27 Nov 2011
“‘But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’” (Mark 13:32) In the name …
The church asks that for today’s Gospel we start reading at Mk 13:33. The obvious beginning of the selection, however, is vs. 32, but vs. 32 is problematic. It’s the one I just read. So the church thinks it’s best to jump over the problem, act as if it’s not there. Maybe their cue was taken from the Congressional Super Committee that this past week chose to simply ignore the problem of our increasing national debt and act like it wasn’t there. But this is exactly why I started the reading one verse early right at vs. 32. It is problematic, but it’s also critical, especially on the First Sunday of Advent. Mark 13:32 has always been complicated. Mark’s Gospel, we should know, was used as the basis for the later Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Luke solves the problem most efficiently. He simply omits it. Matthew records it, but in a lot of the later copies of Matthew, it is conveniently left out again. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the Vulgate Bible, but this was the Latin Bible translated by St. Jerome in the late 4th century, and it was commissioned by a Pope. This was the official Bible-translation of the church, and lo and behold, Matthew’s reference to Mark 13:32 just vanishes into thin air.
Mark 13:32 is a bit of a theological embarrassment. It asserts matter-of-factly that Jesus is ignorant on a subject of such importance as His own advent, His own coming at the End-Time. But this doesn’t seem to bother Mark or the earliest church. Mark was written at a time very close to the life of Jesus of Nazareth, so close actually that some of the characters in his Gospel may have been known to his readers. Only Mark, for example, lists the name of Bartimaeus as the blind man Jesus heals on His way into Jerusalem. Only Mark lists Alexander and Rufus as the sons of Simon of Cyrene, the man who helped Jesus to carry His cross. These names meant something to the people of Mark’s day. They may have faded from memory by the later time of Matthew and Luke, but for Mark these were probably people known to the community. What this means is that there is a direct connection between Jesus of Nazareth and the people Mark is writing for in his Gospel. Theology may have coloured the later Gospels so that they cover-up embarrassments like Mark 13:32, but history colours Mark’s Gospel. And history had no problem with the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was not all-knowing.
Why is this important on the First Sunday of Advent? Why is it important as we begin our preparations for the coming, the advent, of Christ? Why is it important for us to hear these words as we get ready for Christmas and the wondrous story of Jesus’ birth as an outcast among an outcast people? Because Mark 13:32 reveals by its very casual reference to Jesus’ limitations that the earliest church remembered Jesus as essentially one us, as essentially human. Mark’s Gospel begins with the high theology of “Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” but what it dwells upon is the mystery that Jesus’ human nature was not an act, not a shell, not almost like us, but that Jesus was us. That’s the mystery that most amazed His earliest followers. They accepted the Easter revelation that Jesus was God, but they could not get over the Christmas revelation that God was Jesus. This is the mystery that motivates the Gospel story, that in this Jesus of Nazareth, God had walked with us.
This is why Mark is so insistent in his message of watchfulness. Those earliest Christians knew how easy it was to miss God in the ordinary, so, therefore, the message that we must watch for Him. Today we’re finishing up the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Kristin had come home from college for it. Her schedule is already, in just a few months away from home, different from what it used to be, and her mom and dad weren’t used to that yet. On Wednesday she mentioned that she’d be home by 1AM. That’s pretty late, but it’s pretty much the usual college routine, I guess. I’m sound asleep by the time 1AM rolls around, but Sharon, the good mother that she is, can’t sleep well until she knows that Kristin is home. She wakes up at about 1AM, gets out of bed, checks Kristin’s room. Nobody there. Uh-oh. Sharon immediately comes back to our bedroom, and not quietly I may say, so now I’m up too, and she texts Kristin with the terse message: “Where are you?!” Two seconds later comes a text right back from Kristin: “I’m brushing my teeth!” Sharon had checked the bedroom, but she didn’t look down the hall to where our daughter was getting ready for bed. Watchfulness. It’s not as easy as it may seem. It’s not all that hard to miss the obvious.
Isaiah tells us today of his people’s plight, of their passion to know where God has gone. He seems so distant. They plead to know if they have been forsaken. But as these frightening questions come to the surface, there is still the bedrock of faith: “For you are our father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O Lord, are our father.” (63:16) Isaiah’s people needed to know if God was still there for them. This is also our religious story, not just Isaiah’s. This is part of our religious history. And into this story God answers in a most dramatic and unexpected way. Isaiah was hoping for grand signs from the sky: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence …” (64:1) Instead, God came in the holy ordinariness of Jesus. Instead of showing Himself in the grand and powerful, God showed Himself as one of us. And then no more could anyone ask why God was far away, why God did not care. God gave up heaven to be one with us. This is the mystery that Advent prepares us for. This is they mystery that we are to be ever watchful for. And this is why Mark 13:32 is so important at the start of Advent. It reminds us again of how much Jesus was like us, and that in Jesus this connection has been brought right into the very nature of God forevermore. That we may add such meditations to our Christmas preparations, for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo