Deck chairs, tea leaves, and missing the point: Sunday reflection

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.”

One of my favorite descriptions of futility is “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” It perfectly describes a particular kind of futility, one wrapped in denial. If we know the ship is sinking, do we spend our time worrying about the decor — or do we start finding ways to get off the ship without sinking?

This comes to mind in today’s Gospel, in which Jesus describes the end times to His disciples. Jesus promises that He will return in “great power and glory,” and that the wise will see signs of His return. This has, to be blunt, driven people crazy for two millennia — literally crazy. Every few years a group in one place or another claims to have deciphered whatever tea leaves they have found in scripture and declare a certain date to be The End.

Inevitably, the day comes and goes without the Apocalypse. In most cases, the only damage done is to egos and finances. In a few instances, it ends in death. And once again, we remind ourselves of Jesus’ extremely important caveat:

“But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

That is in itself highly curious in terms of eschatology and theology. Jesus came to us as a human being in order to sacrifice Himself for our sins and bring us all to salvation. He knows full well that He will return again at some point to close it all down and re-establish the original relationship between God and His people. At that time, there wasn’t a consensus about an afterlife among the Judeans; the Sadducees didn’t believe in it, but the Pharisees did. This in fact comes up in the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul speaks before the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:6-10):

Paul was aware that some were Sadducees and some Pharisees, so he called out before the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees; [I] am on trial for hope in the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the group became divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection or angels or spirits, while the Pharisees acknowledge all three. A great uproar occurred, and some scribes belonging to the Pharisee party stood up and sharply argued, “We find nothing wrong with this man. Suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” The dispute was so serious that the commander, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, ordered his troops to go down and rescue him from their midst and take him into the compound.

This dispute goes well back in salvation history. In our first reading today from Daniel 12, the prophet foretells salvation, while warning to be vigilant in preparation:

In those days, I, Daniel, heard this word of the Lord: “At that time there shall arise Michael, the great prince, guardian of your people; it shall be a time unsurpassed in distress since nations began until that time. At that time your people shall escape, everyone who is found written in the book.

“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.

“But the wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.”

When Jesus teaches about the final judgment to His disciples, He isn’t merely echoing a common consensus. This is a teaching that settles the point, even if the Sadducees refused to acknowledge it. Paul’s testimony at the Sanhedrin shows this is a core doctrine of faith in Christ, in fact. It is the Good News of the Gospel.

The curious part of Jesus’ teaching is that even He Himself didn’t know the day and hour of the final judgment. As the Son, Jesus in His divine nature is “consubstantial” with the Father and Holy Spirit — one with both in the Father. So why wouldn’t He know, and just say, “Hey, mark your calendars for Sunday, March 28, 2032?”

Well, first off, He’d probably have said “Nissan 16, 5792,” but you get my drift.

The lesson here for us — as it was when Jesus taught it the first time — is that the date and time isn’t important. If Christ Himself during the Incarnation didn’t need that information, why would we need it? The day and hour of judgment are irrelevant; the fact of judgment and the choice of salvation are what matter. The point isn’t to prepare for the date but to form ourselves for salvation in knowledge that the date will eventually come.

The disciples learned the importance of this teaching over a long period of time, just as we do. In the beginning of the church, the apostles believed that Christ would return in their lifetime. The signs to which Jesus referred happening in the lifetime of “this generation” was the destruction of Jerusalem and the beginning of the spread of the Church. It took a long while for the meaning of the Great Commission to become apparent in eschatological terms.

The focus on dates, times, and portents are best described as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Tea leaves make for fine beverages, but when it comes to telling the future, they stink. It’s not necessary for us to know, because we are supposed to be forming ourselves all along for salvation. We can’t just put off our formation until retirement, for instance, assuming that we have all the time in the world to form ourselves to the Lord’s will. In that sense, the ship has already struck the iceberg, and we should focus on getting to the lifeboats.

Addendum: I had trouble remembering which of the Judean authorities rejected the afterlife until a priest friend told me this joke: You know it’s the Sadducees, because the lack of an afterlife made them sad, you see.

Yeah, you’re better off reading Acts 23.

 

The front-page image is a detail from “The Pharisees and the Sadducees Come to Tempt Jesus” by James Tissot, circa 1886-94. On display at the Brooklyn Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons

“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.