By Fr. Bud Grant
“…for even now, as we walk amid passing things you teach us by them to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures.”
So reads the new Missal’s closing prayer for the First Sunday of Advent. The Gospel for the day hammers home this eschatological mood. The terms “watchful” and “alert” occur a whopping five times in five verses. We are confronting one of our faith’s more awkward paradoxes: though it is God’s creation, “heaven and earth will pass away” (Mk. 13:31).
The Gospel inaugurating this year’s Advent is from Mark 13, the so-called “Little Apocalypse,” which adds the chilling “tribulation such as has not been since the beginning of God’s creation until now, and ever will be” (v.19). The theme is of “terminal catastrophe” leading to final judgment. For an environmental theologian, it just doesn’t get any rougher than this. Let’s establish some concrete elements to consider in tip-toeing toward an interpretation.
First, biblical eschatology is typically produced at a time of fearful uncertainty. This is certainly the case with Mark 13 which was written at a time of great upheaval in Palestine (shared by the synoptic passages in Mt. 24 and Lk. 21, though these were written slightly later). Romans had invaded in response to a rebellion and Jerusalem is either under a siege or has already fallen, circa 70 C.E. The result is the unimaginable — the destruction of the Temple (the gilded paint of which was barely dry after Herod’s great rebuilding project).
Secondly, the Hebrew notion of holiness, accepted by the Jewish-Christian readers of the Gospel, is constructed like a Russian doll. The Holy of Holies is inside the Temple, which is the soul of Jerusalem, which is David’s capital of Israel, which is the Holy Land. Land, “EReTZ” in Hebrew, also means earth (Gen. 1:1). Mark, then, sees the destruction of the Temple, the vision of which kicks off Mark’s apocalypse (Mk. 13: 1-2), as THE apocalyptic event.
Further, virtually no ancient mind considered the ultimate temporality of the physical earth (kosmos, in Greek). Most pagan philosophers, for example, assumed the earth to be permanent. This, of course, cannot preclude the possibility of a unique (and inspired?) biblical insight, but it suggests that apocalypse is more about a re-ordering of the cosmos than its blinking out of existence. This idea is captured in other eschatological passages, possibly including Revelation 21.
It is also worth pointing out that the eschatological vision of Mark and others has a great deal to do with fidelity or violation of God’s will … what St. Paul seems to say about the culpability (and subsequent saving) of non-human nature (Rom. 8) must be left to another occasion, but for now it can be said that the generic phrase “kosmos” may simply and rather obviously refer to human communities, or “nations,” rather than the physical planet.
Apocalyptic literature, in general, and Mark in particular, is not prophesy, by the way, but its own genre of theology. For that matter, biblical prophecy is not about predicting the future, but is, rather, about warning folks that they have strayed from God’s Law and ought to return to fidelity. In any case, we can affirm that Mark (much less Jesus) is not predicting the end of the world.
Finally, and perhaps most self-evidently, earth-threatening environmental crises were simply not on the table. For them, nature was a massive and very threatening entity. In fact, one of the most common “green” themes of the Bible envisions a God who tames nature, brings it under human control, and renders it productive. Put simply, wild nature scared people, and with good reason.
So what are we to make of the environmental implications of Mark’s ‘Little Apocalypse?’ Well, to borrow a phrase from the humorous “Facebook” shorthand summary of human relationships, “it is complicated.” We will return to this next week.
(Father Bud Grant is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)