Meditation by Frances Flatman on next Sunday’s Readings :-
The modern world approaches ‘Apocalyptic’ in terms of terror and destruction, and I suppose when we have so many like the present incumbent of the White House chucking threats at all and sundry this may be understandable, but it was not the way in which ancient writers understood this term.
By the 2nd to 1st century BCE there were Jewish writers who were beginning to probe the nature of the God-man relationship, and clearly for them the time honoured text of scrupulously fulfilling of the law so that all would be well, along with temple sacrifice, was not enough. Among them were the ‘Wisdom’ writers, and it can be no accident that at the same time ideas of eternal life, and resurrection developed. For some Jews this simply meant that Israel would come out on top, and the reign on earth of the Messiah would be universal; Israel would be all powerful and destroy all those enemies which had smashed her and caused such suffering. It all remained a very material and earth-bound thing. But this was clearly not the case for everyone, and for the writer(s) of Daniel and others it was to develop into an altogether more mysterious and hopeful thing, in which the God of Israel would finally meet with his chosen, even those who had died, and whose relationship with Him would develop into something altogether more spectacular and glorious. The fact that this kind of Apocalyptic was born out of great suffering, in this case, the rule of the Seleucid tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes: he of the Maccabean Revolt, can be no accident. Certainly the belief that God would vindicate the dead, the ‘sleepers’ of Daniel, (12:1-3) and that they would thereafter have an immortal life, here described as ‘Bright as stars for all eternity’ is a pointer to the fact that we should not read apocalyptic literally but poetically, for the writers are stepping out into the unknown, searching for language with which to express this new and deeper understanding of our relationship to God. What we do know is that Jesus was influenced by this literature, for there are echoes of it throughout his teaching, and especially of Daniel 7 in which the Son of Man is brought into God’s presence and rewarded for his faithfulness.
The fact that the Gospel writers record Jesus’ own use of Apocalyptic, and the context within which he does so, is very important. In our Gospel (Mark 13:24-32) so close to his passion and death, we find Jesus coming out of the Temple in Jerusalem and passing judgment upon it, indeed, forecasting its utter ruin and desolation. I think that like all apocalyptic this is Jesus’ personal comment on his relationship with the Temple and its hierarchy who will so shortly put him to death. Time after time in Mark’s Gospel we have met Jesus in head-on collision with these very authorities, be they priests, Pharisees, Sadducees or scribes, and we have come to realise that the conflict between him and them was irreconcilable.
Then there was the ever growing hostility between Jews and the Roman occupiers of Palestine which we know was getting increasingly worse. Jesus did not have to be especially clairvoyant to realise that it would end in revolt, as it did in 66-70 CE, with catastrophic results for the Jews; and by the time the synoptic writers wrote their gospels between the 70’s-late 80’s it was simply a matter of fact, to be incorporated into their Gospel accounts. Describing these events, Jesus simply used time honoured language to convey the situations about which he was speaking. We should not suppose for a moment that either he or the Gospel writers, or indeed earlier apocalyptic thinkers, actually expected the implosion of the cosmos; but certainly they wished to convey by this language the dramatic, even shattering effects of the changes to be wrought by his death and resurrection, and on the Jewish people. Just as we use poetic imagery to convey either great love or pain: ‘My love is like a red, red rose’, or Owen’s description of the dead of the Great War starkly as ‘Dying like cattle’, neither of which are true, but which convey so much; so Jesus used time-honoured images to convey the effect of his death and resurrection and the wholly new life into which it would incorporate his followers. Traditional inscriptions found on ancient city walls recording the once-in-a-lifetime visit of an emperor to some remote city in Turkey often speak of his ‘Coming in the clouds”, God-like in power and majesty. Small wonder then that our writers borrowed this turn of phrase for the one who really was what he said he was!
Our writer of Hebrews (10:11-14.18) continues his project of distinguishing between Jesus and the high priestly sacrifices of the Temple, and here delivers his devastating critique. The latter offer “Over and over again the same sacrifices which are quite incapable of taking sins away.” Christ, ‘By his single offering has achieved the eternal perfection of all….When all sins have been forgiven there can be no more sin offerings.” We have to get into the language of scripture, just as we do with so much language which we use every day. If we simply stick with its strange imagery, we can end up having all manner of strange and quite erroneous ideas about our faith. Apocalyptic is meant to convey a positive understanding of things to us, as it did to ancient Israel, for in the end it is about the triumph of God who has loved us in Christ into his life, and has a marvellous future for each one of us. Mind-blowing? Yes. Bringing death and destruction? Most definitely not.