Reading 1: 1 Daniel: 17:10-16
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm: 16:5, 8, 9-10, 11
Reading 2: Hebrews: 10:11-14, 18
Gospel: Mark: 13:24-32
Growing up, the closest I ever got to a fig tree was eating what Nabisco then called Fig Newton™ cookies. I figured my Mom made us eat them because they must be healthy, after all, they contained fruit! Perhaps those cookie connections fostered my fascination with Jesus and his fig tree obsession in the gospels. The fact that such a tree was in the Bible lent an aura of the exotic so, surely, they couldn’t be a part of my world. Then, of course, the cursing and withering of a fig tree by a hungry Jesus (Mark 11: 12-25, Matthew 21:18-22) further added an air of mystery.
Tucked into the middle of today’s reading from Mark’s gospel, seemingly about the end times, Jesus instructs his disciples to “Learn a lesson from the fig tree” (13:28). Considering that two chapters earlier Jesus condemned an apparently innocent tree for not producing fruit, out of season, one can only wonder what lesson are we to learn.
On this last Sunday in ordinary time, as we move toward a new liturgical year, both our first reading from Daniel and our gospel from Mark are from a genre of literature known as apocalyptic. Focused in vivid language on the signs of the times, such literature is often misinterpreted as predictions of the future as opposed to responses to the traumas of a past age not our own. They do not narrate nor prognosticate an end time.
Typically arising during periods of crisis, apocalyptic words and images map survival strategies. Their intent is not to evoke fear but to encode hope. In an era when the people’s identity was imperiled, the book of Daniel sought to inspire perseverance. When the Marcan community was dealing with the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, Mark sought to encourage them to persist in faith. As the worlds their people knew were literally and figuratively passing, the book of Daniel and the gospel of Mark urged their communities on. Despite all appearances to the contrary, God had not abandoned them and a new age was imminent.
In this past liturgical year, there have certainly been events and moments that have raised suspicions that our nation, our species, and even our common home are flirting with cataclysm. Our ordinary time has been anything but ordinary. We began and will end this year under the cloud of a global pandemic. For too many, worlds collapsed with the loss of life, loved ones, income, and security. A hidden tragedy is the growing number of children orphaned because of COVID-19. January brought insurrection to the nation’s capital, stoking the specter of ongoing and unresolved threats to the integrity of government, and elevating concerns about the stability of the USA. Over the past few days, street protests by the young and the gathering of leaders in Glasgow have amped up the urgency and commitments necessary to forestall further damage to the planet.
In an interview published in the New York Times this week, Israeli historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari observed “We need to stay away from the apocalyptic thinking that it’s too late and the world is ending and move toward a more practical thing: 2 percent of the budget.” While I concur with his wisdom that we need to engage the practical dimensions that can bring on change, I interpret apocalyptic thinking not as language of “too late” but as a vernacular of hope and change.
Apocalyptic thinking is exactly what we need. It is language that affirms the presence of God. It prods us to participate in bringing about the conversions and practices necessary to build up and sustain a kinship not only among humans but with creation. It is the language that pushes us to name the disasters and do something about them.
Apocalyptic language is about unveiling, revealing, believing, surviving, and hoping. So what is there to learn from the fig tree, curiously an image that appears in the Synoptic gospels in the context of apocalyptic talk?
In his fascinating book, Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees, ecologist Mike Shanahan writes of the impact of his lifelong research:
“Fig trees would show me the world through different eyes and different taste buds — those of diverse cultures from the present day and the distant past, as well as those of bats and birds, monkeys and stranger beasts.”
He explores how fig trees co-existed with dinosaurs and nourished our ancestors. They are far more ubiquitous than I ever imagined as a kid. They survive the cold of Chicago winters and are scattered across New York City, many descending from the clippings brought by immigrants from the Mediterranean generations ago.
Fig trees are survivors, travelers, eco-systems unto themselves with the potential to regenerate rain forests. Considered sacred by any number of peoples, they are found in every corner of the world. Shanahan discovers what our ancestors may well have intuited, that the “ecological and spiritual importance of fig trees were linked.”
As we draw to the end of a challenging year, there is much to learn from fig trees. They can teach us the language of hope.
Carmen M. Nanko-Fernández, DMin
Professor of Hispanic Theology and Ministry