This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
“UKRAINE IN EUROPE” DEMO SHOWS STRENGTH
New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)
The Desolating Sacrilege
15 ‘So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), 16 then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; 17 someone on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; 18 someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat. 19 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! 20 Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath. 21 For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 22 And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. 23 Then if anyone says to you, “Look! Here is the Messiah!”[a] or “There he is!”—do not believe it. 24 For false messiahs[b] and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25 Take note, I have told you beforehand. 26 So, if they say to you, “Look! He is in the wilderness”, do not go out. If they say, “Look! He is in the inner rooms”, do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
The Coming of the Son of Man
29 ‘Immediately after the suffering of those days
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
and the powers of heaven will be shaken.
30 Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)
The Message to Philadelphia
7 ‘And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
These are the words of the holy one, the true one,
who has the key of David,
who opens and no one will shut,
who shuts and no one opens:
8 ‘I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but are lying—I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. 11 I am coming soon; hold fast to what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
This type of material is called “apocalyptic” which means that it reveals secrets that can only be understood by insiders. The first passage contains the words of Jesus as reported by Matthew, who edits material available to him from Mark chapter 13 and other sources. He shows Jesus making a prophecy that the Temple will be desecrated -this is the meaning of the “desolating sacrilege”- as indeed it was in 70CE, when the Romans destroyed it, a fact known to Matthew. So we can imagine that he saw the fulfilment of Jesus’ prophecy in the events of the Jewish rebellion and Rome’s revenge. Why is this admittedly terrible event depicted as a world-shaking catastrophe? Jesus’ prophecy as Matthew reports it, sees the event as linked to the rejection by Israel of the “Son of Man” and its choice of violence, which bring inevitable defeat and suffering. For Jesus as for any Jew the destruction of the temple and the nation would have seemed like the end of the world.
Jesus however warns that even such cataclysmic events are not the end of the world. That end will only come in the “day of the son of man” (the day when the holy ones of God shall rule) which cannot be described as an event of this world, but requires the images of cosmic disturbance.
In essence, Jesus says three things here:
1. His own nation and temple will be destroyed
2 The holy ones of God (Son of Man) will rule the earth
3. Nobody knows how or when this will happen
The second passage is one of the letters to the Churches of Asia which preface the book of The Revelation. The prophet tells the faithful believers in Philadelphia that their faithfulness is known to God and will be rewarded by being spared from a forthcoming time of trial, perhaps a imperial persecution. More importantly Christ will acknowledge ownership of this people by inscribing on them the holy name of God, the name of the New Jerusalem, the holy city, and his own name as cosmic Lord. Those who identify themselves with Christ in this world, will be identified as belonging to Christ in the world to come. So far so good. But the prophet of Jesus takes time for a side-swipe at what he calls the synagogue of Satan, perhaps orthodox Jews who have caused trouble for Christians. One of the possible pleasures-and temptations- of writing in the apocalyptic style is the chance to get even with those who’ve harmed you in some way, just as Dante was able to put some his enemies in the Inferno. On the whole, Biblical apocalypse avoids this by concentrating on the powers of evil behind the manifest evils of the world.
In both passages the modern reader is faced with more or less incomprehensible ways of thinking and writing, which require detailed study to decode. They are nevertheless, ways of dealing with the injustice of the world and the suffering of even the best people. We may choose not to use this kind of language, but that leaves us without a vocabulary for making faith coherent in the face of injustice and suffering. It seems to me that the enduring popularity of epics like Lord of the Rings, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and His Dark Materials, is that they dare to confront “ultimate” issues and fashion a language for talking about them. Modern Christian theology has done little to help those who find the literature of “Rapture” and “Left Behind” less intelligent and a lot more self-righteous than Superman. Hoping that such issues will just go away is neither a faithful nor a fruitful strategy.