of grouping of sayings had already taken place. We may notice some of the following similar themes:
(a) Sayings on the distress of Israel: 14-18.19-20
(b) Sayings on the distress of the church: 9-13
(c) Sayings on pseudo-messiahs and the true Messiah: 21, 14-16
(d) Sayings on the parousia and watchfulness: 26-27, 34-36.
Mark was writing at the time of the Jewish war with the Romans and end-time expectations were really high, in Palestine and elsewhere. He may have gathered the statements of Jesus together for the community at that time, to maintain alertness of spirit and to warn against potential false messiahs and the like. In its present state the chapter falls naturally into the following sections:
(1) vv. 1–4, Introduction—prophecy of the temple’s doom and the disciples’ question;
(2) vv. 5–23, the Tribulation of Israel and of the Church;
(3) vv. 24–27, the parousia of the Son of Man and the Gathering of the People of God;
(4) vv. 28–37, the Times of Fulfilment and Exhortations to Watchfulness.
Our excerpt comes from the very last section, inculcating certain attitudes for now. It thus makes a bridge with there feast of Christ the King and prepares us for the season of Advent, with a tone of expectation, hope and preparation.
1 Thessalonians 4:15-5:11 is very close to the atmosphere of Mark 13. It is a little too long to quote, so here is a shorter similar passage from Romans:
And do this because we know the time, that it is already the hour for us to awake from sleep, for our salvation is now nearer than when we became believers. The night has advanced toward dawn; the day is near. So then we must lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the weapons of light. Let us live decently as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in discord and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to arouse its desires. (Romans 13:11–14)
Verse 32 Some of the force of the warning comes from the Son himself not knowing. Of course, this is a surprise to us today. However, there is preparation in Mark 10:40. Furthermore, as the early Christians tended to underline and even increase Jesus’ knowledge, this saying is most likely original, in some form, to Jesus himself. In later theological disputes, the Arians used this text against the affirmation of Jesus as true divine and truly human, a defined at the Council of Nicea (ad 325).
Verse 33 Mark is teaching “watchfulness,” conscious living and engagement. It is a frequent idea in this chapter (vv. 5, 9 and 23). “Watch” makes the necessary with Gethsemane and the destiny of Jesus.
Verse 34 This little parable gives a very ordinary everyday example and has a tendency to allegory: the man on the journey represents the Lord; the slaves / servants stand for the believers; the doorkeeper could be any disciple, with the special duty of watchfulness; the return of the master point to the Second Coming.
Verse 35 The final expansion spells it out very clearly, naming the potential times when the master may return. Mark, interestingly, uses the Roman divisions of the hours of the day, a clue to the world of reference of the community.
Verse 36 Sleep is commonly used to mean inattention, lack of alertness, as well as death. “Suddenly” adds intensity to the sense of threat involved.
Verse 37 This is the last sentence of the Little Apocalypse and makes a resounding conclusion, addressed explicitly to each and to all. Watch is taken up again in the next chapter: 14:34, 37, 38.
Today we cannot excite artificially the feverish expectation of the early Christians. Probably we do not want to threaten people either. Nevertheless, the culture is a culture of distraction and it promotes unconscious living, inviting us to live on the surface and to be happy with the merely material. Perhaps there is an entry in that for the teaching of this passage. See the prayer below. We were not intended to sleepwalk through life!!
Pointers for prayer
1. The coming of the master is not just the moment of death, but any moment of grace. Recall unexpected graces —good things that happened when they were not anticipated.
2. Recall times when you were particularly alert and aware of what was going on in you and around you and the contrast with moments when such alertness and awareness were not present.
3. The servants were given charge of the household “each with their own job.” Identify with the servants as people given a responsibility within the household of God’s people. What has it been like for you when you have been shown trust in this way by another person? What is it like for you to see yourself trusted in this way by God?
4. Your experience of good “doorkeepers,” people who were there and ready to receive you even when you came at an awkward or unexpected time. Also your experience of being a good “doorkeeper’” for another.
5. Jesus says that what he is saying to his disciples he is saying to all. Have there been times when you have been a messenger of hope to others, encouraging them to wait for a moment of grace. Who have been the ones to encourage you?
Rend the heavens and come down, O God of all the ages!
Rouse us from sleep, deliver us from our heedless ways, and form us into a watchful people, that, at the advent of your Son, he may find us doing what is right, mindful of all you command.
Grant this through him, whose coming is certain, whose day draws near, your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.