Exploring the Readings at Mass—Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)



Welcome to my reflection on this week's Sunday readings at Mass, where I look at the Scripture we will hear at Mass on Sunday in its historical, social and theological context to see what wisdom can be gleaned.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I sincerely hope that this reflection will inspire you, answer some questions you may have, help you to see how fantastic Sacred Scripture is and perhaps begin to share some of my love and passion for the Bible as you begin to comprehend how layered and multi-faceted, and what a carefully considered part of the Mass the readings are. If you want to know how these posts came about, please read my first post in this series here.

My particular hope is that these blogs will help you develop a love of the Old Testament, and help to foster a better understanding of its value in understanding how Jesus fulfils what is prefigured therein.

I would like to think this regular blog would be a great help to anyone who reads at Mass, to enable them to foster a deeper understanding of the message they are trying to impart to the congregation.

There are several different ways to read this post. I would suggest the first thing to do is to look at the relevant readings. You might then want to look at the specific commentary for a particular reading. I post the same summary of the featured Biblical books each week, but at the end, under the subheading this week, you will find some commentary specific to each week. At the end I post a passage which attempts to draw all the readings together and understand the message.

This Sunday the theme for the readings might be summed up as:

The Promise of Eternal Perfection

First, a little preliminary survey of each of the books.

I will post the same, or similar prelims week on week, for each book as we encounter them, although I may add a little detail specific to each week's readings.

The Book of Daniel is a textbook on martyrdom in the highest sense of the term. It is a daring book because it is addressed particularly to young people. It has a contemporary ring because its author was was calling young people to a life of holiness and non-violence precisely when others voices in the religious community were advocating either a religious militancy or a total secularisation of faith in the name of modernity. The book of Daniel is resistance literature. Its Hasidic authors spoke to their compatriots in symbols only they could decipher as members of the underground society that was their audience. The centrepiece of the whole work is the vision of the four beasts representing the kingdoms of Babylon, Media, Persia and Greece in succession (7:1-28). This seems to be a refinement of a prophecy presented much earlier in the traditions of the Jews, which they now saw coming to fulfilment (2:1-49).

This week's text is the magnificent poetic conclusion of the visions of Daniel and the revelation given in chapters 10—11. It is a landmark text in Old Testament tradition describing the fulfilment of all things in the resurrection of the body (12:2-3). Despite the terrible sufferings in the eschatological crisis, the elect of God, whose names are found written in the book of life (cf Exodus 32:32-33; Psalm 69:29) will be saved. This text is the first clear assertion of the bodily resurrection in the Old Testament.

Psalms is the Bible's manual of inspired song and prayer. The collection of 150 Psalms represents the culmination of a long tradition that extends across almost the full span of the history of ancient Israel, from the Exodus (c. 1280 B.C.) until the last centuries of the Old Testament era (c. 200 B.C.). In Hebrew the canon of the Bible is called the TNK or Tanakh, which consists of Torah (teaching), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (writings)—thus TaNaKh. Psalms makes up the first of the writings in the Hebrew text. One of the most powerful things we know about the Psalms is that this is how Jesus Himself prayed.

The Letter to The Hebrews, claims to be a “word of exhortation” (13:22) and lacks the formal features common to a letter of the time; an introduction by the sender to the recipients and an opening word of thanksgiving. Rather, it reads somewhat like a homily, its literary rhythm alternating back and forth between doctrinal exposition and moral exhortation in the same way any oral preaching tends to.
Hebrews follows a carefully planned literary structure expressed with a rhetorical finesse unmatched in other writings of the New Testament. The work is equally unique in its subject matter, drawing on a extensive and sophisticated use of the Old Testament in comparison with the New, with particular emphasis on priestly and sacrificial issues. No New Testament writing reflects more deeply on the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and none gives more attention or puts more emphasis on covenant theology.

This week: The author contrasts the posture of Levitical priests (stands, 10:11) with that of Jesus (sat down, 10:12) in order to demonstrate how the the work of the Levitical priests was perpetually unfinished while the work of Jesus has been definitively accomplished. This applies to the earthly dimension of christ's priesthood, since His ministry as a heavenly priest and intercessor is ongoing. Christ accomplishes what the Mosaic ceremonies could not—the inward transformation of the worshiper (9:9-10; 10:1). This involve the cleansing of the conscience from guilt (9:14; 10:22) and the engraving of His Law on the heart (8:10; 10:16). The conclusion (v 18) is drawn from the last words of the prophecy of Jer 31:31-34, that God will remember sins no more. They will be no longer remembered because they will have been forgiven. The fulfilment of this has come about through Jesus' sacrifice; there is now no more offering for sin.

The Gospel According to St. Mark
The first thing that strikes you about Mark’s Gospel account is the pace at which the story develops. Mark’s work contrasts Matthew’s sure pedagogy and Luke’s composed account which keeps an eye on literary effect and chronological continuity. Mark simply proclaims the Good News that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come down to save mankind from death and sin by means of his death and resurrection. In this Gospel it seems possible to overhear, through the informality of writing, the voice of the storyteller himself. In this sense, Mark allows us to reach behind the Gospels to a time in history when the gospel story was circulating among the churches in fragmentary and oral form. 

Henry Wansborough O.S.B., in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, argues that a study of Mark’s gospel in particular may lead us to a clearer understanding of the personality of Jesus himself. It was Wrede, in his ground-breaking work Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien. Zugleich ein Beitrag zum Verständnis des Markusevangeliums who first proposed Mark as a theologian concerned with a two-fold mission. Wrede developed a theory that suggested that a secret about the Messiah was an important factor in Mark: although Jesus is the Messiah, he hides this and instructs his disciples to do likewise, only demons recognise his identity. Brown attacks Wrede’s position on this, although he agrees with Wrede’s conclusion that Mark is clearly a theological work, he suggests that it is possible that the christology goes back as far as to Jesus Himself. Brown goes on to state that in his opinion Wrede exaggerated Marcan secrecy that in any case, may have its roots in Jesus’ historical rejection of some messianic aspirations that circulated at the time. Kermode also picked up on Wrede’s discovery in his book The Genesis of Secrecy stressing Marcan obscurity, and suggesting that the Gospel, like the parables, remains a mystery amid moments of radiance, excluding readers from the kingdom. Brown suggests that Kermode has “isolated Mark’s writing from its ultimate Christian theology” and points out that although it is true that the prominent motifs in Mark are disobedience, failure, misunderstanding and darkness, God’s power breaks through at the Gospel’s darkest moment, Jesus’ death on the cross and an outsider like the Roman centurion is not excluded, but rather gains understanding of the truth about Jesus. 

Mark then, writes with a two-fold mission. First and foremost seems to be a pastoral aim geared towards building his reader’s faith. Daniel Harrington confirms this in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, explaining that Mark’s writing shows the members of his community how their belief in the salvific significance of the cross related to the traditions about Jesus’ life. Secondly, Mark seems to have been presenting a biographical record of Christ’s life in order that early Christian’s might understand the reality of Jesus’ life and avoid a slip into Gnosticism, where Jesus was considered a myth rather than a reality. This juxtaposed with the writings of Paul, who concentrated his emphasis on the death and resurrection of Christ, saying little about the details of his life, though he undoubtedly exhorted his disciple Timothy to “Remember Jesus Christ”(2 Timothy 2:8). It is interesting to note, however, that even when Mark does engage in polemic, it appears to be polemic with a pastoral aim. The rough form of Greek used by Mark is one internal evidence often cited to prove the Gospel’s Roman origin. There are present numerous loan words derived from Latin as well as some expressions of Latin grammar. This type of Greek was commonly spoken among the lower classes in Rome. Luiz Ruscillio in his work The Synoptic Gospels, also notes these linguistic peculiarities. Clement of Alexandria cites Rome as the place where Mark wrote the gospel (E.H. 6.14.6) and Brown notes that this is a “thesis supported by a large number of scholars”. Ruscillio also notes several other evidences: the connection between Peter and Mark suggested by Papias of Hierapolis; in 2 Tim 4:11 Paul tells Timothy to bring Mark with him to Rome, he is later described as Paul’s fellow prisoner (Philmn 24) and Peter sends greetings from Rome (Babylon) at the end of his first letter (1 Pet 5:13) “…also from my son Mark.”42. Harrington adds to this the evidence of the growing sense of impending persecution that pervades the Gospel; drawing a parallel to the threat of persecution the Christian community lived under in Rome at around 60 B.C.43.

This week: Jesus speaks of cosmic disturbances in the manner of the prophets. The Gospel is taken from the end of a long discourse in which He describes tribulations the likes of which haven’t been seen “since the beginning of God’s creation” (see Mark 13:9). He describes what amounts to a dissolution of God’s creation, a “devolution” of the world to its original state of formlessness and void. These are not literal predictions of heavenly convulsions or an atmospheric meltdown, but they invole OT oracles of judgement that foretell the downfall of pagan kingdoms (Is 13:9-10; 34:4; Ezek 32:7-8; Joel 2:10, 31; Amos 8:9). Visions of heavenly chaos serve to underscore the magnitude of God's terrible judgement: it will be a world shaking event. Jesus turns the language of these prophecies toward Jerusalem to condemn its pagan ways and forecast its coming doom (Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD). In 13:26 Jesus identifies Himself with the royal figure of Dan 7:13 implying that He will be enthroned with the Father and receive a worldwide "kingdom" and "everlasting dominion" (Dan 7:14; Mt 28:18). The oracle tells of His Ascension.

Verse 30 is particularly puzzling:

"Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place." Mark introduced another very emphatic statement. "Truly" or "Amen, I say to you" was re-enforced with a double negative ("in no way" and "not").

One cannot help but wonder, did Mark truly believe the second coming would occur in the apostolic generation? If so, does this not somewhat contradict Dei Verbum's assertion that "everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings" Dei Verbum 11

Passages like this in Scripture demonstrate how literalism particularly distorts the meaning if symbolic elements from OT and intertestamental apocalyptic are taken as exact descriptions of expected events. Even those who appreciate the symbolic nature of apocalyptic and do not take a literalist approach think that in part the Marcan account is coloured by what the Evangelist knows to have already taken place, e.g. persecution in synagogues and before governors and kings. This approach is further complicated by the hypothesis that Mark took over and edited an earlier apocalypse in which the time indications might be to an earlier period, e.g., is the "abominable desolation" a reference to Caligula's attempt in A.D. 40 to have a statue of himself set up in the Jerusalem Temple, or does it relate to events in Jerusalem toward the end of the Jewish Revolt of A.D. 68-70?

For most readers, the bottom line from reading through the discourse is that no precise timetable of events is given. On the one hand Jesus' followers are not to be misled by speculations and claims that the end is at hand; on the other hand they are to remain watchful.

In the Ignatius Study Bible the commentary suggests that these words of Jesus were fulfilled with Jerusalem's demise in A.D. 70, which was my initial thoughts on reading the Gospel. This took place within the lifetime of Jesus' contemporaries (Mt 10:23; 16:28) thus within the lifetime of "this generation". The phrase "all these things" must refer to the events leading up to the Son of Man's coming )see 13:29), though it may just as easily have been taken by early Christians as referring to Jesus' death and resurrection as to the destruction of Jerusalem. In Mark 9:1 we see a similar comment "Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power."—Jesus promises to inaugurate His kingdom before the death of the Apostles: the kingdom of God is God's sovereign rule over all the nations through Jesus (See Mark 1:15). This begins with Christ's heavenly enthronement (16:19) and the birth of the Church. Its authority is manifest with the termination of the Old Covenant, when Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed with fire (Lk 21:31-32). The kingdom, while present in the mystery of the Church, will be fully manifest at the consummation of history (CCC 669-71).

Pope John Paul II, in his Wednesday Audience of November 26, 1997 said this:
"Although sharing the human condition, Jesus is conscious of his eternal being, which confers a higher value on all his activities. He himself emphasized this eternal value: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mark 13:31 par.). His words, like his actions, have a unique, definitive value, and will continue to call for a response from humanity until the end of time."
Drawing them all together...

The last week of the liturgical year is always an invitation to consider the Last Things, and to dwell on upon the mystery of the end of time. Through the ages people have been deeply disturbed by the prospect of God's return in power and judgement, and many denominations and sects like nothing better than to warn about the imminence of this event!

Modern Scripture study is far more nuanced and scientific and we have moved on a long way from a literal belief in every word to a more skeptical apprehension of the genre and symbolism of apocalypse (as I reflected on here) that has little if any consequence for belief:
"Let the present-day commentators of the Sacred Scripture emulate, according to their capacity, what those illustrious interpreters of past ages accomplished with such great fruit; so that, as in the past, so also in these days, the Church may have at her disposal learned doctors for the expounding of the Divine Letters; and, through their assiduous labors, the faithful may comprehend all the splendor, stimulating language, and joy contained in the Holy Scriptures. And in this very arduous and important office let them have “for their comfort the Holy Books” (1 Macc 12:9) and be mindful of the promised reward: since “they that are learned shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that instruct many unto justice, as stars for all eternity” (Dan 12:3)." Divino Afflante Spiritu n. 61
The apocalyptic is a mode of writing we inherit from our Jewish ancestors. Both Daniel and Mark 13 were written in this mode, foreseeing the end times in vast upheaval and cataclysmic imagery: "There is going to be a time of great distress, unparalleled since nations first came into existence." But the appearance of these writings signified important issues in the history of faith—the growth of a new sense of the reality of God's work in history and in the future. New concepts of the afterlife and judgement came into play, born of out of the anguish of the experience of God's People. The persecution of the Greek king Antiochus Ephiphanes in 160 B.C. seemed to spell the end for the Jewish faith, but the people remembered how God had helped them in the past (freeing them in the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, restoring them to the land of Judah after the Exile in Babylon), and believed He would help them again; indeed, that He would definitively establish His Kingdom of truth and justice, and overcome death itself.

By looking in faith to the past, believing in love in the present, one can hope for the future in a new way which changes the present forever, no matter what the challenge. It is lived out in our Eucharistic faith where we proclaim a living belief in the power of past events made present and look forward to a glorious future: "he will achieve the eternal perfection of those he is sanctifying," we are assured in the Letter to the Hebrews. The Mass is our mystery of faith, love and hope, where we proclaim that there has to be a saving future because there is a saving God. How we interpret the imagery is up to each individual, but the Psalm in its compressed symbolism encapsulates the encoded message of prophetic faith, hope and love. "You will show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence, at your right hand happiness forever."

Bibliography:

Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament, New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Brown, R. E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, Doubleday, 1997.
Brown, R. et al (Ed) The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Chapman, 2000).
Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Duggan, M., The Consuming Fire, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991.
Fuller, R.C., Johnstone, L., Kearns, C., A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, London: Nelson, 1969.
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001.
Kreeft, P., You Can Understand The Bible, San Francisco, Ignatius, 2005.
Letellier, R., Sunday & Feastday Sermons Cycles A, B, and C, New York: St. Pauls, 2011.
Magnificat Monthly Vol. 3, No. 1/ November 2012.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, New York, Touchstone, 1995.

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