Monday, November 26, 2012


Peter Bruegel The Last Judgement
Advent I is the start of a new Christian year. The readings are always powerfully apocalyptic – passages from Jeremiah and Luke (this year) or Isaiah and Matthew (last year) that focus on the end of time, and the Second Coming of Christ. Why do we begin the year by thinking about the Second Coming, and not the First – the birth of Jesus? The answer is that the Incarnation is NOT the start of the story of our salvation, but rather a crucial moment within it. At the start of a new spiritual year it is essential that we bring to mind the great cosmic sweep of time within which God acts – from Creation to Redemption – and thereby renew our sense of the immeasurable ‘power, might and majesty’ of the God we worship, a sense easily, and comfortably, submerged in the more homely images of Bethlehem.

At the same time, this is not simply a matter of cosmic theology. The task is to shape our own lives around the very same story, and to grasp this truth -- that for each one of us Birth is the moment of creation and Death the end of time, and that at some point in our journey from the cradle to the grave, God comes to us in Christ as our salvation.

Wassily Kandinsky -- The Angel of the Last Judgment
Advent I is also the Sunday on which Anglicans throughout the world use Thomas Cranmer’s most enduring Collect, a prayer that he specially composed for the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. It is powerful testimony to Crammer’s spiritual gifts that this prayer has served its purpose for more than 460 years, and even now has been retained in all the newest versions of the Prayerbook. This is because of the incomparable way in which Cranmer uses Biblical phrases to weave together the cosmic and the personal aspects of Advent. Arguably the most beautiful of all his Collects, its gives us words to ask that in the time of our mortal lives, we may come to acknowledge the astonishing humility with which God came to visit us, and thereby find the grace to cast away the works of darkness by which humanity is constantly tempted.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


This is the closing Sunday of the Christian year, and celebrates Christ as King. The lectionary readings from the Old Testament offer a choice – to focus on David, the greatest of all Israel’s kings, or on a more general image of kingship. The former might seem a rather better choice, because the image of ‘king’ does not have much resonance in the modern world where ‘democracy’ is the prevailing political ideal.  In this respect, the United States can be thought to have led the way. It was founded on the outright rejection of royalty, and an affirmation of the equality of rich and poor. Since the focus on David brings to the fore the theme that Jesus is ‘of David’s line’, something that is emphasized at Christmas, we seem on more obviously religious or theological ground with that.

But in fact, the difference is merely one of emphasis. It is David’s kingship that matters. His status in first century Judaism was like George Washington’s is in American political culture – uniquely important, and in no way diminished, in either case, by any human failings. In the time of Christ Israel’s hopes, by and large, were still pinned on the thought that a new David would arise, and return the Jewish nation to its rightful place as a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’. As history turned out, it was not to be. What Christians believe is that, against this background, God acted to reveal a quite different kind of kingship – ‘not of this world’ – as Jesus expressly says in the Gospel passage for this Sunday, a ‘kingship’ ultimately revealed in a ‘crown of thorns’. The fundamental message runs counter to the hopes people pin on all political programs, and not just those of old fashioned royalists.

So, to celebrate the Feast of Christ the King properly, we must be sure to avoid all hints of triumphalism, any implied suggestion that ‘our man’ won out in the end. Rather, in a spirit of wondering humility we must find a way of accepting that, as Isaiah says, God’s ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts, and yet, it is His ways that will and should prevail. The incarnation of God in Jesus makes it possible for us to do that, and celebrating Christ as King is our acknowledgment of this fundamental truth.

God inviting Christ to sit on the Throne at his right hand  by Pieter Grebber (1653) and  King of Kings (Greek icon c.1600) - from the Jean and Alexander Heard Library

Monday, November 12, 2012


The Destruction of the Temple Francesco Hayez (1867)

Imagine you heard someone predict that a few years from now, the buildings on Capitol Hill in Washington DC would lie in ruins, never to be rebuilt. Would you believe it? Probably not, but if you did take it seriously, it would be a truly frightening prospect – in effect, pretty much the end of the world as we know it. This little thought experiment may help to give us insight into how the prediction Jesus makes in the Gospel for this Sunday must have struck his hearers. Of course, only his disciples would have taken him seriously; everyone else would have written him off as crazy. Yet he was right. Within forty years, the massive Temple at Jerusalem, a symbol for the Jews of the enduring stability of their faith, was destroyed by Rome, the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. But, Jesus adds, the destruction of the Temple and the wars that will follow it are just the start.
Hannah Praying in the Temple - Marc Chagall

These apocalyptic passages from the Gospels are sometimes thought to be embarrassing. They seem to portray Jesus as a ‘prophet of doom’, just like one of those eccentric people who walk the streets with a billboard declaring ‘The End of the World is Nigh”. When we see them in this light,though, it needs to be remembered that the Empire did indeed collapse and its Capitol was ruined, just as the Jewish Temple was. Thereby a whole world -- the ancient world of Greece and Rome – came to an end. In its place of course, other worlds arose, up to and including the ‘global village’ of which we are increasingly a part. They too will end, and so will ours.

The ‘triumph’ of Jesus over sin and death stands in sharp contrast to the dominance of the Temple and the might of Rome. It does not take the form of even more spectacular and longer lasting political and military institutions. Jesus is executed as a criminal, yet “by this single offering” the passage from Hebrews tells us, “he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified”. It seems highly implausible. But “the bows of the mighty are broken, while the feeble gird on strength”, Hannah reminds us in the Book of Samuel. As the Empire began to crumble, a few humble people in an obscure corner of the earth gave birth to a truly different kind of institution – the Church – that mystical Body in which billions of people, both living and dead, are united as one in Christ Jesus. It is here, and only here, the Gospel tells us, that we can expect to find ‘an abiding city’.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Marc Chagall -- Ruth and Naomi

This week’s combination of readings – whether in the continuous track or the thematic track – seems somewhat random. Both the Old Testament lessons are about women in need of protection and support who have to make striking accommodations with the world in which they live. The Epistle continues the Hebrews theme of Christ’s priesthood, while the Gospel from Mark recounts the episode known as ‘the widow’s mite’. This is the occasion when Jesus praises a widow woman who has given a tiny sum of money to the synagogue in preference to the wealthy people he had seen give far larger sums.

There is an obvious lesson we can draw from this brief episode. Generosity is relative to the resources of the giver. That is why it is odd for human beings to be so impressed by ‘big bucks’. We always hear about huge philanthropic gifts – from Carnegie, Rockefeller, Bill Gates and so on – and even though we know that these have cost them very little, if anything, by way of personal sacrifice, we’re still impressed. In sharp contrast, we don’t hear much about small philanthropic gifts that a real sacrifice on the part of the givers, who have forgone things that they themselves wanted, or even needed. The size of a gift always captures the headlines. Yet this never measures its generosity -- a truth that is worth repeating again and again.
Mafa -- The Widow's Mite

Still, important though this lesson is, it does not take us to the heart of the Gospel message. This impoverished woman is giving the treasury of the Temple in Jerusalem all that she has to live on. Tiny though her ‘mite’ is, it powerfully demonstrates the personal depths to which faith in God can go. And it casts in quite a different light the ‘showy’ religion on which Jesus comments in the preceding verses. Yet it is the hypocrites he condemns who get worldly acclaim, while the poor widow remains in her poverty. That is why her case presents us, as it did Jesus’ hearers, with a real counter-cultural challenge. Which, in all honesty, do we prefer – the kind of success that the world in which we live undoubtedly favors (and which church going can sometimes help along), or the spiritual depth and simplicity that brings us closer to God?