Back to Beginnings
“A beginning,” Frank Herbert wrote in Dune “is a very delicate time.” The Markan composer knows this narrative and historical truth well. He winds up his audience with threats of false messiahs (a running theme in the Dune series, by the way), wars and rumors of wars. The birthing of all this upheaval shall be “necessary,” the composer declares, but contrary to expectations it is not yet The End (Mark 13:7).
It may be that the Markan composer uses that indefinite Greek verb, dei, to indicate that all of this upheaval is God’s mysterious doing. When you hear these things, Jesus says, don’t be caught off guard. Things are happening within God’s intentions, no matter how frightening things may seem. The surface appearance is not all that is going on here.
Nonetheless, things will be difficult. International chaos will be mirrored by the shaking of the very ground under our feet. There shall be hunger – whether for food or God’s word, or both is left unclear. These things are the beginning of the birth pains. There is no connective between this last phrase and what precedes it, neither additive nor adversative. The “but” included in the NRSV translation of verse 8b may be permitted from the context but does not occur in the text itself.
There is no paragraph or section break between verses eight and nine in the critical editions of the text. From a performance critical perspective, we might make the case for that break since there is a “but” near the beginning of verse nine. Nonetheless, there is (as far as I can tell) no clear indication if the “birth pains” are a conclusion to verses five through eight or the beginning of verses nine through thirteen.
The right answer is probably “yes.” This beginning refers to all of the eschatological woes listed in verses five through thirteen. For that reason, I think it is a significant error to stop reading at verse eight in public worship this week. As I continue to reflect on the text, I think I might re-read the story of the widow’s offering at the end of chapter twelve and then read through verse thirteen.
I know that the “punch line” about the beginning is perhaps less uncomfortable than the “punch line” about being saved through enduring to the end. Well, preacher friends, that is (as they say) why we get the big money. The focus on patient endurance (Greek = hupomene and related terms) is a hallmark, certainly, of apocalyptic in the Christian scriptures.
The word appears at least six times, for example, in the Book of Revelation. John the Revelator shares in both the persecution and the patient endurance of the congregations in Asia Minor (1:9). He commends the patient endurance of the believers at Ephesus (2:2), Thyatira (2:19), and Philadelphia (3:10). He commends nonviolent resistance to persecution and describes it as “patient endurance and faithfulness of the saints” (13:10). In 14:12, he describes that patient endurance and faithfulness of the saints as keeping the commandments and holding fast to the faithfulness of Jesus.
This theme of patient endurance to the end is point two in the three-part structure of the Little Apocalypse. The eschatological woes are the beginning of something, not the end (verses 5-8). The faithful will endure to the real end, even though things may get even worse (verses 9-22) This endurance will come as the gift of the Holy Spirit, most audible in the form of testimony during trials. The spiritual posture of the faithful must be watchful discernment (verses 23-37).
As always with the Markan composition, details matter. These things are “the beginning.” If we have listened to the Markan performance from chapter one, verse one, our ears will perk up at this moment. “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” the composer declares in the first words of the script (Mark 1:1). It is this Good News which is turning the world “right side up” as Richard Swanson would put it. Any beginnings are rooted in and flow out of that beginning.
The proper response to that Good News is to know that the proper time is now fulfilled and that the Kin(g)dom of God has drawn near. Jesus calls us to “change our minds” and put our trust in that Good News. If apocalyptic is an uncovering of what’s really going on, then the ability to see, hear, and understand what’s really going on requires that changed mind, which goes by the humble title of “repentance.”
This change of mind cannot arise naturally or spontaneously. Instead, it is formed first by Jesus’ teaching. An anonymous disciple marvels at the scale of the Temple architecture and construction. Jesus offers a bit of perspective, noting that the grand structure shall be “thrown down.”
Before I go on to Jesus’ private teaching, it’s worth pausing for a bit on the verb used at the end of verse two. It certainly means “to be thrown down” or destroyed. However, I noticed that this is also the word that gives us our English words, “catalysis” and related terms. It literally means to “loosen something down.” A catalyst is a compound that actually facilitates other reactions, in part by dissolving or breaking down old things in order to produce new things.
The Markan composition is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That Good News can only be appropriated by a change of mind that puts living and dying trust in that Good News. The “old order” is dissolving, sometimes slowly and sometimes in the suddenness of catastrophe. It takes trained and formed eyes to see and ears to hear the rustles of the beginning that is really closer to us than our own breath.
The “Fallible Four” – the Markan composer’s favorite foils for Jesus’ private teaching – ask the obvious questions. When will these things be? And what is the sign when all these things are about to come together in the end? Not so fast, Jesus instructs them. Disciples don’t get to skip the middle bits. It will be messy – worse before it gets better – but hang in there. Pregnancy produces progeny. Labor leads to birth.
At our house, we are fans of the BBC series, Call the Midwife. These days that is about the only “appointment TV” on our weekly schedules. The writers tell a variety of human, social and cultural stories in the drama. But they never lose touch with the real reason the midwives do their work. All the stories remain in the service of bringing children to birth. Every episode has at least one (and often several) depictions of women in labor and delivery, moving from the agony of the contractions to the ecstasy of the delivery. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.
We can get caught up in the details of our life dramas, since that’s what we live intimately day in and day out. That was likely a risk for the Markan community as well. Amanda Brobst-Renaud refers to a recent article by Simon Dein on the relationship between current crises and apocalyptic thinking in our own contexts. That article is available online and worth a firsthand read.
“Pandemics,” Dein writes, “indicate the fragility of life and the world, chaos, engender paralysing anxiety that the world is dissolving, a sense of detachment and raise significant issues of meaning resulting in existential crises.” He suggests that such a crisis puts into doubt our accepted systems of symbolism, significance, and sense. As a result, we cast about for other explanatory systems to manage the mess.
“Our current plausibility structures upon which the existence of society is dependent are (sic) threatened,” Dein writes, “and we are urgently in need of alternative sociocultural contexts to provide structures of meaning.” I would suggest that this need explains at least to some degree, for example, the phobias regarding masks and vaccines and the continued attraction of informal apocalyptic schemas such as the QAnon conspiracy cluster. More on that, perhaps, later.
Dein notes that apocalyptic literature, therefore, is not only “religious” in background and context. In fact, I would argue, that we live in an era of hybrid religio-secular apocalypses resulting in such things as the “Christian Nationalism” at the root of the January 6th insurrection. From that perspective, the Covid crisis is uncovering a decay in the “Real America” of Christian Nationalist mythology. Since this is an existential crisis, it’s no wonder that as many as a third of the proponents of this mythology believe that public violence will be the result and solution.
The Covid crisis also provides the opportunity for more “left-leaning” apocalyptic scenarios. I find these more based in evidence and less in ideology, but such views are not without their own mythologies. That being said, Dein puts it this way. “The Covid crisis is revealing health care inequalities, class divisions, unequal distribution of power, and the fact that the most important workers in American society are among the least paid. Health inequalities have been brought into sharp focus and the crisis has exposed the structural disadvantage and discrimination faced by parts of the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.”
All that being said, Dein reminds us that the fundamental perspective of apocalyptic literature in the end is that of hope. Things are not as they ought to be. The current situation is dissolving under the weight of its own dysfunction. Something new is being born among us. The question is not whether we face an apocalyptic crisis. Humans always face such crises, to one degree or another. The question is, rather, whether we have placed our hope in One who brings the beginning to birth.
References and Resources
Dein, Simon. “Covid-19 and the Apocalypse: Religious and Secular Perspectives.” Journal of religion and health vol. 60,1 (2021): 5-15. doi:10.1007/s10943-020-01100-w.
Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.