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Be Alert to the Signs — Mark 13

Kathleen Rushton —

Kathleen Rushton explains that in the apocalyptic chapter, Mark 13, Jesus is warning disciples to look for the signs that are announcing the endings of old ways and the beginnings of new.

Mark 13 has a strategic role in the Gospel. The discourse is written in an apocalyptic style which can be a difficult genre for contemporary readers to understand. The discourse tells of endings — the end of the temple and the end of the earthly life of Jesus. At this time we are drawing to the end of the 2021 liturgical year.

The discourse also suggests beginnings — Jesus is the new temple and the reign of God is evolving as a new way of being in the world. At this time we are beginning the two-year process of preparation for the Synod 2021-2023 (For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission). Pope Francis is asking Catholic dioceses around the world to consult with the People of God. The preparation is primarily a process of discernment.

In this reflection on Mark 13 I use the three contexts or worlds of the biblical text, as described by Sandra Schneiders: “While history lies behind the text and theology is expressed in the text, spirituality is called forth by the text as it engages the reader.”

1. History Lies behind the Text: The Temple Had Been Destroyed

Herod began massive renovations of the temple in 19 CE which were completed in 64 CE. No other buildings looked more permanent and indestructible. Yet six years later it was destroyed. The Marcan Jesus tells of these events — the Roman general Titus had captured the city and destroyed the temple in 70 CE. Mark’s criticism of the empire (basileia) of Rome is veiled because the Roman armies were in control of Galilee. In contrast, the temple and its leaders are denounced vehemently. Jesus accused the scribes of devouring widows’ houses. The story of the poor widow is a criticism of a temple treasury practice.

To Imagine a New World

The early hearers of Mark 13 would have recognised its apocalyptic intent. This type of writing uses symbols and vivid images to help people see their experiences within a larger context so that they can imagine a new world. The chapter focuses on the coming of the basileia of God, revealed through Jesus’s words. By moving between reassurance and warning, Jesus’s discourse addresses the situation of the people of the time and of the future — for our time.

2. Theology Expressed in the Text: Text's Key Position

Mark 13 is a farewell discourse placed in a key position between Jesus’s prophetic judgement on the temple (Mk 11-12) and the passion narrative (Mk 14-15). Knowing that he is about to die, Jesus gives instructions and offers his disciples consolation (as in John 14-17). This is framed by two stories of women who offer generous gifts at great personal cost. The first is a poor widow who gave the temple “all she had to live on” (Mk 12:41-44) and the second a woman who pours “very costly ointment of nard on Jesus’s head (Mk 14:3-9). These link the earthly temple and the new temple “not made with human hand” that God is creating in Jesus (Mk 14:58). Jesus’s words echo those of the prophets. He sees God acting in history. Earlier events anticipate and unfold the meaning of later events.

Ongoing Insight

The disciples ask Jesus about the signs that are to happen. Jesus responds in a series of warnings about the difficult times ahead. The word “see” (Mk 13:5,9,23,33), translated as “watch out,” “beware,” or “be alert,” is significant. The Greek suggests to take heed, look, watch, view, notice with your eyes, comprehend. It’s about being in a process of understanding Jesus — of insight. The disciples are to be alert to signs of the times and to be aware of who Jesus really is. And they are not to be deceived by those who falsely claim “I am,” that is, “I am Jesus.”

Jesus warns of hard times ahead. Then he continues: “The good news must first be proclaimed to all the nations” (Mk 13:10). Followers of Jesus are to be confident and serene: “for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” who inspired the biblical authors (Mk 12:36). Later, Jesus extends his commission to his disciples — and to us: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15).

Whole Cosmos Affected

The word thlipsis/suffering (Mk 13:19) has cosmic implications. It means the whole cosmos is affected — sun, stars and the powers of heaven. For Jews, the temple was a microcosm of the universe — its centre, and the meeting point of the heaven and earth. The Risen Jesus is active in the cosmos and “his elect” who are being gathered “from the four winds” suggests that the Gospel is being preached to all peoples and the basileia of God is being established.

3. Spirituality Called Forth by the Text: Let the Reader Understand

Just as every session of Vatican II began with: “We stand before you, Holy Spirit”, the Synod preparation is for the People of God to listen to the Spirit in this time. We can go into the experience confident that the “truly synodal experience of listening to one another and walking forward together, [is] guided by the Holy Spirit.”

Some of the critical signs today are global issues — the pandemic, war, climate change, migration, injustice, racism, sexism, violence, persecution and increasing inequalities — affecting life in Earth that need our urgent attention. We need to take heed of them, not in a way that paralyses us but humbly and with commitment to life-bringing change.

The Synod is “intended to inspire people to dream about the Church we are called to be, to make people’s hopes flourish, to stimulate trust, to bind up wounds, to weave new and deeper relationships, to learn from one another, to build bridges, to enlighten minds, warm hearts, and restore strength to our hands for our common mission.” As we are walking the path together we take heed, look, watch, view, notice, comprehend and share. We are journeying together in a process of insight to hear the voices of “those who live on the spiritual, social, economic, political, geographical and existential peripheries of our world.”

Sandra Schneiders suggests that “the world” we are concerned with is the good world to which we are missioned, the evil world which we confront, and the alternative world we are called into with Jesus to complete the works of God by hearing and committing to both the cry of Earth and the cry of those suffering.

Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 265 November 2021: 24-25