"The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory".
So begins Mark’s Gospel for this first Sunday in Advent. The words are undeniably apocalyptic, and this is what makes them problematic, not only for those who have great difficulty believing in an apocalypse, but for many main-stream Christians, who are understandably anxious to distance themselves from lurid conceptions of ‘the Rapture’, or some such religious extreme. Warnings that 'the end of the world is nigh' are widely regarded as characteristic of Christianity's lunatic fringe, not least because, while believers have often been firmly convinced about the date of our impending end, they have invariably been wrong.
Yet, this Gospel passage can hardly be set aside. It is not the wild prediction of some eccentric Nostradamus. These are words of Jesus as recorded in the Christian Bible, and expressly appointed, in a Lectionary that the larger part of the Christian world now acknowledges and uses, to be read in public on this Sunday. So how are we to understand them?
It is perhaps best to start with this thought. Any attempt to think about time and eternity cannot avoid invoking imaginative rather than literal language. That is because it is impossible to place it within the long list of historical events. The end of all history, whatever we might mean by that expression, cannot itself be in history. So too for time’s origins. That is why long ago the realization dawned that the Genesis stories are not historical, but graphic and compelling representations of non-historical truth: time and space are the framework of God’s creation, a calling into existence of everything, whose mysterious nature science has still only penetrated to a very small degree. If we bear creation in mind, then, it is not so strange to think that God’s purpose will also bring this great cosmic experiment to a close. If so, however, we must think about the end of all things in pictures that are no less powerful.
Contrary to the opinion of its detractors, but also some of its admirers, the Bible is not a scientific text. It is a little library, a collection of books of different kinds -- history, prophecy, ethics, poetry, and story. Over a few centuries the Church forged them into a single ‘canon’, so that taken together they offer us something that even the most impressive scientific investigation cannot do, namely a religious and theological insight into the human condition – what it means to live and die as a human being comprosed of body, mind and soul.
We are clay, and God is the potter, Isaiah reminds us in this week’s Old Testament lesson. This means that both the number of our own days, and of the whole cosmos is determined in God’s good time, not in ours. Prediction is pointless, since no one – not even God the Son, today's Gospel tells us -- can put a date to its end. What is called for, therefore, is perpetual watchfulness. This is one half of the message of Advent. The other half tells us that even the end of history can be regarded with hope rather than fear. Isaiah’s compelling image of the clay and the potter is preceded by this affirmation “O LORD, you are our Father”. The implication is clear. The world, from Creation to Apocalypse, is founded not on a physical or a biological, but a personal relationship. That is the faith underlying the message of St Paul in the Epistle. Since the grace of God has already been given to us in Christ Jesus, Paul declares, we need not lack any of the spiritual gifts that will enable us to contemplate the drama of Christ’s final return.
The last Sunday of the Christian year is now quite widely celebrated as the Feast of Christ the King, more recently referred to The Reign of Christ. This is a relatively new practice, instituted by the Roman Catholic church in 1925, and one that has been followed by other churches for only the last few decades. Although it rounds off the year appropriately with a culminating affirmation of the supremacy and majesty of the risen Jesus, there are at least two reasons to hesitate.
First, the language employs a very antiquated conception – kingship -- which is why, presumably, ‘The Reign of Christ’ is thought preferable to ‘Christ the King’. The alteration does not accomplish much however. It still invites us to summon up a vanished world of kings, queens, and emperors surrounded by immense wealth and splendour, and exercising absolute power. Apart from a few isolated cases, all of them tyrannical dictatorships, no one nowadays attributes such an elevated status to another human being, or makes the mistake of treating them like gods. So how can applying ancient royal images to Jesus Christ enrich our understanding or increase our devotion? Second, invoking the image of Christ the King runs the risk of being unattractively triumphalist. Is this not an expression of Christian superiority in a world that rightly emphasizes the ever present need for inter-faith dialogue?
In this week's Epistle, Paul, even though he is writing for a world in which supreme imperial power was indeed the norm, offers us a way of responding to the first point. He tells the Ephesians that God -- the creator of all that is -- has used his power to raise a criminalized Jew in an obscure part of the empire “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion”. That is to say, to think of Jesus as king sets the political power of earthly kings in its proper perspective. For all their majesty, such rulers are powerless when it comes to redemption and saving us from sin and death. Their worldly power may be real enough, but also importantly hollow. This is an assessment that applies to modern democratic states with Parliaments and Presidents no less than to ancient ones. The wealth, scientific knowledge and technological sophistication of today’s world has strengthened, not weakened, the erroneous idea that human beings can create a brave new world, or at least save themselves from ultimate disaster. Indeed, given the many spectacular catastrophes that have unfolded in the last 120 years, we have less reason than ever to put our ultimate faith in ourselves and our political leaders.
To hail Christ as king, therefore, does not mean claiming supreme power for an alternative political candidate. Rather it means reversing our whole way of thinking about power. It is on the Cross, after all, that Jesus receives his Crown of Thorns. It is of course true, as this Sunday’s Gospel parable of the sheep and the goats affirms, that Jesus has been given the final word of judgment over all creation. Yet, this does not license any pride-filled Christian triumphalism. On the contrary, it leaves believing Christians with a new and far more demanding responsibility, also reflected in the Gospel parable. Their special task is to make sure that they honour and witness to the supreme reign of Christ even in the poorest places and among the humblest people.
The Gospel parable for this Sunday has entered our thinking so deeply that it has changed the meaning of a word. In Biblical times ‘talent’ was a unit of currency, distantly connected linguistically with the modern ‘dollar’. It has now come to mean a special aptitude, largely because Matthew’s story has consistently been interpreted to refer to talents in this modern sense. The word ‘talents’ has lost all its monetary associations, and is often interchanged with the word ‘gifts’. Yet this term too has changed, and for the most part lost the theological overtones that it had in former times. Gifts imply a giver, and who is the giver of these 'gifts', if not God? Nowadays, however, people happily refer to special aptitudes such as a talent for music or mathematics, as ‘gifts’, and they even speak of people being ‘blessed’ with such gifts. Yet they do so without thinking of any giver. A gift is a matter of chance, just something we happen to be born with.
In the parable Jesus tells, though, there is a giver -- the man who goes on a journey – and the ‘talents’ he gives his slaves are sums of money. The principal focus of the story is not on the talents, but on those who have been given them. How effectively have they used the resources with which they have been entrusted? On his return, the master is pleased with the first two slaves, but exceedingly angry with the third. But why? He has not squandered or wasted the money. He has simply kept it safe, lest he get into trouble. In modern parlance, the third slave is ‘risk averse’. This would not have cut much ice with Jesus’ hearers. They would have found it much easier to sympathize with the master’s anger than we can. That is because human beings in the 21st century are more ‘risk averse’ than at any other time in history. This is odd, really, because especially in developed countries, we are also wealthier, healthier, more secure and longer-lived than ever before.
So, the most obvious lesson to draw from this parable is a very hard one. Relative to human beings throughout history, in the last seventy years or so we have been given great prosperity and immense resources. And yet we have constructed for ourselves an emphasis on ‘health and safety’, and absorbed it so deeply, that we are far too ‘risk averse’ to venture forth as the great saints and heroes did in times past. The current pandemic illustrates this. It has generated far more widespread fear and anxiety, far greater caution, and far more reliance on political measures, than far worse plagues ever did in the past. What should we make of this?
Since the season of Advent is approaching, the Lectionary has paired the Gospel parable of the talents with an Old Testament lesson from the prophet Zephaniah in which he issues a very stern warning. “The day of the LORD is at hand . . . At that time, says the Lord, I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs . . . Their wealth shall be plundered, and neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them”. Could this apply to us any more directly or more pertinently? Can silver and gold in the form of vast amounts of public spending lead us out of the fear and social fragmentation into which we have sunk?
The Christian Church, if one is honest, has not borne much witness in this time of consternation. Yet if we do look to Jesus, we ought not to be stumbling in the dark. On the contrary, Paul tells the Thessalonians in this week’s Epistle, “You are not in darkness; you are all children of light”. This is not because the Thessalonians have any special knowledge of what the future holds. Rather, it is because by following Christ they have, Paul says, “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation”. It does not require predictive foresight to act in faith, love and hope. But if we are not inspired by these, then, as Zephaniah warns us, we will cut ourselves off from the God who chose a Cross to be the perfect sign of love and hope.
In modern liturgical practice, this time of year is known as the Season of Remembrance. It begins with All Saints Day on November 1st, includes All Souls and Remembrance Sunday and takes us up to Advent. On first appearance, then, there is a sharp contrast between this season and the one that follows it. Remembrance is about looking back and recalling times past, while Advent looks forward to the future and the Second Coming of Christ that will usher in the fulfillment of God’s ultimate purpose for creation.
It may come as a surprise, therefore, to discover that the readings set for Remembrance Sunday are not backward looking at all. On the contrary, they all look forward. In the Old Testament lesson, Job looks with longing to the time when, despite all his sufferings and the doubts and questions of his friends, he will finally be vindicated by God. St Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, describes in vivid terms the moment when the “last trumpet” shall sound and we shall all be changed, from mortal to immortal, thanks to the victory God has given us in Christ. In the very short Gospel passage, Jesus himself refers, twice, to “the last day”, and the final consummation of all that the Father has willed for the world and for humanity. But if all these readings point to the future, what makes them appropriate for Remembrance?
One answer is this. The Season of Remembrance does invite us to look back -- at the lives of the saints whose exceptional work and witness is our inheritance, at the existence of innumerable, ordinary, undistinguished souls who followed Christ as faithfully as they could, and on this Sunday in particular, all the people caught up in wars and conflicts who were called to endure great hardships and make great sacrifices. But the Season of Remembrance also invites us to see all that is past within the cosmic sweep of God’s unfolding purpose, uniquely revealed in Christ. In this way it prepares us for the coming Season of Advent when we focus on the completion of that purpose.
To look far back into human history while simultaneously looking forward to a future grounded, not in our own powers of prediction, but in God’s promise, should bring the present into proper perspective. Every generation has a tendency to think that what matters most now, is what matters most. We are no exception. Social division, racial tension, political election and a public health crisis, have all greatly dominated our lives lately. It is easy to think, as many have said, that these are ‘unprecedented times’. Remembrance and Advent, however, invite us to reject this description and affirm afresh that all such things fall within the long trajectory of God’s creative purpose.
Our times are no more ‘unprecedented’ than were those of Job or Paul. God says to Adam in the Garden, ‘You are dust, and unto dust you will return’, and at the start of Lent we take the opportunity to remind ourselves that this salutary truth applies to us also. As the Psalm appointed for this Sunday affirms, in God’s sight “a thousand years are as the passing of a single day”. Elevating the present over the past, or the future, inevitably leads to misguided destruction. Examples are not far to seek. The world-wide conflict heralded as ‘the war to end all wars’ proved, alas, to be the breeding ground for another conflict with still more terrible consequences.
The Season of Remembrance, then, gives us space in which to renew the belief captured in one of J S Bach’s cantatas -- ‘God’s time is the very best time’.
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