Greetings, SBT Readers!
This week, the "signs" of climate change were brought uncomfortably close to home with dramatic flooding in the Maltese islands. In less than an hour, more rain fell than would have been normal for a whole month; the results were devastating. My sister, in fact, lives in the worst hit area, Ghajnsielem, on the island of Gozo -- ironically, the name of her village is "Spring of Peace." To my knowledge, there was no loss of life, but homes were flooded, roads torn up and cars swept out to sea. My sister fortunately lives at the top of a hill and only had leaks to deal with, but other residents were not so lucky.
Across the globe, floods, fires, earthquakes, and other natural disasters have destroyed communities and ecosystems, giving rise to homelessness, loss of industry, famine, poverty, and mass migration. COP26 may have ended but the world's problems are not going to magically disappear. Each of us, then, needs to do what we can to cut back on carbon emissions and to pressure our elected officials to turn to clean energy. Today, the catastrophe may be across the globe; tomorrow, it may be right in YOUR neighborhood!
"Learn a lesson from the fig tree.
When its branches become tender and sprout leaves,
you know that summer is near.
In the same way, when you see these things happening,
know that he is near, at the gates.
Amen, I say to you,
this generation will not pass away
until all these things have taken place.
Heaven and earth will pass away,
but my words will not pass away.
"But of that day or hour, no one knows--
neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."
Reading the signs of the times involves seeing, hearing and being generally attentive to all that is happening around us; it also means being able to interpret the data that we have inputted. Jesus' analogy of the fig tree speaks to both these points: we must observe and understand. Presumably, the third point would be to take action: that is, to be ready!
The signs that Jesus lists as warnings of the "End Times," extend beyond Mk 13:24-32, to Mk 13 in its entirety:
- The destruction of the temple (Mk 13:2)
- False teachers professing to be Jesus (Mk 13:5-6)
- Wars between nations and kingdoms (Mk 13:7-8)
- Earthquakes and famines (Mk 13:8)
- The persecution of Jesus' disciples (Mk 13:9-10)
The preaching of the Gospel (Mk 13:10)
The guidance of the Holy Spirit during persecution (Mk 13:11)
- Enmity and betrayal between family members (Mk 13:12)
- Hatred towards Jesus' disciples (Mk 13:13)
The reward for perseverance (Mk 13:13)
- The coming of "desolating abomination" (Mk 13:14-21)
- The coming of false messiahs and false prophets (Mk 13:21-22)
- The darkening of the sky/ the shaking of the heavens (Mk 13:24-26)
The coming of the Son of Man with power and glory, to gather the elect (Mk 13: 26-27).
(Note that the items in bold are all positive)
In every age including our own, the Christian community has observed these signs and assumed the apocalypse was at hand. No doubt those who lived through the "great tribulation" of the Black Death in medieval Europe believed the Second Coming was imminent; with roughly 25 million deaths between 1347-1351, it must have seemed as though there was no hope for humanity. Similarly, the "great abominations" of WW I and WW II, followed by the escalation of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War, must also have stirred fears regarding the end of the world. Closer to the present time, the "end of the world" is entrenched in the popular imagination, especially with the cataclysmic threats facing the planet because of climate change. Many turn to the prophecies of Nostradamus or even to a "doomsday reading" of the Mayan calendar to look for the exact time and day when life as we know it will end. Fear, however, is the antithesis of faith, plunging us into despair and moving us away from love into being self-absorbed.
What, then, is a faith response to the end of times? We often use two terms as synonyms when perhaps they should be distinct:
Apocalypse and Parousia. Neither term appears in Mk 13, but both realities are implied: terror and destruction (apocalypse) will be precursors to the Second Coming of Christ (parousia) and his establishment of a new world order in which the elect will be rewarded for their fidelity. The call, then, is to persevere -- to persevere when the temple topples, that is, when organized religion is threatened from within and from without; and to persevere in proclaiming the Gospel to a world which distorts truth, politicizes scripture and uses "God" to justify ungodly attitudes and policies. And what gives us courage in times of utter darkness is the presence of the Holy Spirit who leads us to Truth, integrity and "right action":
“But the wise shall shine brightly
like the splendor of the firmament,
and those who lead the many to justice
shall be like the stars forever."