The first reading is from Daniel, a book positioned differently in different versions of the Bible. It is also unusual in that the earliest versions that we have of it show parts written in Hebrew, some in Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke) and parts in Greek, the language of the Jews in the Diaspora (outside of the land of Israel). The word Daniel means ‘God is my judge’ and this neatly sums up the passage we read today. It is one of those writings sometimes called apocalyptic which were around from the year 200 BC to 200 AD. Apocalyptic writing is usually full of allegory and dramatic revelation concerning the dealings of God with the world through remarkable events and the activity of angels, it especially relates to the future culmination of world history and God’s final judgment and fulfillment of it. Probably the influence of the literature of other nations helped the development of the traditional thought of the Jewish people with new ideas. In today’s reading (12:1-3) we see for the first time in this development two ideas that would play an important part in the belief of Christians; firstly there is a reference to life after death in the text “those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” and secondly the reference to eternal life in the phrase “some shall live forever.”
The second reading (Hebrews 10:11-14,18) continues the thoughts about the priesthood of Christ. The high priests of the Jewish Temple offered sacrifices to God in the belief and expectation that this would destroy/appease sin. But it is only the self-sacrifice of an individual that can achieve this sanctity. Jesus, our example and rescuer, is such a person of total self sacrifice; His role is already completed and He sits at the right hand of God waiting for this success to work itself out in our world by the gradual (and sometimes violent) entanglement with evil. Our salvation is won, but we have to take it up. This is the ambiguity and duality of our situation – saved, but still to be worked out in our life here on earth; the enemies must be subdued, we must give ourselves complete in love.
Mark chapter 13 is what is called apocalyptic writing. It uses sometimes obscure and extravagant language, it is about disasters and evils that we shall encounter; it tells of the imminent and cataclysmic end of the world with the condemnation of evil and the triumph of Christ (the Son of Man) for those who are chosen – it is these for whom it is written. Since the section we read (Chapter 13:24-32) is about the triumph after the fearful signs of its coming, it is a message of Jesus’ completed work; this work is spelt out in different stages in other gospels as Incarnation, Life, Passion, Death and Resurrection followed by Ascension and Exultation at the right hand of God; but here, the sequence of his life is all spoken of as one great victorious event. Mark sees this as one great action of God in relation to us and our world, completed from God’s standpoint but still to emerge within the turmoil of our lives. At the time of his writing Christians generally seem to have thought that the End of the world was imminent, but as time goes on this needs re-interpretation. In the 16th century some Christians realised that these events are in some way ongoing throughout the life of the Church and the well-known Protestant reformer John Calvin wrote:
“Whenever, therefore, we perceive the Church scattered by the wiles of Satan, or torn in pieces by the cruelty of the ungodly, or disturbed by false doctrines, or tossed about by storms, let us learn to turn our eyes to this gathering of the elect. And if it appear to us a thing difficult to be believed, let us call to remembrance the power of the angels, which Christ holds out to us for the express purpose of raising our views above human means. For, though the Church be now tormented by the malice of men, or even broken by the violence of the billows, and miserably torn in pieces, so as to have no stability in the world, yet we ought always to cherish confident hope, because it will not be by human means, but by heavenly power, which will be far superior to every obstacle, that the Lord will gather his Church.”
(Calvin’s Commentaries Ch 33, part 3; tr. by John King)