Birth Pangs: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Twenty-Sixth Week after Pentecost
1) This week’s Gospel reading concludes both a twelve-week chronological walk through several chapters in Mark and our year-long pilgrimage through Mark as a whole. Next week is Christ the King (or Reign of Christ) Sunday, and the following week the Advent season begins, and with it a year-long journey through the Gospel of Luke.
2) Nearly a year ago, when we began this journey through Mark’s Gospel on the first week of Advent, we began in this very chapter (Mark 13:24-37) - so this week’s reading brings us full circle.
3) Mark was likely written during (or just after) the disastrous Jewish revolt against Roman imperial occupation in Palestine (66 – 70 CE). 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, grace in the midst of violence and ruin. 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 addict and his heartbroken family. 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.
5) Next week is also Thanksgiving week, for many a time of gathering and reconnecting with family and friends (and usually comes with a heaping serving of family dysfunction and a dash of drama!). Check out SALT’s brief theology of Thanksgiving here.
1) This passage is the outset 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. And in the meantime, following Micah and other ancient prophets, Jesus frames current and coming struggles as “birth pangs,” signs of an imminent new era getting ready to be born (for example, see Micah 4:9-10; Mark 13:8).
2) As we saw last week, and as we approach the Advent season, we may well interpret this challenging passage in light of Mary’s “Magnificat,” her song - itself largely fashioned after Hannah’s song - responding to Gabriel’s astonishing news (1 Sam 2:1-10; Luke 1:46-55). Each in its own way, these songs are hymns 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: as we’ve seen throughout Mark’s Gospel, God’s revolution runs deeper than shallow military victory. This will be a revolution of love, justice, and servanthood, what Luke will call “good news of great joy for all people” (Luke 2:10).
3) Herod the Great began building the Jerusalem Temple in this story (the third such temple in Jewish history) in 20 BCE, and it wasn’t completed until about 80 years later, in 63 CE, just seven years before its destruction by the Romans - so it was under construction in Jesus’ day. It was indeed an extraordinarily ambitious, massive project; Josephus, too, the ancient historian, testified to its gargantuan structure. The Temple’s “large stones” were staggering: 35 feet long by 18 feet wide by 12 feet high!
4) As we saw last week in the story of the widow’s offering, Jesus has just delivered a powerful critique of the religious establishment’s upside-down priorities, and his prediction of the temple’s destruction culminates his critique: You see these great stones? They’re coming down! Thus Mark places Jesus in the prophetic tradition of Jeremiah and Micah, who also predicted the temple’s destruction (Jer 26:6,18; Mic 3:12).
5) For Mark, all of this is in the context of the end of the current age and the beginning of “the day of the LORD,” with which the Mount of Olives was closely associated; Zechariah, for example, declares that the last days will begin at the Mount of Olives (Zech 14:4). If we zoom out and consider Mark as a whole, the story’s overall shape is clear: Jesus initially arrives announcing the dawn of a new era (“the kingdom of God has come near”), and in this week’s passage, on the eve of his journey to the cross, he takes his place on the mountain long foretold to be where that new day will begin in earnest (Mark 1:15; 13:3).
6) This week’s reading from 1 Samuel is the story of Hannah praying at the temple in Shiloh. Hannah is one of Elkanah’s two wives; the other is Penninah. By all appearances, Hannah’s situation is hopeless: she wants a child but cannot conceive, and is consequently the object of Penninah’s ongoing scorn (1 Sam 1:5-6). And yet, with striking audacity (especially in light of the idea that “the LORD had closed her womb”), Hannah goes to the temple and prays silently and fervently to God to give her a child - so fervently, in fact, that Eli, the attending priest, thinks she is drunk and rebukes her. Hannah’s response is poised, lucid, and insistent, and Eli, humbled by his mistake (we hope!), joins his priestly prayer to hers. Shortly thereafter, Hannah conceives and gives birth to Samuel - and having silently vowed to dedicate him to God as a “nizirite” (nizirites were people, like Sampson, who abstain from wine and cutting their hair), she makes good on her promise (1 Sam 1:24).
1) As we conclude our year-long journey through Mark, this may be the perfect time to sum up and reflect on what Mark’s Gospel is all about: in the midst of desolation and despair, Jesus announces the radiant good news of a new era of healing, liberation, and love. Despite appearances, Mary’s Magnificat and Hannah’s song have it right: God is turning the world upside down (or rather, right side up!), serving all, restoring health, freeing captives, doing justice. So for the love of God, take heart - and come be a part of the movement!
2) Drawing on the ancient, extravagant poetry of “apocalypse” (“revealing”), Jesus contends that God is on the move, even and especially where all hope seems lost. Though the powers that be may appear as indomitable as a fortress made of 35x18x12 blocks of stone - in truth, the last shall be first and the mighty shall fall, for the God of love and justice is turning the world around! Though Roman armies desecrate the temple, ruining the sacred heart of the world (not just in first-century Palestine, but also here and now) - in truth, the God of grace will rescue, restore, and rebuild it all! Indeed, from this apocalyptic angle of vision, even our struggles today can be reframed in light of what’s to come, as “birth pangs” portending new life (Mark 13:8).
3) For Mark, the gospel is 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 are called to be watchful and alert, cultivating a mindful attentiveness for at least three reasons: first, to avoid the ways of idolatrous religion - even and especially “in my name,” Jesus says! - because it distorts and “leads us astray;” second, to discern how our current struggles may in fact be “birth pangs” leading to new life; and third, to notice the signs of hope and wonder all around us every day. In this sense, the upshot of apocalypse is mindfulness. As Jesus puts it at the end of this apocalyptic chapter, in the very passage with which we began one year ago: “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!” (Mark 13:37).