Keep Awake: SALT's Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week One

 
SALT Advent Lectionary Commentary

First, a quick word of welcome and fanfare:  We're glad you're here!  This is the world premiere of SALT’s weekly lectionary commentary, which we hope will be a useful tool for preachers and listeners alike, as well as for just about anyone intrigued by the ancient community library we call “the Bible.”  We think of this commentary first and foremost as a conversation, so please don’t be shy: let us know what would be most helpful and inspiring, and we’ll do our best to provide it!  

And so, without further ado, we present SALT’s first lectionary commentary:

First Week of Advent (Year B):  Mark 13:24-37

Big Picture

1) Happy New Year!  The Christian year begins with the season of Advent, and this way of beginning is itself significant.  You might think the year would begin with the trumpets of Easter, or the softness of Christmas Eve, or the fires of Pentecost – but on the contrary, we begin in the shadows of despair, war, sorrow, and hate.  For it’s precisely there that the God of grace will arrive, and accordingly, it’s precisely there that God’s church is called to light candles of hope, peace, joy, and love against those shadows.  It’s worth remembering this deep poetry: as the Christian new year begins, we join hands and enter the darkness, waiting, singing, and praying anew for the light.

2) This week is also the beginning of “Year B” in the Revised Common Lectionary, a year of walking together through the Gospel of Mark.  Mark is a crisp, crackling, action-packed account of the ministry of Jesus, likely written during (or just after) the disastrous Jewish revolt against Roman imperial occupation in Palestine (66 – 70 CE).  

3) Mark’s world was shattered and shaken to its core.  The Roman armies vanquished the rebellion and destroyed the Jewish temple, desecrating what for Jews was nothing less than the sacred heart of the world.  The message of Mark’s Gospel is thus a message of hope proclaimed in the midst of catastrophe.  To really hear it, we have to listen from a position of desolation, chaos, and bewilderment; we have to listen alongside the traumatized soldier, the displaced refugee, the pregnant teenager, the heartbroken addict.  This is where Mark lives; these are the depths from which he proclaims his good news.

4) When death-dealing forces seemed to have the upper hand, one ancient literary response was to envision an imminent future in which God directly comes to the rescue in spectacular fashion: righting wrongs, routing wrongdoers, and thereby inaugurating a new era of justice and compassion.  This literature is often called “Apocalyptic” (from the Greek word apokalupsis, “uncovering” or “revealing”).  God pulls aside the veil, revealing to God’s people the hidden, dramatic rescue to come.  Apocalyptic narratives and images can be found throughout the Bible (Daniel and Revelation are prime examples), typically including cryptic, poetic language; ominous signs in the heavens; falling stars; natural disasters; anguish followed by victory; and so on.  In essence, these are extravagant, evocative visions of hope when all hope seems lost.

Scripture

1) This passage is the latter part of Mark 13, a chapter sometimes called, “the Markan Apocalypse.”  It’s Jesus’ final teaching to his disciples before the passion overtakes him, and in that sense is a kind of “farewell discourse.”  The temple will be destroyed and desecrated, Jesus says.  A time of great suffering will follow.  But then (and here he clearly, intentionally echoes the venerable voices of Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Amos) new signs will appear, and the Son of Humanity will arrive and make everything right.  But since we don’t know exactly when the Son of Humanity will come (not even Jesus knows – strange but true!), we have to stay mindful and alert, so we’ll be ready.  Keep awake!

2) Reading this stunning, challenging passage during Advent, we may well think of Mary’s “Magnificat,” her song responding to Gabriel’s astonishing news (Luke 1).  In its own way, that song is a hymn of praise for apocalypse, for revealing how God is turning everything upside down, lifting up the lowly and bringing the mighty down from their thrones.  But make no mistake: God’s revolution runs deeper than military victory.  This will be a revolution of love and justice, a revolution of Spirit and flesh, a revolution of “good news of great joy for all people.”

Takeaways

1) As we enter the season of Advent, this may be the perfect time to name what Advent is all about: entering the shadows of despair, war, sorrow, and hate, actively waiting for Jesus to come, lighting candles of hope, peace, joy, and love.

2) Likewise, to really hear what Mark is saying, we first need to enter the shadows, those places where all hope seems lost.  Roman armies desecrate and destroy the temple, ruining the sacred heart of the world – not just in first-century Palestine, but also here and now.  For you and your community, what contemporary desolations threaten to extinguish the light?

3) Once we have entered the shadows (both intellectually and emotionally), from there we can proclaim the good news, the hope that rings out when all hope seems lost.  The essence of apocalypse, the point of what is “revealed,” is that God is on the way!  And precisely because of this, all of us should be watchful and alert over the days and weeks ahead, cultivating a mindful attentiveness to signs of hope and wonder all around.  Keep awake!

p.s. For a mind-bending graphic novel version of Mark’s account, check out Steve Ross’ Marked; and for a compelling scholarly commentary emphasizing the social justice dimensions of Mark, check out Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man.