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: