Apocalyptic literature is some of the most difficult to understand in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. We can understand them a little better if we keep certain things in mind as we read.
All apocalyptic literature springs out of difficulties, turmoil, persecutions, or distress which is currently being experienced by the author and the people for whom he is writing. In the case of the Book of Daniel, the persecutions at the decree of Antiochus Epiphanes give rise to the images we read in today’s first reading. In the case of the Gospel of Mark, we know that this Gospel was written just before the first persecution at the command of Emperor Nero in Rome.
The second step in this type of literature is to remind the community that such distress is not limited to their own experience. These things have happened in the past, and they will happen again in the future. The author goes to some lengths in expressing this in rather vague terms since he does not know what form that distress will take.
Finally, the author resolves the distress by citing a cosmic resolution, once again going to some lengths to make sure that the audience does not expect that these cosmic events will happen at any specific time, but at a time that only God knows.
Those who would try to use apocalyptic literature to persuade the community that the cosmic resolution is about to happen are forgetting that these events have happened throughout history. Our human existence is fraught with the distress and turmoil. The persecution of Christians that is currently happening in Syria, for instance, should not be regarded as proof that Jesus is about to return. The catastrophic events of the past few days in Paris and Lebanon and Egypt are not signs of the fulfillment of some sort of prophecy. These events, like all such events in history, are a result of sin and the presence of evil in our world.
So what function does apocalyptic literature have in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures? Each of the sacred authors who uses this form or genre is doing so to emphasize an eternal truth; namely, God will prevail. No matter whether the distress is personal or communal, God will prevail. In the face of all the evil in the world, we can say with assurance that God will prevail. When God chooses to send Jesus back to our world, it will be to bring our salvation and to take us home to a place where there is no more fear, no more tears, no more sorrow, no more distress. As we come to the end of another liturgical year, the Church reminds us very forcefully that God will prevail.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator