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The Challenge of Staying Awake: Reflections on Apocalyptic Consciousness in Mark 13

November 27, 2011

Preaching on Mark 13 the day after a General Election had me thinking about Jesus call to  “stay awake”. What follows is no sermon. Just some reflections on what is implicit in this alertness when it is informed by Jesus’ apocalyptic imagination.

In Mark 13 Jesus paints an apocalyptic vision of what it will mean to be his disciple. In the short term it will mean suffering, war, persecution and the destruction of the temple. Ultimately it will mean the dissolution of the world. Jesus distinguishes clearly between immediate suffering and “after these things” the coming of a new world with the New Human. The point of his apocalyptic discourse is, like his admonition in the Garden of Gethsemane, to keep them awake.

But what does it mean to stay awake? What does it mean to remain alert to the end of the world-as-we-know-it?

Firstly the focus of the alertness in Mark’s apocalypse, is not any immediate, or pressing downturn in fortunes, nor the current suffering or economic crisis. Alertness is called for in spite of such imminent or present suffering or danger with its fight-or-flight inducing properties. Secondly, it is what comes “after these things” in its own unpredictable time and manner that is the focus of apocalyptic alertness. Thirdly, what comes “after these things” also comes to the world from beyond its capacities in the homecoming of the True Human (or Son of Man). Fourthly, the apocalyptic homecoming is the dissolution of one world and the establishment of another. This last implication needs to be further elaborated.

The presupposition of such an apocalyptic consciousness is a distinction between two notions of world, between the world of gift constantly given by God (let’s call it creation) and socio-political world of culture and history constituted by possession and grasping. Apocalyptic consciousness, as Jesus presents it, refuses to be seduced by the apparent power and permanence of this latter world. It anticipates the coming of the New Creation in which the fragility and ephemerality of the fallen world is revealed in its dissolution. Its dissolution is not the dissolution of creation, but rather the establishment of creation in its true form and freedom.

It is this conflict over what is stable and what is fragile, what is real and what is ephemeral, what is powerful and what is weak, which lies at the heart of the struggle to stay awake. In the immediate future, rather than the apocalyptic future, disciples are faced with a constant temptation to act as if the fallen world is more constant, more real and substantial  than it is, to lose sight of the New Creation and so to sleep on the job. The temptation is to suspect and live as if the “gift economy” is nothing more than a form of idealism – a dream which renders disciples out of touch with the so-called real world. In apocalyptic perspective it is the fallen and self-possessive economy which renders us out of touch with  the real world.

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