On Advent Sunday a new cycle of readings begins and the Gospel passages move from Luke to Matthew, mostly. But on Advent Sunday itself, this change is not so very significant. Whatever the year, the readings for the first Sunday in Advent are always powerfully apocalyptic – all about the end of time and the final judgment.
It is belief in a beginning and an end to time that differentiates the great religions of the book from the religions of the East. Whereas for Buddhism and Hinduism salvation lies in escape from the endless round of existence, for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, history is the context within which God brings about the redemption of the world. Yet, generally speaking, compared to Christians in centuries past, educated people nowadays have great difficulty in believing in an apocalyptic end to time. Moreover, the recent popularity (in certain quarters) of 'left behind' theology and 'the Rapture', has resulted in 'adventism' being regarded, even by committed mainline Christians, as a belief for religious cranks, fanatics or obsessives. And yet, the doctrine of the Second Coming and the Last Judgment cannot be set aside as exotic inventions. Here they are in our appointed Common Lectionary. So what should we think about them? How are they best understood?
The first point to emphasize is that, despite the frequency (and enthusiasm) with which people have tried to predict ‘the end of time’, Jesus is quite clear -- “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”. In other words, all this will happen in God’s time, not ours. Secondly, "if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into". The message seems to be this: don't try to predict the end of time, but always be aware of its possibility. It is not prediction, but readiness that matters.
Since each of us has our own ‘end of time’ – the hour of our death -- this makes sense. It does not matter when God brings the whole of history to a close, if we have met the end of own lives quite unprepared. If, with the inevitability of death in mind, we take the message of Advent to heart, what then are we to do by way of preparation? The Epistle for this week has the answer "You know what time it is now, how it is the moment for you to wake from sleep. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day". The passage from Isaiah puts it even more simply "Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!" The world regularly confronts us with the choice of letting our thoughts and actions be exposed to the light, or of hiding them in some form of darkness. The 'moment’ to choose light over dark is perpetually 'now'.
The two illustrations -- The Last Judgement and The Alpha are works by Ende, a 10th century female Spanish manuscript illuminator.
The Revised Common Lectionary that has now been widely adopted across the world celebrates the last Sunday of the Church’s year as 'The Feast of Christ the King' (or 'The Reign of Christ'). Forty years ago this feast would have been almost unknown to the Anglican Communion. Even for Roman Catholics, it is not a very longstanding observation, being added to the Calendar as recently as 1925.
Yet celebrating Christ as King is an especially appropriate way to conclude the Christian year. Faithful observance of the Church Calendar enables those who follow it to live through the cosmic story of humanity’s salvation. We start out languishing under judgement (Advent). It is while we are in that condition God comes to dwell among us, and is made manifest to the world (Christmas and Epiphany). This incarnate God calls us to a time of repentance (Lent), but because of our own inability to save ourselves, must, in great love, die for our salvation (Passiontide and Good Friday). In a mighty and glorious demonstration of saving power, God raises Christ Jesus (Easter), and returning to the heavenly places (Ascension), he continues to strengthen us with his Holy Spirit (Pentecost).
Reflecting on this narrative of salvation, we can see that, despite many appearances to the contrary, the God in whom ‘we live and move and have our being’, has given final authority over human kind to Jesus Christ. Yet, this authority rests on a quite different foundation. As the Gospel for this week so powerfully reminds us, Christ’s Kingdom signals a complete reversal of the values of worldly power that so evidently shape and influence our political life. Where the State relies on coercive power for its security, the path that Jesus pursues (to quote this week’s Epistle), is “making peace through the blood of his cross”.
In Year B of the lectionary, the Gospel text focusses on Christ as the supreme judge of 'sheep' and 'goats'. By contrast, this year (Year C), the Gospel is part of Luke's passion narrative. Jesus is truly “Christ the King”, but his 'throne', it turns out, is a place of torture, and his 'crown' is made of thorns. This casts a wholly different light on what it means to pray sincerely for the coming of the Kingdom of God in Christ. To do so, we must first grasp how different the reign of Christ is to all worldly authorities – whether ancient empires, military dictatorships or modern democratic states. At times of political success and failure, it is especially important to remember Mary's ‘Magnificat’ --with the advent of Christ, God "casts down the mighty from their seats and exalts the humble and meek”.
As Advent approaches, the Lectionary readings take on a more apocalyptic tone, with warnings about turbulent times ahead, religious persecution, and finally, the end of history -- all in preparation for the transformation of the world. Since the Gospel passage was written after the destruction of the temple, it benefitted with hindsight. Luke knew that the warning was for real. Like the other evangelists, however, he places these warnings just before the passion narrative begins. This means that the story of persecution and suffering starts with Jesus himself. His 'followers' are just that -- people who follow in his footsteps.
Two monumental wars and many other conflicts gave the 20th century an unenviable record for violence. Yet the relative ‘peace’ of 21st century has not been any less turbulent than the days of the Roman Empire. There are plenty of 'wars and insurrections', 'nation still rises against nation', every year there are 'great earthquakes, and 'in various places famines and plagues'. Even stable and prosperous societies like Britain and the USA can become deeply divided. In Europe followers of Christ are more likely to be held in contempt than persecuted. In many parts of the world, however, Christians are victims of violence and persecution more often than the adherents of other religions. This makes the events predicted in the Gospel easy to believe.
But what of the spectacular end to which all these trials were supposed to be a prelude? Don't we know now that these things are neither 'dreadful portents' nor 'great signs', but simply recurrent, disturbing and lamentable features of life on earth?
In this same passage Jesus says, 'Beware that you are not led astray' by people who say 'The time is near!'. 'Do not go after them', he tells us, because 'the end will not follow immediately.' 'I am about to create new heavens and a new earth', God declares through the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament lesson. We need to view this promise through the perspective of eternity. While our interest in the future does not stretch much beyond a couple of generations, God's time is not our time. 'In your sight a thousand years are as the passing of one day', Psalm 90 reminds us. The task of true disciples is not to second guess God, but in the face of everything, to say what Isaiah says: 'Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation'. In this spirit, the challenge is to fix our gaze firmly on the Christ of the Cross who has gone there before us.
Job 19: 21-27
1 Cor 15: 51-57
John 6: 37-40
The readings appointed for Remembrance Sunday are all about death and resurrection. This dominant element of solemnity in the face of war, marks a dramatic change from times past. For most of human history, remembering great battles was more likely to prompt triumphalism than lament, with the glory of victory the principal object of celebratory poems, paintings and pieces of music. It is in this triumphant spirit that the first Book of Samuel records:
And the women sang to one another as they made merry, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.”
The unimaginable number of deaths caused by mechanized weaponry in the First World War, from which Remembrance Day sprang, changed all that. It has become unthinkable that we should “make merry” about the slaughter of ‘ten thousands’, especially since the major bombardments characteristic of modern war invariably lead to the death of civilians. Photography then, and since, has enabled everyone to see with their own eyes the horror of war, and undermined all talk of ‘glorious battle’.
This explains the choice of readings, but only in part. Death comes to us all, and the Christian hope of resurrection is relevant regardless of how we die, whether in battle on in bed. So do these readings have anything special to tell us at Remembrance-tide? Two sentences from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians stand out: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”. In the practice of war, even in a just cause, we have a compelling example of how ‘the law’ empowers sin. Prosecuting war in accordance with our very best human efforts and ingenuity – which itself is rare – at most gives only a fleeting form of victory. The supreme victory is when, in Isaiah’s phrase, ‘peace flows like a river’ and wars are no more. But this is a victory that no war between nations or peoples could ever give us. It is available only, and mysteriously, through the victory of Christ on the Cross.
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