Let us pray to God that we may be free of God
“It’s not the end of the world…” This little phrase has become so common as to have a place in the Phrase And Idiom Dictionary. I wonder how many people know that Jesus was the first one to say it. In this morning’s reading from Mark, Jesus talked about all the terrible things that would happen before the end of the world: Lots of people will be deceived, there will be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines. Most of Chapter 13 is taken up with bad things that will happen before the actual end of the world. If Jesus were speaking contemporaneously he might add wildfires, mass shootings, hurricanes, climate change… the list is long. But none of that is the end of the world. It’s just the beginning.
This teaching falls right on the heels of last week’s story of the woman who threw all her money into the temple treasury. She had only two coins, the tiniest coins available. Whether in disgust, desperation, or faithfulness, she threw them both into the box. Tiny little things, they were.
But right after Jesus recalibrated the way we measure things, saying that she had given more than all the others, one of Jesus’ disciples noted the size of the stones that the temple was made of. “Just, look how big they are,” he might have said. The unnamed disciple must have felt both pride and awe at sight of the temple.
I wonder what mental whispers danced in his mind as he gazed on the temple that day. How reassuring it must have been. The temple was not just an architectural marvel, even more than that, it was a symbol of the Hebrew people. Though they were an occupied people living under Roman rule, there was this glorious, permanent edifice that practically shouted to them of their place in the world.
Most of us have done the same thing. That’s one of the reasons we make pilgrimages to great cathedrals and holy places. They speak to us of the tradition that has embraced and nurtured us. It reminds us that we are on a holy path. Many have gone before us, many more will come after. These stained-glass windows that have inspired so many, these altars on which many masses have been offered, the pews in which many have sat and prayed are precious to us. And reassuring. We are on a right path, after all, a good and holy path.
It’s good to make these pilgrimages, just as it was good for Jesus and his disciples to go the temple that day. When Jesus looked at the size of the stones, though, when he beheld the undisputed majesty of it all, he saw something entirely different: Rubble. “All this is coming down,” he said, “Not even one stone will be left on top of another… and the gold is going too,” is how he might have put it.
That evening when Jesus and the disciples were on the Mount of Olives — just opposite the temple – the disciples asked Jesus about the destruction that he had predicted. The first thing they wanted to know is “When is all this going to happen?” Jesus said that he didn’t know when it would happen, but I submit that the disciples asked the wrong question. A better question might be, “Will we survive it?”
Undoubtedly, we are living in a time of great upheaval. These “birth pains,” as Jesus calls them are on full display. There are wars. Other wars are rumored. There are earthquakes. Many have been deceived, maybe even some of us. These are the end times, and have been for centuries. There’s no doubt about it.
But, what of the temple? That’s the heart of the matter, and Jesus said that it would be reduced to rubble. The temple represents that part of us that takes comfort in the majesty of the institution, the perfection of liturgy, The enfolding vibration of the pipe organ, the glory of it all. It’s the intellectual electricity of intense scripture study, the sense of holiness when at prayer. It represents the part of us that feels right, solid, secure. It’s all so good… But, it’s coming down. Not one bit of it will be left.
Jesus knew what he was talking about too. Just a few days after he told the disciples all these things, he was taken off to be tried and executed; and, on the cross, he would wonder aloud “Why have you forsaken me?” That’s what it means for the temple to be reduced to rubble.
Don’t worry. It’s not the end of the world. Meister Eckhart once said, “Let us pray to God that we may be free of God,” and what he meant is that all our grand ideas, and buildings, and experiences, all that we think we know about God is an illusion. It’s not real. It has to go. During the time when we are coming to awareness, it does seem like the end of the world or at least the end of our faith. But, as Jesus himself said, it’s just the beginning.
Jesus did not stay on the cross, and neither will you. This event, though, this destruction of our made-up sanctity is the beginning of something else.
So, when the birth pains are especially painful, when all seems lost, just wait. It’s only the beginning.
Linda McMillan is a native of Texas, she currently lives in Buraydah, Saudi Arabia.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
I use the online Phrase And Idiom Dictionary to find an idiom of the week for my ESL students. You can see it here.
You can even get an app that will tell you whenever there’s an earthquake somewhere in the world. I finally had to turn off the notifications on mine because it was going off so often.
We should note the prepositions of place in this reading. Last week, Jesus and his disciples sat opposite the temple treasury, as if in opposition to it. Now they are opposite the temple. The writer knows what he is doing here. He is making a point about Jesus’ physical position and his spiritual position too. Jesus is opposed to the treasury and to the very temple itself.