Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Horsemen of the Apocalpse  Salvador Dali
"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". Mark’s Gospel for this first Sunday in Advent is undeniably apocalyptic, a feature that makes it problematic for those main-stream Christians who have difficulty in believing in an apocalypse. They 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.

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?

Apocalypse Ion Tucilescu (1910-62)
It is perhaps best to start with this thought. Any attempt to think about time and eternity simply has to invoke imaginative language. We cannot think about the limits of history in historical terms. So, for instance, the Genesis stories are graphic representations of the great truth that God created time and space, a cosmic beginning to all things whose mysterious nature science is just dimly starting to understand. It is not so strange, then, to think that God will also bring this great cosmic experiment to a close with the end of all things. If so, however, we must think about it pictures that are no less graphic.

The Bible is not science. It offers us something that science cannot -- religious and theological insights into human nature and the human condition, insights by which we can live. We are clay, and God is the potter, Isaiah reminds us. This means that both the number of our own days, and of the whole cosmos is determined in God’s good time, not ours. Prediction is pointless, since no one – not even God the Son -- 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, because, as St Paul says in the Epistle, since the grace of God has already been given to us in Christ Jesus, we need not lack in any spiritual gift in advance of his final return.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Christ Pantokrator
The last Sunday of the Christian year is now quite widely celebrated as the Feast of Christ the King, or 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 rather antiquated conception – kingship. The world in which kings and queens, surrounded by immense wealth and splendor, were held in awe because of their absolute power, has long since disappeared. Apart from a few isolated cases, no one attributes such an elevated status to another human being any more, 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 need for inter-faith dialogue?

Christ in Silence Odilon Redon (1897)
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, the truth about Jesus sets the political power of earthly kings in its proper perspective. For all their majesty, such rulers are powerless to save us from sin and death. Their kind of ‘kingship’ is importantly hollow. This is an assessment that applies to modern states and rulers no less than to ancient ones.

To hail Christ as king, therefore, does not mean claiming supreme power for an alternative political candidate, but 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 the Gospel parable of the sheep and the goats affirms, that Jesus has been given the final word of judgment over all creation. Still, this does not license Christian triumphalism. On the contrary, it leaves believing Christians with a new and far more demanding responsibility, also reflected in Gospel parable – to make sure that they see and honor Christ’s kingship in the poorest and humblest people and places of the world.

Monday, November 10, 2014


Parable of the Three Servants JESUSMAFA (1973)
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 monetary unit (distantly connected, in fact, with our word ‘dollar’). Now it means a special gift or aptitude. This change has come about largely because Matthew’s story has consistently been interpreted to refer to the special aptitudes we find in ourselves. Calling them ‘talents’ has lost all its monetary associations.  The term ‘gifts’, too, has largely lost the theological overtones that it had in former times. Yet, it is precisely because we continue to speak, and to want to speak, in this way, that an important question opens up. Gifts imply a giver. Who is the giver of these 'gifts', if not God? The special aptitudes we delight in – a talent for music or mathematics, or just as importantly, a gift for friendship – are not ours by right. Still less are they our personal accomplishments. Our gifts underlie our best efforts; they are not the result of them. 
Here is one place where even the most secularized culture has difficulty abandoning a truly religious sensibility. 'Gifted' people are 'blessed'. Both they and we ought to be grateful for such 'blessings', in exactly the way we are grateful for gifts from friends and family. Without these blessings, we could not make our way in the world. Yet they are benefits we have not earned, and to which we have no natural or human right.

 The Seven Virtues, Faith -- Giotto
The parable Jesus tells relies upon this acknowledgement. But it also goes beyond it. Gifts bring responsibilities, notably the responsibility to use them well. And this, the parable reminds us, implies risk. To use your gifts to the maximum, you have to take a chance. The cautious servant who buried the talent  was ‘risk averse’, understandably so, no doubt, given the severity of the master who gave it to him. Still, however understandable his attitude may be, it brought him to judgment. Life is a gift that we waste to our eternal cost.

The message seems clear. Each of us must make an accurate assessment of the gifts we have been given, and launch out on paths that make the most of these. Of course, there is no guarantee that doing so will bring success as the world understands it. For the Christian, though, this does not mean that we are left 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 they know what the future holds, but because by following Christ they have ‘put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation’. It does not require predictive foresight to be guided by faith, love and hope.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Head of a Prophet Mikhail Vrubel (1905)
Depending on what choice is made from the unusually wide range of alternative passages set for this week, it is easy to identify some key themes  -- wisdom, final judgment, and the life hereafter. But how are they connected? The different writers seem to say quite different things about them. The prophet Amos is full of foreboding and paints a gloomy picture -- 'Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light'. The author of the Wisdom of Solomon, on the other hand,  says that everyone who gives heed to wisdom's laws has an 'assurance of immortality, and immortality brings one near to God'. Saint Paul, however, tells the Thessalonian Christians, that it is not wisdom but the faith that 'Jesus died and rose again', which  gives them reason not to  'grieve as others do who have no hope', and brings assurance that 'the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first'. 

Wise and Foolish Virgins William Blake (1822)
So is the prospect of the Last Day a cause for fear or for hope? And from the point of view of this prospect, does it matter or not whether we have lived wisely? The Gospel reading consists in a single parable which throws light on this. Traditionally known as 'the wise and foolish virgins' it recounts the eagerly anticipated climax of a great wedding, the moment when the Bridegroom arrives. Everyone is equally eager for the Bridegroom's arrival. Experience tells us that this crowning moment could be delayed for some reason or other, and it is simple wisdom, not special genius or expertise, that should lead us to prepare for such an eventuality. Yet when the moment comes, it finds some 'foolish' people who lack this modicum of wisdom quite unprepared. And yet their vain attempt to put things right at the last moment reveals the ease with which they realize the importance of the thing they have lost through lack of foresight. Wisdom is not the cause of the bridegroom's arrival, nor lack of it that causes his delay. Wisdom has to do with the guests' preparedness.

The Wise Virgins Paul Delvaux (1965)
The 'faith' of the Thessalonians was that the death and Resurrection of Jesus is the focal point of the meaning and purpose of the whole creation. That is where their hope did, and should, lie. Nevertheless, they still needed wisdom to properly prepare for the implications of this truth, and could, therefore, foolishly fail to do so. With wisdom we can hope, contra Amos, that the 'Day of the Lord' is a day of light. Without it however, along with the 'foolish virgins', we may discover that it is possible to be excluded from this light and left in darkness.