32 “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch. 35 Watch, therefore; you do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. 36 May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”
In Liturgical Year B, this reading from the Gospel according to Mark becomes a signpost to the Advent Season as it used the first Sunday of Advent. Many Christians may not realize that the readings for the four Sundays of Advent also follow a regular pattern. On the First Sunday of Advent each year, we hear some of Jesus’ teachings about the “End Times.” In each case, the text is taken from a passage that comes from the end of Gospels when Jesus seems to be speaking about apocalyptic events. The Second and Third Sundays of Advent focus on the preaching of John the Baptist. The emphasis is on the role of John as Herald. Finally, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent the Gospel reading relates to some of the events that immediately preceded Jesus’ birth, including Joseph’s dreams (Year A: Matt 1:18-24), the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel (Year B: Luke 1:26-38), and the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (Year C: Luke 1:39-45).
Our gospel reading is the end piece of the larger “Olivet Discourse” in Mark 13:1-37 which is the Markan apocalyptic passage. Scripture scholar, William Lane, outlines the whole of Mark 13 as follows:
- Jesus’ Prophecy of Impending Destruction of the Temple. Ch. 13:1–4
- Warning Against Deception. Ch. 13:5–8
- A Call to Steadfastness Under Persecution. Ch. 13:9–13
- The Appalling Sacrilege and the Necessity for Flight. Ch. 13:14–23
- The Triumph of the Son of Man. Ch. 13:24–27
- The Lesson of the Fig Tree. Ch. 13:28–31
- The Call to Vigilance. Ch. 13:32–37
In context, it is readily seen how our 1st Advent gospel reading matches the pattern of selecting one of Jesus’ teachings about the “End Times.” The sign of the end times is the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.
In the Gospel of Mark there is no passage more problematic than the prophetic discourse of Jesus on the destruction of the Temple. The questions posed by the form and content of the chapter and by its relationship to the Gospel as a whole are complex and difficult and have been the occasion of an extensive literature. The Olivet discourse is unique as the longest uninterrupted course of private instruction recorded by Mark. Moreover, it is the only extended speech attributed to Jesus by the evangelist. The interpretation of Mark 13 is inevitably colored by critical decisions concerning the character and function of the material, its structured arrangement and essential authenticity.
The Olivet discourse occupies a special position in the Marcan outline. It provides the bridge between Jesus’ public ministry, culminating in the conflict with the Temple authorities (Chs. 11:11–12:12), and the Passion Narrative, where the conflict with authority is the occasion of Jesus’ condemnation and death (Ch. 14:1f., 10f., 42–65). By locating the eschatological discourse in this crucial position, and by recurring reference to the destruction of the Temple in the context of Jesus’ trial and execution (Chs. 14:58; 15:29, 39), the evangelist points to the relationship which exists between the judgment upon Jerusalem implied by the discourse and the death of Jesus. This theological understanding is reflected by the literary form of verses 5–37. Jesus’ words are a farewell address providing instruction and consolation for his disciples just prior to his death. Ch. 13 unites prophecy concerning the future with exhortation regulating the conduct of the disciples in the period when the Master will no longer be with them, and this is characteristic of a farewell discourse.
The primary function of Ch. 13 is not to disclose esoteric information but to promote faith and obedience in a time of distress and upheaval. With profound pastoral concern, Jesus prepared his disciples and the Church for a future period which would entail both persecution and mission. The discourse clearly presupposes a period of historical development between the resurrection and the parousia (second coming). The relationship of the necessity of suffering to the experience of vindication and glory established in 8:34–38 is stressed once again by the announcement of the manifestation in glory of the Son of Man in the context of suffering for the people of God.
This message was of profound significance for the Christians of Rome, harassed by persecution and disturbed by the rumors of the developments in Palestine in the sixties. The inclusion of the eschatological discourse in the Gospel was motivated by the same pastoral concern that had prompted Jesus’ teaching. Mark cautions his readers that the community is to find its authentic eschatological dimension not in apocalyptic fervor but in obedience to Jesus’ call to cross-bearing and evangelism in the confidence that this is the will of God which must be fulfilled before the parousia. Jesus’ words provided a bed-rock for Christian hope. The witness of the eschatological community not only focuses on the suffering Son of Man whose crucifixion and resurrection comprise the core of the gospel but also looks forward to the triumphant Son of Man whose appearance represents the one event in light of which the present is illumined. This fact enabled Mark to face the crisis of the sixties with realism and hope.
The Roman Christians lived in the “in-between times” between the Resurrection and the parousia – as do we. The challenge for us is being watchful during the Christmas season. Here in the year 2020 with the coronavirus pandemic swirling around us, perhaps our waiting and watching will give us insight into the minds of our first century sisters and brothers – and with them prepare for the coming of Christ with renewed vigor.
If you would like to read the rest of the commentary, you can find it here.