by Father Mike Stubbs
Stories about the end of the world capture one’s attention. Whether that end results from global warming or because of an arcane Mayan prophecy does not matter. It still makes for a scary story. It’s a good way to sell a movie.
We might look on Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mk 13: 24-32, as just another scary story about the end of the world. If we do that, we might miss its main point.
Admittedly, there are elements in that Gospel reading that might cause us alarm: “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mk 13:24-25). To us, that would suggest the disintegration of the cosmos, the falling apart of the universe. No one would survive.
At the same time, there are reasons for us not to take an overly literal reading of that passage. A literal interpretation would not allow the rest of the passage to happen: “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.” If the sun were extinguished, everyone on earth would instantly freeze to death. There would not be anyone left to see anything. We need to be consistent in our interpretation.
If we do not follow a literal interpretation, what one should we follow? We might look at the parallel passage in Luke’s Gospel for some direction: “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars” (Lk 21:25). We should remember that at the time the Gospels were written, there was a strong belief in astrology. People thought that there was a direct connection between the heavenly bodies and events on earth. By observing the heavens, one could learn what would happen in our world or what was happening. For example, in Matthew’s Gospel, the appearance of the star of Bethlehem signals the birth of the Messiah (Mt 2:2). The star enables the Magi both to find the newborn King of the Jews and to realize his true identity.
When Mark’s Gospel mentions the sun and moon losing their light and the stars falling from the sky, it is not trying to draw attention to that fact. That is not the main story. Rather, those events point to the arrival of the Son of Man in glory.
The cataclysmic events are signs that the long-awaited parousia is finally taking place. The exact nature of those signs is not nearly as important as the return of Jesus. That is the real story.
That is why Sunday’s Gospel reading is not a story to frighten us — not even to scare us in behaving ourselves — but rather a story to offer us hope and encouragement. Whenever we face difficult times, even when it seems as though the world is crashing down on us, we can look forward to Jesus Christ returning to save us. That is the real message of the Gospel. That is why it is good news.