An Advent Meditation
Malachi 2, 17-3, 4; Matthew 25, 31-46
In the season of Advent there are always two things to say, not just one.
(1) The first of these double affirmations is to understand that while we live in the hope of Christ's coming, this means to live within the mystery of 'now' but 'not yet'. Yes, the Messiah has come. Yes, the king is among us, his kingdom has been proclaimed. But we also that know that his kingdom is not yet fully established, his rule of righteousness does not characterise either our world, or our churches; so we wait in patience for the return of the King.
Within God's panoramic view of history the years between Christ's first coming and his coming again are years of mission: the time of God's opportunity for women and men to respond to that grace made manifest in our world at Christ's first coming among us.
Thus we do well to ask how the kingdom can be established among us, or putting it another way, how do we, as his people, prepare for the return of our King? At the beginning of this century there was a magnificent optimism about the progress of Christian missions: student conferences send telegrams around the world encouraging one another with the message: 'Evangelise to a finish, and bring back the King!'
Questions were raised. William Robertson Nicholl, the editor of the British Weekly, was worried that such behaviour demonstrated an 'irreligious solicitude for God'. That is it focused unhelpfully on our activism at the expense of trust in the sovereign grace and power of Almighty God, and that still remains a way of trivialising gospel obedience. Nevertheless it is certainly part of our missionary vocation as Christians to take seriously our responsibilities to witness to the living Christ. I come from a church which stands in the tradition of the radical reformation which underlines the fact that this responsibility rests with all Christians and not simply with a priestly caste. Each of us is called to work with all the creative energy and imagination we can muster to proclaim Christ and make him known in an unbelieving world. That is vital and we dishonour ourselves and fail our neighbours unless we are serious about this.But to witness convincingly requires his people to act in unity, for our God is not a God of disunity and schisms. Thus every time we deepen our divisions, increase our dividedness, we deny God's rule among us. There has to be consistency between life and word. "Not everyone who says, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven but only those who demonstrate the lordship of Christ in their lives by the service they give to others. That is why within the WCC emphasis upon mission and evangelism, which is properly there at the centre, is balanced by moral and compassionate concern: feeding the hungry; caring for those who experience a deep thirst for reality; offering shelter and hospitality to the strangers and the outcasts; clothing the naked; healing the sick; waiting upon the prisoner without concern for his/her guilt. For in so doing Christ's mission is fulfilled, and his presence is made manifest in our world today.
It is as we work for standards of justice which give full recognition to the divine image in every God-created being, as we seek to share the peace he has left us, as we take stock of that all too fragile creation which a competitive ethic is in danger of exploiting to a point of destruction, as we remember that the first commandment, the Genesis one, not the Exodus ten, is to care for the creation in which God has placed us. For violence, injustice, the cynical exploitation of the natural world - all of these countermand Christ's kingly rule in our world today, and if we are party to these things, then surely we will be found unprepared for his coming.
The point of the parable of the Great Assize is in the element of surprise, and reversal of expectation which is at the heart of the narrative... Those who were unconscious of their service, receive Christ's commendation, and those who thought they had been about his business, though in reality only serving their own self interest, are condemned to outer darkness.
(2) The second double affirmation of Advent is the contrasting emphasis the season places upon incarnation and glorification. The Advent Collect in the Book of Common Prayer contrasts Christ's coming in great humility at Bethlehem with his coming again in glorious majesty at the end of time. To explore that paradox we need the hymn-writer's skills:
Meekness and majesty,
The trouble with some of our programmes of evangelism is that they covet the majesty and forget the meekness, the humility, the offering of sacrificial love. When Jesus speaks of his glorification in John's Gospel, the road to glory for the Son of Man leads through suffering and death - that is the pattern, for Christian experience cannot bypass Golgotha and Calvary. How then can we proclaim the Good News of the Crucified but Risen Lord other than in tones of humble reverence: to speak of Christ's death in terms of arrogant superiority is to fail to engage in mission in Christ's own way.
I am grateful to T S Eliot for his emphasis on the close relationship between agony and ecstasy: that is a proper Christian insight. It is Eliot who, in Murder in the Cathedral, reminds his audience of the poignancy of Boxing Day being the feast of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. And Boxing Day follows hard on Christmas Day, as in the biblical narrative the massacre of the Innocents interrogates the birth of a Christ, now living in safety in Egypt. Agony and ecstasy. Listen to the Boxing Day chorus in Murder in the Cathedral:
Today - they ask - what is today
That is the vision: to see the image of God in all the barbarity and sordidness of life as we know it; to understand that he is not apart from the pain and the suffering but in the midst of it; to comprehend that in the tapestry of time the hand of God weaves as many sombre skeins as bright hued silks. He is there in the agony as much as the ecstasy. Even more poignantly Elie Wiesel, in his holocaust novel Night, tells how he lost his faith not by some long cultural process but from the direct sense of loss as he saw his mother and sisters metamorphosed into smoke in the skies over Buchenwald. "Never," he writes, "shall I forget that night, the first night in camp which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the faces of the little children whose bodies I saw turned into wreathes of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget these moments which murdered my God and my soul, and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never." Nothing could seem more final than that. Later his father was killed as well, but then he tells of an experience when he was one of a crowd drawn up as spectators to witness the inefficient hanging by the Nazis of a young child whom he notes as having the face of a sad angel. As he heard somebody in the crowd say, "Where is God? Where is he? Where can he be now?" And he writes, "I heard a voice within me saying, 'Where? Here he is. He has been hanged on these gallows.'" The story continues through many grizzly and bitter experiences until Wiesel meets a Jewish rabbi in New York after the war, to whom he puts the question: "How can you believe in God after Buchenwald and Auschwitz?" To which the rabbi replies, "And how can you not - for without him and in the light of these things there is nothing left."
A century more experienced in the agony than the ecstasy of life does not need to talk about the death of God in irreligious tones, rather it is the death of God, the Crucified One, that lends meaning and understanding to the ambiguity of human experience today. In such a context only a suffering God can help. And that indeed is the gospel message, that it is not by his omnipotence but by his suffering and weakness that Christ radically addresses all the problems of the human condition.
(3) T S Eliot has already introduced us to the language of the third couplet I associate with Advent, namely Hope and Fear, or Hope and Judgement. And we move from the coming of Christ among his people to our reception of him. Both our scriptures challenge us with fundamental questions. Where do we find ourselves in the parable of the Great Assize: with the surprises of the righteous that they have unknowingly been ministering to Jesus, or with the judgement that is made, not of wicked people, not of the violent, not of the corrupt, but simply on those who failed to do good who were blind and deaf to their brothers' and sisters' needs. Hear again those strong words from Malachi: "Who may abide the day of his coming, or who shall stand when he appeareth?" If you are like me you perhaps find the music gets lost in Handel's music, but that is dangerous for these are real questions, questions which are frightening and terrifying in their import. Who, indeed, can stand before an all holy God? . . . not enough for us belatedly to take off our shoes in respect of Holy Ground. Who indeed can stand? And the answer in truth must be 'None of us'. Without a Gospel of Grace none of us can stand in his presence: the shoddiness and the dross of our discipleship becomes uncomfortably apparent. All our petty attempts to do good are exposed for what they are. In the midst of my despair I begin to reflect, how does Handel's oratorio answer the question. Is it not with those other haunting words: "I know that my Redeemer liveth, and upon the last day he will stand upon the earth"? And here you do not need the complications of double statements. That one simple affirmation is enough. It can stand on its own: there is one who stands for us, and his name is Jesus, Saviour, Redeemer. With crucified hands and nail-pierced feet, with spear-slashed side, he stands for us . . . and this is his grace: judgement gives way to mercy, and mercy to hope, in the one whom we can claim as our own and the one who is eternal life, who lives forever. Amen.