The End is Near:  Proper 28, Year B

1 Samuel 1:4-20; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8

The Orthodox Christian year is winding to a close.  Once again, as happened in the middle of the year, Mark’s ground-breaking early Christian work is apparently deemed superfluous (see, e.g., Losing the Way Part I; Part II; Part III).  Proper 28 allows for only the first eight verses of Mark 13, and that is the end of the road as far as the Elves are concerned.  Proper 29 finishes the Christian liturgical year with Christ the King Sunday.  In Years A and C, proper 29 includes readings from the respective Gospels: Matthew in Year A, and Luke in Year C.  But for Year B, the Elves have decreed that Mark’s Gospel will be superceded by readings from the Gospel of John and the Revelation.  Perhaps the reason is that both the Gospel and the Revelation are believed to have been written by Jesus’s “beloved disciple.”  Perhaps the reason is that there is not enough time in a three-year cycle to get to the Gospel of John, even though it is the favorite.  Perhaps switching to a four-year cycle and giving John his own year would require too much renegotiation among the Catholic and Protestant factions about how to combine the various portions of Old Testament scriptures that would have to be cherry-picked.  Or perhaps the thought is that if you’ve heard or read one Apocalypse, you’ve heard or read them all.

For reasons that are truly obscure, this week’s list of readings includes large portions of the story of the call of Samuel, and Hannah’s Song, rejoicing in his dedication to the Temple.  Catholic tradition reads Hannah’s Song as part of the liturgy for the Visitation, celebrated May 31.  This feast day commemorates Mary’s visit with Elizabeth, when both are pregnant.  Mary sings the Magnificat, which is based on Hannah’s song, and Elizabeth hails Mary: “blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  Perhaps the Elves want to be sure those sections of Samuel are read at some point by recalcitrant Protestants, who are not particularly interested in Catholic feast days.  If not May 31, the end of liturgical year B will do, as Christians anticipate Advent and the Christmas season.  

The main theme for Proper 28, however – disregarding the non-sequitur from 1 Samuel – is the threat of a final judgment, the timing for which we hapless folk on Planet Earth have no clue.  All Mark’s Jesus says is that “wars and rumors of wars . . . nation against nation and empire against empire. . . earthquakes. . . famines . . . mark the beginning of the final agonies.”  Jesus’s words of course seem to be mysteriously anticipated in Daniel 12:1-3, but Daniel’s prophesy goes beyond what Mark’s Jesus appears to do.  All Mark’s Jesus does in the Little Apocalypse is warn the people to be on guard, stay alert (Wachet Auf).  Watch for the signs that will announce the end.  Daniel speaks of the resurrection of the dead, according to Christian reinterpretation of the Jewish apocalypse.  “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.  Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”  Then – although the Elves don’t consider it, perhaps because Jesus says we can’t know it – Daniel is advised to “keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end [because] many shall be running back and forth, and evil shall increase.”  Meanwhile, the writer of the letter called “Hebrews” continues his anti-Semitic diatribe against “every priest [who] stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.”  We should encourage one another, the writer says, “and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Post-modern, 21st Century, progressive exiles from the Christian religion may well just dismiss all this as irrelevant.  We are facing our own atomic, biological, chemical, demographic, and ecological apocalypse.  Who cares about Daniel’s or John’s or Mark’s?  

If Christianity is to have any relevance to the third millennium, several things need to change. First, in the current culture of these United States, as well as post-colonial cultures world-wide, Biblical literacy is essential.  Exiles from Christianity cannot simply ignore fundamentalists and literalists.  Robert Jensen in his recent book, All My Bones Shake (Soft Skull Press, Berkeley, CA, 2009) writes, “For me, Christianity – or any other religion – can help in this struggle only if we understand theology as a process of seeking that can remain dynamic and open, rather than a declaration of beliefs that are static and closed” (p. 180).  We must counter theologies of fear and exclusiveness with love and radical fairness.

Second, exiles from Christianity must reclaim Jesus from the romanticized, other-worldly god the church has made him into.  As A.J. Levine puts it, for most Christians, Jesus is too clean.  The historical Jesus preached the radical abandonment of self-interest, radical fairness, and a share-world, not a greed-world.  For those who are committed to distributive justice-compassion, such as the Christian Peacemaker Team that put their lives on the line (and lost one of them) in Iraq, that Jesus is dirty, bone-tired, deeply afraid, and blood-drenched.  Liberal Christians need to start invoking that Jesus in all of our arguments for universal health care, against rapacious mining and oil drilling; recovering water resources, including wetlands, bays, lakes, and fishing grounds; civil rights including marriage for GLBT people; fair immigration policies; universal education.

We cannot change Christianity without knowing what the Gospels have to say, and understanding the context in which they say it.  

So, to start with, notice that the legend of Daniel was actually created approximately 160 bce. Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Greco-Syrian portion of Alexander the Great’s former empire, had begun a religious persecution of Jews in order to solidify his power against the Egyptians.  Some Jews reacted violently in a Hasmonean/ Maccabean revolt.  But the Book of Daniel is actually a non-violent vision of hope that the Fifth Kingdom – not some earthly empire, but the Kingdom of God – would be established forever and ever.  During that same second-century time, Rome declared that it was the long-awaited and final Fifth Kingdom.  As John Dominic Crossan suggests, according to Daniel, the Kingdom of God begins with a judgment-tribunal in heaven.  The great kings on trial there are all like this or that beast; but the personified embodiment of heavenly rule is a “Son of Man” (Adam – a human person).  “God’s Kingdom descends from its personified embodiment, probably the archangel Michael (Dan. 7:14), through those angelic 'holy ones' (7:18, 22), until it is finally given to ‘the people’ of God here below upon this earth. . . . That vision imagines that imperialism has been condemned long ago by God and that its replacement has already been created in heaven where it is held in angelic protection until it can appear here below. . . . It is a transcendental dispute between a beast-like rule from earth and a human-like rule from heaven.”

Mark believed that Jesus was that “personified embodiment of heavenly rule.”  As argued in last week’s blog, Mark’s Jesus repudiates the idea that the “son of David” is the Messiah.  The reason is – as seen above – the Son of Adam is not the warlike emperor (the beasts from Daniel).  The Son of Adam is a human being.  If not for the perceived necessity to counter the agrarian/Pagan concept of a god who dies in the winter and rises in the spring, Christianity might not have rearranged the sequence of Mark’s story, and might not have been able to so thoroughly obscure Mark's point.  Immediately after his “Little Apocalypse,” which advises believers to watch for the sign of the coming of the Fifth Kingdom, Mark relates the story of Jesus’s arrest, execution, and death.  The surprise at the end is the empty tomb.  This is not a contradiction to Mark’s proclamation in 1:15.  Jesus – the embodiment of the Kingdom of God – has been raised to the heavenly realms.  From there, as 1st Century Jews understood the story of Daniel, he shall come again to establish the Kingdom on earth forever.

These stories have been used for two millennia to bully or frighten people into believing that this life does not matter, and that anyone who does not believe that Jesus came back from the dead to save us from hell in the next life will spend eternity there.  However, 21st Century post-modern exiles should realize that biblical scholars are fairly certain of two things: 1) Jesus is seriously dead, and has been for some time; and 2) Jesus’s message was far more radical than “be nice to your neighbor, and give money to church social action projects.”  Mark’s gospel illustrates his 1st Century understanding of both those points.  But we miss that if we allow the Elves to put together the readings in order to prove orthodox dogma.  As these Commentaries have argued for three years, the embodiment of God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion – the incarnation, the personification of God’s Kingdom – is anyone who participates in the struggle to actualize it here and now.  The sustainability of life on Planet Earth is what is at stake.