Keep awake! These are the last two words of a dramatic passage towards the end of a work entitled the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one. We know this by the name bequeathed by Christian tradition: “the Gospel according to Mark.”
I Keep awake!
Keep awake! are the last two recorded words spoken by Jesus in this long speech, given to his disciples outside the Temple in Jerusalem. This is the last long speech of Jesus recorded in this Gospel, uttered just hours before he is arrested and put on trial for blasphemy.
After his arrest, Jesus, the master story-teller, the wordsmith supreme, is uncharacteristically silent in this story (14:61, 15:5). He speaks only once at his trial before the Sanhedrin (14:62), and once again when brought before Pilate (15:2). So this speech to his disciples (13:5-37), and especially these last two words, keep awake!, are significant and important.
Keep awake: these two words set the theme for the four weeks of Advent, that start this,coming Sunday. Advent literally means towards the coming. It is what pregnant women do; they look towards the coming of the expected child. It is what young children do, as dinner time approaches; they look towards the coming of their working parents, returning home to share in the evening meal and associated rituals.
It is what we are called to do during these next four weeks; to look towards the coming of Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate on Christmas Day.
And as we look towards the coming, we are instructed to keep awake (13:37, and see also 13:35), to keep alert (13:33), be alert (13:23), and beware (13:9 and 13:5).
II Prophetic oracles and apocalyptic writings
The context for these exhortations is instructive. These words are uttered to people who will find themselves in the midst of a series of challenging crises. There will be wars and rumours of wars (13:7), earthquakes and famines (13:8), persecution and trials (13:9-11), ruptures within families (13:12) and unwarranted hatred (13:13). Sacred places will be despoiled (13:14) and religious imposters will flourish (13:22), while sufferings will be widespread (13:19) and a global environmental disaster will ensue (13:24-25).
These events are all standard elements in apocalyptic works of the time—writings which were created in the midst of events perceived as tribulations and catastrophes, out of which a message of hope was born. Apocalyptic writings developed after the return from Exile of the people of Israel, from the uprising led by the Maccabees in the 2nd century BCE onwards, and were particularly common in Jewish literature through until the century after the time of Jesus.
Apocalyptic emerged out of the oracles delivered by the prophets in earlier centuries, when kings were in power in Israel. The prophets spoke out against the injustices seen in their society. Their oracles spoke of the punishment that they believe God was going to bring on the people. Over time, through the experience of exile, captivity, and then return to the land under foreign rule, the message of doom was strengthened.
The prophets, and then the apocalyptic works, include many references that resonate with what Jesus is saying in his speech in Mark 13. The threat of future wars is noted in Isaiah 19:2, Jeremiah 51:46, and Daniel 7:21. Graphic prophecies in Daniel 9:25-26 and 11:40-45 intensify this portrayal of the wars that are to come.
2 Baruch 70:7-8 ramps this up even more: “And they shall come and make war with the leaders that shall then be left. And it shall come to pass that whoever gets safe out of the war shall die in the earthquake, and whoever gets safe out of the earthquake shall be burned by the fire, and whoever gets safe out of the fire shall be destroyed by famine.”
Hatred and falling away from God is included in a number of apocalyptic writings: 1 Enoch 90:22-27, 91:7, 93:9, Jubilees 23:14-17, and in one of biblical commentaries found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1QpHab 2.1-10. That sacred places will be despoiled is described in the Testament of Levi 15:1 and the Apocalypse of Elijah 2:41 4:21.
Suffering and distress are signs of what is to come in many books within apocalyptic elements: in the prophetic oracles of Jeremiah 30:7 and Joel 2:2, in another scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1 QM 1.11-12; and in the Testament of Moses 8.1.
Cosmic signs are associated with the coming time of doom. The Lord will shake the earth, according to Isaiah 13:13, 24:19; Joel 3:16; Amos 9:1,9-10; Haggai 2:6,20-22; and 2 Baruch 70:8, cited above; and see also Job 9:6.
Flashes of lightning are noted at Psalm 97:4, in prophetic oracles at Isa 62:1, Zech 9:14, and the Epistle of Jeremiah 61, as well as in 2 Baruch 53:9. What looks quite like an eclipse is regularly noted in prophetic oracles: Isaiah 13:10, 24:23, 34:4; Jeremiah 4:23; Ezekiel 32:7-8; Joel 2:10, 30-31; Amos 5:20; and Zephaniah 1:15. It also features in apocalyptic writings such as 1 Enoch 80:4; 4 Ezra 5:4-5; and the Testament of Moses 10:5 (and see also Job 9:7).
The darkness that ensues takes us back to the chaotic origins recounted in Gen 1:2, evoked again in Jer 4:23. Darkness is understood to be a sign of judgement in the prophets: Exodus 10:21-29, Isaiah 13:9-16, Jer 13:16, and Amos 5:18,20.
“If this is what life is like now”, the argument of apocalyptic writings usually goes, “with all of these catastrophic events tumbling one upon another — then because of our faith, we have confidence that the future will be a time when God will intervene, dramatically and affirmatively, to ensure that justice is done.”
And so, hope is affirmed, even as these works provide extensive lists of the terrible hardships and dramatic crises being experienced. Indeed, hope itself features in prophetic oracles (Isa 29:17, 38:18, and 51:5), as well as apocalyptic works such as 4 Ezra 6:25, 7:27, and 9:7-8, and 2 Baruch 70:9.
III Hope in the midst of despair
The apocalyptic signs and portents noted in Mark 13, whilst resonating with ancient experiences and expectations, also seem to have some resonances with our current situation, and the year of serial challenges that we have all experienced.
What has 2020 been like for you? For myself, I have experienced suffocating smoke, followed by the threat of a spreading fire in a nearby national park, clearly visible from my front door, even if still a few kilometres distant.
I myself was not directly damaged by the fires, but I have seen numerous frightening images and videos of firefighters standing firm right in the midst of terrible firestorms, heart-wrenching images of animals who have been hurt or whose habitat was destroyed, and so many tragic scenes of people surveying the devastation wrought by the fires to their homes and possessions. That in itself felt cataclysmic enough to be “apocalyptic”.
However, the fires, there came a very sudden and severe hailstorm, and then the frightening irruption of a pandemic bearing a virus that spread rapidly across the globe. Smoke and fire, hail and plague: it has felt like a massive year!
Since the impact of COVID-19 became evident in March, we have all experienced restrictions on how we gather and how we live, the stresses that this placed on our regular ways of living, and in some cases the fracturing of relationships that ensued. Some people have experienced illness or loss of friends or loved ones because of the pandemic.
Community grief is deep in some regions. Recovery from the bushfires in the midst of a pandemic is a hard task. Envisaging life in the “new normal” presents multiple challenges to everyone.
And the environmental warnings from what we have experienced are clear and strong. Our climate is changing, and the way it is impacting our society is significant and enduring. No longer are we faced with the task of mitigation; we need to take seriously the process of adaptation, at a rate more rapid, more,extensive, and more insistent than we might previously have considered. The “new normal” must be very, very different, indeed.
The challenge offered to us by this passage, as we read it this year, in the context of all that has transpired, is to hold fast to the note of hope, that Jesus offered his first disciples, and which holds still for us today.
In the midst of all these trials, Jesus affirms that the one who endures to the end will be saved (13:13). He assures his followers that the Lord has cut short those days (13:20), and looks to the time when the [Lord] will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds (13:27). Once again, the speech in Mark 13 draws from standard apocalyptic elements to provide assurance in the midst of despair.
How might these words of hope be the dominant notes for us at the end of 2020? Each one of us needs to work out how we respond, what we can do, who we can work with, how we can adapt. Reimagining the way we gather, worship, shop, visit, eat together, and travel, requires dedicated commitment over the coming months. It is a task for us all.
And if we continue to hold to that task, then perhaps this imaginative story might actually become the story of our future: The Great Realisation