This week’s lectionary blog for Advent Sunday begins to explore the Gospel of Mark, which, with the start of lectionary Year B, will become the focus Gospel for the coming church year. It will include remarks related specifically to Mark 13.24-37, the portion selected for Advent Sunday, as well as offering a brief comment linked to the week’s Old Testament reading, Isaiah 64.1-9.
During these days which are darker, both because of the season of the year and the ongoing prevalence of the COVID pandemic, I am also hoping, during this Advent season, to offer a second weekly ‘blog’ to come out each weekend, which will help people make a ‘virtual spiritual’ pilgrimage during these weeks, journeying in ‘heart and mind even unto Bethlehem’. We will stop at various ‘Stations on the Way to Bethlehem’ and as ourselves what each place has to say to us, beginning with Jerusalem itself in the offering to appear on Advent Sunday.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship Clare.firstname.lastname@example.org
(An Australian skyscape, photographed by Nick Meyer)
‘And what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake!’
There is a challenging remark that is worth holding up as we approach Advent Sunday, the beginning of the church’s calendar, and the beginning of the new lectionary year, in which for the next 12 months a key focus will be on the Gospel of Mark. ‘In the end, there are two ways of dealing with the Gospel according to Mark: either we throw the book away and opt for a gentler religion, or we act on it and attempt to follow this man (Jesus) through glory and through terror.’ (Chris Burdon, ‘Stumbling on God’)
Burdon’s comment gives me a sense of frisson, as well as reminding me why I love the Gospel of Mark. I do cherish and am challenged by its glory and its terror. I am grateful that by the time I started exploring the New Testament in depth, Mark’s Gospel was already somehow coming into its own in the life of church and academy. It had been side-lined for centuries in favour of the Gospel of Matthew, of which it was seen by many as a poor abbreviation. However first the recognition, in the early years of the 20th century, that Mark was probably the earliest of the Gospels, as well as the way that the vision it offers of glory and terror felt resonant with the catastrophes that scarred that century, helped this Gospel receive the appreciation that it deserves. I think that over the last 40 years or so, the increasing interest in how the Gospels work as ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ has further worked to the benefit of Mark: its sense of of secrecy and paradox entices the reader to become an active participant in the ‘mystery story’ that Mark is quite literally (see Mark 4.11) offering to his readers.
Who were Mark’s first intended readers? I am not sure where they were located, quite probably Rome, though Antioch, Alexandria or even Jerusalem itself have also been mentioned. I do think that Mark was writing for a Christian community experiencing considerable difficulties and probably persecution. The time of Nero’s attack on the Christian community of Rome c.65AD, or shortly afterwards, makes a lot of sense to me. I also pick up within the pages of the Gospel an awareness of the political tensions in Judaea and Galilee which were to explode into the Jewish revolt against Roman rule in Palestine beginning in 66AD, and which would culminate ‘apocalyptically’ with the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70AD. So I think it quite probable that the Gospel was written 65-70AD.
What comes across to me particularly strongly though in the Gospel of Mark, as he retells the story of Jesus’ ministry and passion, is that the Gospel writer is inviting his readers to share with the earliest disciples of all – Peter and the original followers of Jesus – in following the ‘way’ and joining the journey that Jesus and those first followers had made first in Galilee, and then in Jerusalem, about 35 years before Mark wrote his Gospel. We are not an ‘audience’: rather we are invited to become ‘participants’ in this journey. I have this sense about Mark’s Gospel much more strongly than I do about Matthew or Luke. And though I am reading Mark’s story almost 2000 years after it was first written down, and though my own current context is not one of persecution, I too still find myself treading ‘in heart and mind’ that journey of Jesus which Mark sketched out so vividly for his very first readers.
But, I think, there is one point where Mark seems to break off briefly from telling the story of the ‘original’ ministry of Jesus, and somehow addresses his readers directly, in their own time and context. It is in Mark 13, part of which forms the Common Worship lectionary Gospel for Advent Sunday (Mark 13.24-37). Without necessarily denying that ideas expressed in this chapter may well go back to the earthly Jesus, I also ‘hear’ clearly expressed in this chapter the anxieties of Mark’s own contemporaries, his readers who may have found themselves standing ‘before governors and kings,’ and have been brought to trial because of their faithfulness to Jesus (Mark 13.9-11). The tension over the fate of the Temple – its destruction by the Roman army of Titus – whether this was still to happen at the time Mark wrote, or whether it had recently occurred also seems to be alluded to (Mark 13.1. 14).
For those who experienced such anxieties, in this chapter, though not minimizing their suffering, Mark speaks a word of ultimate hope. He affirms that as in the Book of Daniel (7.13) the ‘Son of Man’ would come to inaugurate the time when evil empires would be overthrown and the rule of God would be fully established (Mark 13.26-27).
Yet there is an intriguing detail at the end of the chapter. It is the words of the injunction that are addressed – in the first instance I think to Mark’s own contemporaries – to remain faithful and alert and watching for the signs of this coming, this ‘Advent’. He urges them twice, to ‘keep awake’, (Mark 13.35-37) indeed, ‘keep awake’ are the very final words of this chapter – before Mark turns back once again to focus on the earthly passion of Jesus which will shortly move to its inexorable conclusion.
And in that passion narrative the same phrase ‘Keep awake’ will feature prominently again, during Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane ‘Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial’ (Mark 14.38). That same phrase, appearing in both places, in close proximity, has the effect of ‘bridging’ the thirty or so years between the experience of Jesus and his disciples in Gethsemane, and the experience of Mark’s contemporary readers. Their suffering becomes in a sense a ‘new Gethsemane’. Yet of course the fact that Jesus’ own Gethsemane experience ultimately leads to life through death can in turn offer hope for Mark’s own contemporaries.
This coalescing of these two times, perhaps suggests that time itself therefore is no longer constrained by usual linear boundaries. That is a message that is offered from the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark. At the moment of Jesus’ baptism the heavens are split open (Mark 1.9-11). This seems to be a fulfilment of the prayer expressed in this Sunday’s Old Testament reading, ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down’ (Isaiah 64.1). The new creation inaugurated in the life and ministry of Jesus breaks down the normal boundaries of both space and time. There is the crux relating to Mark 1.15 made famous by the work of CH Dodd, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand…’. Does this mean that the kingdom has already arrived, or is it almost here but still just around the corner? Can it be that in this new dispensation both are somehow possible and true?
That, it seems to me, seems to link quite deeply with the church’s understanding of the nature of Advent, that we cannot quite pin down whether the ‘coming’ to which it refers is past, present or future?. Advent draws our attention to the first coming – of Jesus as a baby in a manger in Bethlehem 2000 years ago; yet it encourages us to also to look forward with hope and longing to the final coming of Christ in glory. What is the relationship between the two, and does the season of Advent, properly draw on that first coming to act as a sacrament of the final one?
However there is one further coming which is also part of the story of Advent, which Christian tradition has cherished:
As our bodies will rise up rejoicing at his final coming, so our hearts must run joyfully to greet his first…Between these two comings of his, the Lord often visits each one of us in accordance with our merits and desires, forming us to the likeness of his first coming in the flesh, and preparing us for his return at the end of time. He comes to us now to make sure that his first coming shall not have been wasted, and that his last coming may not have to be in anger. (Guerric of Igny, 12th century)
A similar tension about the nature of Advent is noted by J. Neil Alexander, in an article tellingly entitled, ‘A Sacred Time in Tension’ (Liturgy vol. 13, no. 3):
Is Advent really the beginning of the annual cycle or does Advent bring the year to a conclusion? The fact is that… [such] ‘either/ors’ are really ‘both/ands’. And it is precisely because we cannot eliminate one or the other but must hold them in tension that we have inherited ‘a season under stress’ [Richard Hoefler}… shaped by darkness and light, dread and hope, judgement and grace, second and first comings, terror and promise, end and beginning.
Perhaps Karl Barth, that great Swiss theologian whose thinking still dominates European theology even more than 50 years after his death, summed up for us in his Church Dogmatics what is both the gift and challenge of the Advent season: ‘Whatever season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent?’
With ‘time’ in mind, if you are not already aware of it, it is well worth knowing – and perhaps drawing on – the poem Advent Calendar by Rowan Williams. A stunning musical setting of the poem can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_CNtjIud8A