Today is the second last Sunday of the Church’s year. Next week, at end of the year, we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King — that same one who is described in today’s Gospel as coming with great majesty at the end of time: ‘Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.’ (Mark 13:26-27) At the end of the Church’s year, the focus is on the end-time. (C.f.: Hebrews 1:2) Liturgically, we are at the end of time. Whatever you were going to do this year, it is too late; next week it all comes to an end, when we welcome Jesus as the Lord of all History, its King, the Alpha and the Omega, its beginning and its end.
These days, especially in the wake of COP26 (which has revealed our seeming inability to do anything meaningful about climate change), many are feeling that the end really is nigh: the doomsday clock at the beginning of this year was set at 100 seconds to midnight! The question everyone wants to know the answer to in regard to the end of time, Jesus’ disciples asked some two thousand years ago: “Tell us, when is this going to happen, and what sign will there be that it is all about to take place?” (Mark 13:4) Well, we still don’t know when. (Mark 13:26-27) Jesus only says, “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light.” (Mark 13:24) These days, through the continual burning of fossil fuels and forests, in many places the sun can no longer shine through the pollution and many are tempted to think the time has come. (C.f.: Mark 1:15) For this has ushered in the largest period of species’ extinction since the time the dinosaurs were wiped out — if we cannot limit global warming to two degrees, the Great Barrier Reef, the largest living thing on earth, will be no more. In these days, our days, we now have regular catastrophic fire seasons and devastating droughts alternating with massive and widespread flooding; our climate would seem to be approaching a time when it is no longer capable of supporting life as we know it. We would seem to be living in apocalyptic times.
“Tell us, when is this going to happen, and what sign will there be that it is all about to take place?” Jesus says to us: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” (Mark 13:28-29) Jesus doesn’t say that when you see ‘these things’ the end is nigh. Instead he says, “When you see these things, know that he is near, at the very gates.” In these worrying days we should know that he is very near; God has not abandoned his people. In these days his message is the same as when he first came proclaiming the Gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15) In all this mess is a call to believe in the Good News, and so to repent and turn from all that we do that threatens our life. For this is a call to see that his Kingdom is near, that time when the Lord comes … not to destroy and wipe out, but to make new: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth,” says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah when speaking of end times. (Isaiah 65:17)
We need to learn the lesson of the fig tree: when all else had emerged from its winter hibernation and is full of life, the fig tree seems as if it really has died … till it starts to soften and put out new leaves; then we know that summer is near. So we need, in the midst of all this deadly foreboding, to look for signs that he is near … signs of new life, to know that he is near. Towards the end of COP26, when hopes for limiting climate warming to 1.5 degrees were fast fading, China and the US, the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases and despite being rivals and potential enemies in every sphere, announced an agreement to cooperate in regard to climate change; this was unexpected and is an unmistakable sign of hope that new life is yet possible. We have done it before in regard to our atmosphere: when the ozone layer, which protects us from harmful radiation from the Sun, was being threatened by CFCs, world governments came together to ban the use of CFCs and the threat was eliminated; we can do it again. But we have our bit to do.
At the end of this Chapter in Mark, the Lord describes this time of his seeming absence like this: “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge.” (Mark 13:34) We, both individually and collectively, have been left in charge, and we need to have all things ready for his coming. In Glasgow we can see signs that he is near; we need to get busy preparing — not just by encouraging and cajoling our governments on climate change, but also by doing even the little we can ourselves on that front. But more importantly, he comes to bring new life; we need to do what we can to prepare for and support that new life in a new world that will be different from what we have left behind; we cannot afford to give up hope. To lose hope is to become that useless servant who deserves only to be cut off. (C.f. Rule of St Benedict Prologue:7; 7:29-30; John 15:2)
So, despite all the signs to the contrary, it may not yet be the end-time. It is as the Lord says: “Concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32); we do not know. What we do know is that he is near, and we need to be ready for his coming. If it is to be his final coming, in a sense it doesn’t matter, for we will be with him. But if it is not, we need to be ready for that new life in the new world that he is making. For it is his Kingdom, and we need to be ready!