If you participated in Ash Wednesday a few weeks ago, you may have felt the shocking way Lent sneaks up on us. It refuses to ease us into its contours and instead hits us in the face with as much blunt force reality as it can: You are ash. You will die.
For those uncomfortable with these sorts of truths, the text below does not let up. It is a scary and confusing one, speaking of death, torment, wars, and destruction–even among those most innocent in society. The confusion of this text led some Christian traditions (especially the 19th-century American Church) to separate these words from their original context and history and see them as terrifying images of the end of the world. Perhaps you grew up in such a tradition and read these words with that filter.
To the extent there is good news in this, it is that these words are not in fact talking about the end of the world. The bad news? Well, the truth of what it is saying is even scarier.
Jesus is not talking about an end-of-the-world Armageddon here. Instead, he is predicting the destruction of the Jewish Temple (which happened at the hands of the Romans 35 years later) and telling his people what to do when it happens. Just look at the verses immediately preceding the scary ones. Jesus says the Temple will be destroyed, his disciples ask when that’s going to happen and what will it be like, and then Jesus says all this stuff. When you start reading it that way, it’s pretty straightforward. But why does this matter?