With the turn of the lectionary year, next Sunday we are in the first Sunday of Advent in Year B, and our gospel reading of Mark 13.24–37 plunges us straight into the questions around the anticipation of Jesus’ return at The End. (It is worth noting that there is no compelling (theo)logical reason why this should be connected with Christmas. The incarnation is described in terms of God’s coming to his people in the person of Jesus, for example in the opening of Mark or the Benedictus in Luke 1; but the return of Jesus at the end to complete the work of the kingdom of God, and finally unite heaven and earth, is never described as the ‘Second Coming’ in the New Testament, and instead is consistently paired with the Ascension rather than the incarnation.)
Our passage comprises the two closing sections of Mark 13, which is parallel to the first part of Matt 24 and is known as either the Olivet Discourse (since it is set on the Mount of Olives) or the Little Apocalypse, because there are connections in structure and language with parts of the Book of Revelation. It is striking that, where the parable of the sower in Mark 4 (which seems relatively straightforward to the modern reader) provokes expressions of puzzlement and prompts a request for explanation by the disciples, this teaching seems to be received with perfect comprehension—whilst it leaves us baffled and confused. This should sound a warning note to the contemporary reader!
There are three main ways this has been read:
1. The ‘traditional’ approach, which goes back at least as far as Jerome in the fourth century, that this is primarily about the ‘end of the world’ though with specific predictions about the destruction of the temple mixed in.
This has a number of problems to it:
The main one is Jesus stern saying in v 30 ‘Amen I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.’ There is some wriggling about the meaning of genea embedded in an NIV footnote as ‘race’—but all other uses of this in Mark (and the other gospels) make it clear that it really does mean ‘this generation’, that is, the people alive at the time Jesus was speaking. Mary Ann Beavis, in her 2011 Paideia commentary, say that this saying ’emphasises the authority of this discourse; the word of Jesus has the stature of the word of God, which is flawless and precedes the creation of the heavens and the earth’ (p 201)