Autumn, to John Keats, was a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” but to preachers of the Catholic Lectionary, it can be a season of bafflement. As Ordinary Time ends each year and Advent begins, Lectionary readings turn surreal—a blackened sun, falling stars and people dying of fright. Take, for example, the Gospel reading for the 33rd Sunday last month: “In those days after that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory” (Year B, Mk 13:24-26). One might expect that images of destruction would end when the liturgical year ends, but no, they continue into Advent, the season of hopeful beginnings. “On earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves,” Jesus said to his disciples. “People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Year C, Lk 21:25-26).
Do these readings really say that our world is fated to end in terror and panic, that the heavens will collapse upon our heads? The short answer is an emphatic no. These texts express hope and confidence in God’s ability to end injustice and inaugurate a world free of sin and shaped by God’s life-giving word. It is crucially important that we understand them correctly.
Biblical scholars point out that these texts are examples of a genre in the ancient world—apocalyptic eschatology—that is absent in our own. Though the adjective apocalyptic, used alone, conveys little to modern readers, the broad phenomenon, apocalypticism, is not overly complex and can be explained in relatively few words. According to a widely accepted definition, apocalypticism means that God has revealed the imminent end of the ongoing struggle between good and evil in history. Apocalypticism thus is concerned with God’s “kingdom” in its active sense of ruling and governing a rebellious world, especially the final phase of ruling. Divine governance of the world is a topic to which biblical authors gave considerable attention.
In reflecting on God’s rule of the world, biblical authors made certain assumptions. We need to be aware of three of them. First, they accepted the view that each nation had its own patron deity, with the proviso, of course, that there is only one supremely powerful deity, the Lord, who had also chosen Israel as his own people: “When the Most High allotted each nation its heritage,/ when he separated out human beings,/ He set up the boundaries of the peoples/ after the number of the divine beings;/ but the Lord’s portion was his people,/ his allotted share was Jacob” (Dt 32:8-9). Second, the scribes shared the ancient Near Eastern conception of world history as a succession of four kingdoms. Such an assumption was understandable, since as employees of the king they tended to see things through the king’s eyes. The names of the four kingdoms could vary (for example, Assyria, Babylon, Media and Persia; or alternatively, Babylon, Media, Persia and Greece), but the number could not vary, for four meant universal and all-inclusive. Even today we speak of “the four corners of the globe.” Third, since the scribes shared the assumption that each kingdom had its own heavenly patron, they concluded that the rise and decline of a kingdom reflected the rise and decline of its patron’s position in the pantheon. The assumptions enabled biblical authors to understand themselves as the Lord’s special people, even though they were a small nation in the midst of great empires.
Change in Perspective
At some point in Early Judaism (fourth century B.C. to second century A.D.) the age-old concepts of divine governance and world history proved unsatisfactory to some Jewish thinkers, and a major paradigm shift took place. The shift was provoked, at least partially, by the notorious attack of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV on the Jerusalem Temple in 167 B.C., which sent shock waves throughout the Jewish world. Some thinkers, including the author of the Book of Daniel (circa 165 B.C.), revised their conception of the Lord’s rule. In place of the traditional view of world history as four kingdoms endlessly succeeding each other, with the Lord overseeing their rule, Daniel asserted that all four kingdoms would come to a definitive end and yield to a “fifth kingdom” that would last forever—the kingdom of God. “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed or delivered up to another people; rather, it shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and put an end to them, and it shall stand forever” (Dn 2:44). The “fifth kingdom,” according to Daniel, had already been decreed in heaven but was not yet fully realized on earth. Israel had to await its full coming, though the people could take heart that its realization would begin with them. Daniel’s interpretation was influential. In the New Testament, it is the fifth and final kingdom that Jesus announces: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15).
Perhaps because of the highly figurative and allusive language that apocalyptic literature used to speak of the future, early biblical readers found it hard to figure out a timetable for the coming of the fifth kingdom and the disappearance of the four kingdoms. Many within Early Judaism, including Christians, struggled to find clear answers: When would the kingdom come? What were its signs? How do we respond? One response came from the Jewish apocalyptic community at Qumran, the Dead Sea Scrolls community. Eager to participate in the end-time that they considered imminent, they withdrew to the Judean wilderness to await God’s judgment-intervention. They imagined it would be a new exodus and were ready to march, inspired by the prophet Isaiah: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” (40:3). Early Christians, too, sought answers about when the Lord would come and how they were to respond. St. Paul’s first letter, addressed to the Thessalonians in A.D. 51, shows how deeply one Christian community was affected by such uncertainties. The letter is largely taken up with clarifying what the coming of the Lord did not mean.
Thy Kingdom Come
Gradually, the Christian community learned more about the timetable of the kingdom of God from their experience of God’s rule. The community learned that the kingdom of God was in process of coming and that it did not immediately do away with the four kingdoms, since great empires continued to exist. The kingdom of God became visible at certain moments and in certain communities and individuals. Because it was not fully established, waiting and hoping came to be seen as one of its constant elements, for it is God, not humans, who rules.
The liturgy catches perfectly the dual aspect of the kingdom of God, ending the rule of the kingdoms as absolute entities and quietly inaugurating the rule of God that is at work now but will appear fully in the future. The dual aspect is the reason why apocalyptic readings are appropriate for both the end of the liturgical year and its beginning. The readings describe the end of the (finite) world and the beginning of the (definitive) world.
One difficulty apocalyptic texts pose to modern readers is the use of cosmic imagery—the blacked-out sun, falling stars, panic-stricken people, roaring of the sea and the like. Biblical scribes, like their neighbors and unlike us, did not draw a sharp distinction between nature and history. Like their neighbors’ creation accounts, scribes juxtaposed elements of the physical world (sun, moon, sea) with elements of the human world (king, language, agricultural systems, marriage customs). Periods of peace could be described as the raising up of a mountain (Is 2:2) or the wolf living with the lamb (Is 11:6), and social upheavals could be described as the earth drying up and withering (Is 24). In the apocalyptic passages cited in the opening paragraph, the crashing of kingdoms and the establishing of the one kingdom had to involve the cosmos. The collapse of the heavens and the upheaval of earth are metaphors for the emergence of a new community. Our response to these readings in November and December should be relief and gladness, not gloom and confusion.
Richard J. Clifford, S.J., is visiting professor of Old Testament at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, Boston, Mass.