As Easter approaches, my thoughts turn to the events of the week that was at once the most solemn and joyous of Jesus’ life on Earth. Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, Good Friday, Easter Sunday—all these have a settled place in the church’s mystic chords of memory, but one event stands out in jarring contrast. It wears the grand label “Olivet Discourse,” but “Doomsday Outburst” would be more accurate (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21).

One of Jesus’ disciples made an innocent observation about the massive stones supporting Herod’s temple: “Some rocks!”—the kind of comment you hear from any slack—jawed pilgrim visiting the big city. Out of nowhere, Jesus unleashes one of his longest speeches, a blend of startling images and commentary about what lies ahead for them and for planet Earth.

Those huge stones will be thrown down—every one of them, Jesus says. More, earthquakes and famines will break out, stars will fall from the sky, and the sun and moon will darken. “Pray that this will not take place in winter, because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again.”

I can imagine the disciples, fresh from the triumph of Palm Sunday and the thrill of the temple cleansing, looking at each other in astonishment. What brought this on?

Commentators tend to focus on the details of the speech: the meaning of the wondrous bleak phrase “abomination that causes desolation,” the identity of false prophets and messiahs, the exact signs that will usher in the world’s last night. As I read Jesus’ words, however, I am mainly struck by their emotional ...

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