(Begin by reading the Gospel. Sometimes it is good to have someone read it to you. The Word is meant to be heard.)
The Gospel reading for this Sunday is a difficult one. Jesus and his friends are sitting on the Mount of Olives, outside the city of Jerusalem. This is the place where Jesus comes to pray before he is crucified, dies, and rises to new life, never to die again. Looking out at the great Temple within the city walls, Jesus talks to his disciples about a time that is to come. It is not clear whether he is describing something within our understanding, or something more that is beyond us. The Gospel passage ends with these words of Jesus,
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Jesus himself does not have all the details about when this time will be or what it will be like. In choosing to be human like us, Jesus does not know everything that God knows. Just like us, he cannot see the future. But he knows what is true. We have to keep this in mind when we examine what he says.
“In those days, after the time of suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
What is Jesus describing here? Is this the end of the world? Are these events that must take place? Possibly. But if only the Father knows the details, Jesus may be describing a truth, not giving us facts. These may not be specific details of events.
What is the truth that Jesus describes? The sun darkening, the moon not shining, the stars falling from heaven—these are all events beyond our control. This is a time of darkness over which we are powerless. It seems like a disaster.
Beyond our control? Then what are we supposed to do?
“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
What is this truth, then? Who is this Son of Man? The prophet Daniel describes a similar vision of someone coming on the clouds who is "like a son of man." A human, but more. A king. A messiah. Eternal. "Son of Man" is a name St. Mark often uses for Jesus. The truth is that Jesus is human like us, someone we know and understand, and yet, he is even more.
The Son of Man gathers his elect. This is the Good Shepherd gathering all his sheep wherever they are—whenever they are—into one flock. The four winds—north, south, east, west—means all directions, nothing left behind. Earth and heaven together. This is a vision of the Kingdom of God complete. This is Parousia.
When will this be? Jesus does not know when. It seems like a dream. It seems like something beyond our understanding.
Beyond our understanding? Then what are we supposed to do?
Events that are beyond our control,
visions of Parousia that are beyond our understanding
—this cannot be a Gospel reading about "doing" at all.
Perhaps instead, it is simply a reading about knowing the truth.
What is the truth Jesus needs us to know? He points to a fig tree and says,
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.
The word St. Mark records for "lesson" is "parabolēn"—parable. The word parable means, "a placing beside," "a comparison." Jesus places the fig tree beside the events and vision, saying compare them. The same truth is in both.
In Israel, most trees are coniferous and do not cycle with the seasons, but the fig tree does. In North America in November, we know a lot about trees that lose their leaves before the darkness of the winter. The leaves die. Yet every spring, new leaves bud on the trees. When we see the buds, we know that the longer days of summer are coming soon.
Winter comes, every year. Darkness is a certainty. Jesus says, "when you see these things taking place"—they are a certainty, too. In fact, he says,
“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.
Events that are beyond our control take place. Some of them seem like disasters. Each generation sees them. Some of us have already had this experience. Some of us are experiencing it right now.
Jesus is very honest. Suffering is real. It is a truth. But there is more. What does the parable tell us? What do we know?
when you see these things taking place,
you know that he is near
The truth is, we are not alone.
This is the Good News.
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Jesus may not know the details of the suffering, but he knows that his words are truth. Everything changes, and some of it seems like disaster, but we are never alone.
Parousia is just beyond, "at the very gates."