15 November 2015
Daniel 12:1-3; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8
“[I have been] blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.” Now this, of course, is not me, though I can suggest how it might be. But it is quite recognizably Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice once she realizes how badly she has misjudged Fitzwilliam Darcy. But these words could be mine if I pretended to talk any way but tentatively about the Last Things, which is what so much in today’s readings are about.
Daniel speaks of “a time of anguish such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence.” For the righteous there will be “life everlasting” and they will shine “like the stars forever and ever.” For all others there will be “shame and everlasting contempt.”
The letter to the Hebrews repeats this, saying “the Day [is] drawing near” when “God [will] put all enemies in their rightful place,” because “Jesus has made perfect forever those who are being sanctified.”
And in Mark’s gospel we see the disciples on the Temple mount marveling at the “large stones and . . . large buildings” that make up the Temple. This leads Jesus to ask them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all with be thrown down.”
Now when I read biblical passages like these, I am tempted to go back and read the Book of Revelation, but I do so carefully because I remember what the great Canadian scholar, Northrop Frye, said: “Anyone coming ‘cold’ to the Book of Revelation, without context of any kind, would probably regard it as simply an insane rhapsody. It has been described as a book that either finds a man mad or else leaves him so” (The Great Code, p. 137).
I found that to be the case in reading somewhat eclectically about apocalypse and rapture. Apocalypse—sometimes a title given to the Book of Revelation—has to do with the end of things as well as with Rapture (with a capital R), which takes place when things fall apart. Those who believe in the Rapture believe that the righteous will be taken up into heaven as the Savior descends from heaven to bring them back with him to heaven. Those who are not yet righteous will be left on earth for an indefinite period of “tribulation,” which sometimes lasts forever. Now some believers in it expected the Rapture to take place on the 23rd of September of this year. When it did not, the date was put off until some unspecified day in the latter part of this year or sometime next year. It simply remains to be said that many of these believers in the Rapture are very good people: they want to be with God as soon as possible. They believe in something that has a long history of being expected but never happening.
Now what can I say that is more in line with what I do believe? And I am saying it at a time of unspeakable destruction, massacres, and mass emigration in Syria. Certainly we could, if we believed in the Rapture, say that this is part of the Last Things. But as much as I grieve for these suffering and dying people, I do not expect the Rapture any time soon. So let me dwell for a few moments on one of the meanings of the destruction of the temple that Jesus refers to.
That temple was the Second Temple and called Herod’s Temple, though Herod only restored the Temple built by Zerubbabel some centuries before. The First Temple, built by Solomon, was destroyed in 587-586 BCE by the Babylonians. The Second Temple whose fate Jesus predicted was destroyed in the year 70 CE. Each of these temples had the same structure, which was rectangular, having a large outer court, a smaller inner court, and the yet smaller Holy of Holies, which was the place of the Shekhinah: the place of the divine presence. That’s where God dwelt. When the Romans destroyed the Temple, there was “widespread plundering, murder, and finally the burning of all structures on the Temple mount”; thus “ended the history of the Temple” (Oxford Guide to the Bible, p. 734). And thus also ended the Shekhinah. So God was now nowhere to be found. This might well be regarded as End Times for the Israelites. As Karen Armstrong writes, “Christians saw the destruction of the temple as an apokalypsis, a ‘revelation’ of a terrifying truth. The old Israel was dead . . . . Now in the new Israel Jews must encounter the Shekhinah, the divine presence formerly enshrined in the Holy of Holies, in the person of Jesus, the christos” (The Case For God, p. 83).
The Letter to the Hebrews takes the matter of God’s presence further than that, saying, as Paul did, in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (3:16). A belief emphasized in the Gospel of John (14:21) when Jesus says, “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Or in the words of the Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R. S. Thomas, “It is the annihilation of difference, / the consciousness of myself in you, of you in me” (“Emerging”). This is likewise the basis for the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins writing that “Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces” (“As kingfisher catch fire”). That, of course, means God dwells in each one of us right here, right now, does it not?
And since I began with Jane Austen, let me end with her too. I think that she very well understood these matters. She knew the Scriptures. Her father and two of her brothers were Church of England clergymen. Consequently, we find her addressing God in one of her three extant night prayers and leaving no one out of them:
May thy mercy be extended over all mankind, bringing the ignorant to the knowledge of thy truth, awakening the impenitent, touching the hardened. Look with compassion upon the afflicted of every condition, assuage the pangs of disease, comfort the broken in spirit. (Minor Works, ed. R. W. Chapman, Vol. VI, p. 456)
In our day and age, this seems to be a prayer worth repeating because each of us knows individuals who are ignorant, who are impenitent, and who are hardened. And we also know from our Book of Intentions many who are afflicted. Consequently, it is a good deal more pertinent and sensible to pray for these individuals and groups, near and far, than it is to await the ever elusive End Times. Let us then make this thoughtful prayer our prayer too.