“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 13:24–32:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“In those days after that tribulation 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.
“And then they will see the ‘Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.
“Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates. Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
When traveling last month on our pilgrimage to Italy, one of the highlights — on all four of my visits, actually — was the Sistine Chapel. It may be one of the most beautiful art museums all on its own in the world. It holds the most celebrated frescoes not just of Michelangelo, but also of Sandro Boticelli, Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio, Domenico Ghirlandio, and Cosimo Roselli, who all painted amazing scenes from the lives of Moses and Christ along the walls. It is, however, the ceiling and altar wall pieces from Michelangelo that have become the most famous, and for reasons of artistic magnificence and compelling narratives. They tell us who we are, and where we are eventually going to go.
The ceiling and altar wall pieces came last — the former 20 years or so after the walls, and the latter another 20 years after that. Michelangelo returned to add this narrative to the papal chapel and the behest of two popes, Julius II and Clement VII, although the altar wall was not finished until the papacy of Paul III. Without those elements, the Sistine Chapel would still be a remarkable accomplishment, but Michelangelo’s vision of the trajectory of salvation lifts it up even more — because it speaks so directly to our own yearnings. Who are we truly, we ask, and who will we become?
Today’s readings also speak to these yearnings, both recorded in times of tribulation. Daniel was a great prophet of Israel, exiled from the Promised Land in Babylon along with the rest of the Israelites of his time. Daniel and his brethren had plenty of reason to ask these questions of themselves. If they were the favored of the Lord, then how long would they find themselves in captivity — and what would be their fate? Daniel receives a message from the Lord promising that “everyone who is found in the book” would escape that captivity. God also promises that those who remain wise in the Lord would “shall live forever … shall be like the stars forever.” The rest would become “an everlasting horror and disgrace.” The Lord promised Daniel that signs would come when the escape would take place, during a time “unsurpassed in distress.” Until then, the Lord’s people needed to have faith and trust, and use their judgment to discern the right moment.
Today’s reading from Mark 13 parallels Daniel. Jesus speaks of tribulation, of signs, and of the coming of the perfected Heaven and Earth. Jesus will be seen “coming in the clouds,” and He will gather the angels and the elect from all over the world. In that time, Jesus will provide the final judgment on humanity, raising some and condemning others.
This is the final chapter of our fallen world, still a part of the overall saga of salvation. Michelangelo depicts this brilliantly in the Sistine Chapel, from one end of the room to the other in the altar wall along with the frescoes on the side walls, in his magnificent “Last Judgment.” In this we see Christ coming in the clouds, gathering the angels and the elect, while casting the condemned to hell. We also see the angels and the elect trying to lift up those struggling toward salvation, while demons try to pull others into damnation. The cross and the scourging pillar are discarded, as Christ has fulfilled the Scriptures in this last day of judgment. (Click on the image to expand.)
But like any anxious reader or disciple, it’s often not enough to know what and where, but also when. At times, we all feel like the child in the back of the car, repeatedly demanding to know Are we there yet? When will we get there? Neither Jesus or Daniel provide an answer. Daniel told his brethren to watch for signs, but did not give them a timetable. Jesus explicitly warns his disciples that they shall not know the day or the hour; not even Jesus could claim knowledge of that moment. Instead, Jesus urged his followers to look for signs that judgment was near — but to act as though judgment was always near. The timing, clearly, was not as important as the preparation.
There is a time for judgment, in other words, and a time for trust and faith. We have been told the entire story, and we know that the Lord will prevail. What matter is it of the time? We know the what, the where, and the why. Knowing this, we need to exercise our own judgment and discretion and frame our lives accordingly. The fallen world provides lots of tribulation, so it’s impossible for us to know whether a particular set of circumstances means that our own escape from the bondage of this life into the life of the Lord is imminent. Nor, in the end, should it matter. As Paul says in Hebrews, Jesus made the one sacrifice for all of us, and sits at the right hand of the Lord; “he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated.” All we need to do is prepare ourselves through formation to His will and share in the joy of the Gospel’s full story of salvation.
What do you need — a map? If you do, take a tour of the Sistine Chapel. And to quote all of our exasperated fathers on the family road trip … we will get there when we get there. Don’t worry about it. Just be prepared to embrace the destination.
The front-page image is a detail of Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment,” in the Sistine Chapel.