Sunday, 15 November 2015

Week 33 (Year B) Sunday -- 15 November 2015

Readings: Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-14,18; Mark 14:24-32

Is Jesus some kind of comedian? The fig tree has an uncontroversial role in today's gospel: when its twigs grow supple and its leaves come out you know that summer is near. So too when you see 'these things' happening, you will know that the Son of Man is near. Fine, except the things you will see happening are so unusual and dramatic - the sun darkening, the moon losing its brightness, the stars falling from heaven - that any further warning seems unnecessary. He means 'as sure as the suppleness of the twigs and the appearance of the leaves means summer, so these events happening means the Son of Man is near'.

Just before this, though, we heard about another fig tree, to which Jesus went for something to eat. There were leaves on that tree - summer! - but no fruit because it was not the season for figs - not yet autumn. But Jesus curses it: 'may no one ever eat fruit from you again' (Mark 11:14). The fig tree is praised today for offering a reliable analogy for knowing what time it is; the earlier fig tree is cursed for not producing fruit at a time when fruit is not to be expected from fig trees. What might it mean?

The fig trees draw our attention to the different kinds of time that are inter-woven in these readings and in apocalyptic writing generally. There is the ordinary level of chronological time as year succeeds to year, season to season, birth and maturity and aging, and the events of history are played out on this stage. The fig tree helps us to know where we are in the cycle of the seasons and the years - its twigs grow supple, its leaves multiply, we know summer is near. So too the events foretold by Jesus will, one day, happen. Just as he lived a human life in historical time - existed as an historical individual - we believe he will come again at the end of this time (whatever that means) to judge the living and the dead.

But the fig tree cursed for not bearing fruit even though it was not the season for fruit brings us to another level of time, time as the opportune moment, the day of salvation, 'now'. The only real time is the present, the only time over which we have control and the only time in which we can act. We have no control over the past and the future does not yet exist. If we are to bear fruit it can only be now. Whatever the conditions of this time, be they favourable or unfavourable, in season and out of season, we are called to bear fruit in the kingdom of the Lord.

The moments of Christ's historical existence have eternal significance as the second reading teaches us. Eternity is not another kind of time but is the full presence of God in the complete perfection of His life. The historical events here in the earthly career of the Incarnate Word have a meaning that belongs there also. So with his one single sacrifice offered on Calvary he has taken his place forever at the right hand of God. By virtue of that one single offering, made at a point in our historical time, he has achieved the eternal perfection of all whom he is sanctifying.

We live in the time of this eternal redemption, its work underway in the world through the Church. But there is a time that is coming and for which we are to be ready, the time of the resurrection when the dead will rise. We are told in the first reading that the darkness of that time is illuminated by the light of gospel learning, the wisdom of the saints, which will shine in those days of great distress. As the material light of sun and moon and stars declines, the spiritual light of those who have instructed many in virtue will shine for all eternity.

It might be tempting to lift all this out of our ordinary time, to say that it is a purely spiritual level of significance that is intended. The opposite temptation might also be attractive, to run it all back into our ordinary time and to see it as inspiration and encouragement for the life we experience now. The truth, though, is the richer combination of the two. There is an ordinary time of seasons and years, maturing and aging, in which we learn about the kingdom that is coming. And there is a theological time that is breaking in on our ordinary time, glimpses of the eternal in the passing of time but also the presence in eternity of the moments of our time.

We taste already the gifts of the world to come and in the world that is to come nothing of the tears of earthly time will be forgotten.

Today's readings speak of 'every day' and 'summer time' but they also speak of 'that time' and 'those days'. We are equipped for our strange, hybrid, in-between, life by the teaching of the saints and the sacrifice of the Son. He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, all time belongs to him and all the ages, Christ who died, is risen, and will come again.

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