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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

At Bethlehem in the House of Bread

‘Let us go now even to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us. So they went with haste to find Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.’  I went to Bethlehem a decade ago.  Here is what I wrote about it in my journal, before my camera days.

We drive to Bethlehem passing Rachel’s Tomb on the way.  Before coming here, the Church of the Nativity was one of the places I was saying I would have been content not to visit. It’s too obviously part of the Holy Land theme park. I am proved wrong. Justinian’s noble basilica is one of the few buildings here to have survived intact from early Christian times.  It stands on the foundations of Constantine’s double-aisled church. You have to stoop to get in through the main door whose portal, it is said, carries both Muslim and Christian inscriptions. The grotto of the Nativity stands beneath the Orthodox sanctuary. It is moving to queue to go down into this tiny cave where pilgrims have come for centuries.  More humility is called for in bending low to touch the bedrock of the cave where, reputedly, Jesus was born. I have heard this alluded to in many sermons about the nativity but the effect is powerful: if you don’t bend down low, you can’t touch the mystery. Opposite is the place where the manger stood. At my suggestion, we sing Away in a manger.
Bethlehem is a Palestinian Christian town a few miles from Jerusalem. Today, many Christian families have left, partly because of the occupation of the West Bank and the high concrete wall that now cuts it off from Jerusalem. At tense times it retreats into its ancient somnolence: ‘how still we see thee lie’ but in an uneasy calm that could be shattered by sounds of gunfire.  Yet visitors still come in large numbers to throng Manger Square especially at Christmas. The chairman of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce says: ‘we are living in a big prison but we still hope things will change’. Perhaps that will be helped by its becoming a World Heritage Site, and by the United Nation’s first steps towards recognising the Palestinian state.

Today’s Bethlehem is conflicted, but this is nothing new. When Jesus was born, it lay in territory ruled over by Herod: not a safe place to grow up in, as Matthew’s story of the massacre of the innocents makes clear. But at its heart the nativity story is not a piece of gritty, social comment on homelessness or poverty. ‘No room at the inn’ is more likely to mean ‘there was no space in the lodging or guest-room’. The houses in the vicinity of Manger Square had caves behind where animals were stabled. We can imagine Joseph, a native of the town like Mary, taking her to his parents’ or friend’s home whose cave was a quieter, safer place in which to give birth. When the old masters painted the nativity, they cleaned the stable and beautified the messy realities of childbearing, but they understood the tender image of the holy family sharing in wonder and love and great joy at this mystery, this so much longed-for coming. In the church, I felt I was touching this ancient story. The Persians would have razed it to the ground in the 6th century had it not been for the Magi in Persian dress depicted on the west front: they spared it for the sake of that image. And because Muslims were allowed to use the south transept for prayer since the 7th century, they too spared the church in later times when so much else was lost. It is as if the memory of the Nativity has shed a redeeming light on Bethlehem across the centuries to keep it safe. In the Shepherds’ Fields they say: here it is always Christmas.

Bethlehem means ‘House of bread’. That may not have been its original meaning, but it’s how it is remembered. I have often meditated on that name.  It suggests a place of goodness and plenty, perhaps prompted by the Bible story of Ruth garnering in its golden fields at harvest time.  Her life was changed by her decision to linger at the House of Bread. Or great David, the beloved king whose city this was and whose memory in time became elevated into the hope of an Anointed One who would come. ‘You, Bethlehem Ephrathah…from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel’ says the prophet. This long-expected Messiah: he is Bethlehem’s gift, Bethlehem’s food, Bethlehem’s bread.  He is the one whom we have crossed this lowly threshold to see, this marvellous Child in whom a new dawn is breaking, Jesus the living Bread who feeds the hungry and fills them with good things.

The door of the House of Bread is always open.  We come as we are, lost, lonely, hopeless, hungry and poor: nothing in our hands we bring. We push tentatively, even a trifle foolishly, at that open door that the Key of David has opened and no-one can shut. Perhaps it always is when we go there, and are willing and humble enough to step down into the cave of nativity and take the gift held out to us. And we find as we find nowhere else that this little tiny Child bids us welcome, invites us in, sits us down and asks us taste his meat. Love’s work: that is what we understand when we feast in the House of Bread, and our eyes are opened, and we recognise him. Young children often have the power to invite us to rediscover kindness and pity, gentleness and hope.  This makes the awfulness of the slaughtered children of Newtown and the child-refugees of Syria all the more cruel. But this child does more. He draws our wonder and our love because of all that he has to give.  In the House of Bread our lives are given back to us once more, their broken fragments gathered up like grain scattered on the hillsides so that in him we begin to live again.

Like all the best gifts, Bethlehem is not just for Christmas. The House of Bread is open all the year round for us to find a welcome and share a feast. For here is promised everything that belongs to our redemption brought us by this holy child. The bread with which he will feed a hungry crowd as a sign of his generosity; the bread he will break at the last supper and give to his disciples; the command he will give that we go on sharing bread in his memory, broken bread for his body given for us all and for the life of the world; living bread for Easter when with burning heart we know him as the one who is risen from the dead. Bethlehem gives its name to all that belongs to Jesus and all that belongs to us.  He says to us and to all humanity, in our living and our loving, our suffering and our dying that in him all our hungers are satisfied.

So we go with the shepherds to Bethlehem on this Christmas Day. And as we enter the House of Bread we allow our hungers and longings to find a voice, knowing that the Holy Child welcomes us and hears us. What shall we ask of him? Perhaps on Christmas morning we echo the cries that come from the depths of every human heart. Give us happiness. Give us healing.  Give us purpose. Give us hope. Give us your kingdom. Give us love. And give us, we pray, our daily bread: today at Christmas and throughout this coming year. Amen Lord, give us this bread always!

Durham Cathedral, Christmas Day 2012 (Luke 2.8-20)

Friday, 21 December 2012

Solstice Reflections: a meditation for midwinter

Durham’s cloister has a curiosity that comes into its own on the winter solstice: a meridian line in the north walk.  It was put there in 1829 by a local headmaster in the days when professional men had the leisure to indulge in amateur astronomy.  At one end, an engraved stone on the ground marks the furthest point reached by the sun’s rays at noon at the summer solstice; a similar mark on the wall indicates the winter solstice when the sun is at its lowest.  So the Cathedral fabric is etched by a line tracking the sun’s journey through the year that follows the passage of time and the turning of the seasons. 

It isn’t unusual for sacred architecture and astronomy to meet like this: the great example is Stonehenge.  The orientation of our churches eastward links astronomy to faith just as the date of Easter does.  At V├ęzelay, the great Romanesque basilica built at the same time as Durham is constructed in such a way that at the summer solstice, the sun’s rays fall directly on to the centre aisle and create an avenue of light up the church; and today, if the sun is shining, they will illuminate the tops of each of the famous carved capitals on the north arcade as if by spotlights.

John Donne called the winter solstice ‘the year’s midnight’ in his ‘Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day’.  He wrote in the era of the Julian calendar, so the solstice fell near 13th December, her feast day.  When the calendar was reformed, the solstice shifted to the 21st or near it.  This was St Thomas’s Day which also carried overtones of darkness, doubt and unknowing.  Today’s weather has echoed its sombre theme: the rains and the lowering skies, the lifeless greyscale landscape, the sun obscured for the 4th day running.  No wonder that in northern Europe our forebears developed midwinter rituals for cradling the fragile light against the ancient threats of darkness, chaos and death. 

Donne’s poem imagines the solstice as a mirror of his human state: the wintry sense that he is not even half-alive.  ‘I am every dead thing’ he says: ‘lean emptiness… re-begot of absence, darkness, death: things which are not’.   Why does he feel so cruelly used?  The answer is, because of the death of a woman friend – or maybe because of the death of the friendship.  Her name was Lucy, Countess of Bedford.  Whatever the reason, he feels abandoned, forlorn, alone.  His sun can never renew itself, climb back up towards its zenith and the summer that lovers love.  For him it is winter: life without love is nothing.  Death cannot be far away.  ‘Since she enjoys her long night’s festival, let me prepare towards her’ he writes bitterly,

And let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.

Loss and the memory of it are powerful and poignant at this time of year.  But you don’t have to be bereaved to feel the dark creeping over your soul.  Seasonal affective disorder is a real condition, and real too is its spiritual equivalent: that depressive loss of direction, energy, inward vitality that our medieval forebears called accidie, listlessness.  And in that state, we easily fall prey to displacement activity – and this is the real peril of Christmas - anything to mask the emptiness in our hearts, the shadows that hang over our spirits, the undertow of hopeless longings and unfulfilled dreams that haunt us and make us wonder whether we can ever be truly alive again. 

Advent summons us to stop and reflect on who and what we are, and who and what our destiny, now in the time of this mortal life, while we have the opportunity to consider what death, judgment, hell and heaven mean for us. On midwinter’s day we are almost out of time: it is almost too late to prepare. Yet it is not too late, never too late to give voice to the universal human longing: 

O come O come, thou Dayspring bright,  
Pour on our souls thy healing light;
Dispel the long night’s lingering gloom,  
And pierce the shadows of the tomb. 

It is the cry of all people who are without light, who are crushed or hurt or abandoned: the cry for deliverance, help and salvation.  We have heard it with terrible force among the bereaved families of Newtown and the refugee children of Syria. It is the cry of the lost part of our own selves.  It is answered by the promise of a Child who will bring light and life, the Word who in the depths of night leaps down from heaven (as Hippolytus puts it) to illuminate our world’s darkness. 

It is the year’s midnight, and the sun is at its lowest.  But tomorrow the days begin to grow longer.  The light will strengthen once more, imperceptibly at first: for a few weeks it will be an act of faith to believe that one day it could be summer again.  Yet the lengthening light is an image of faith and hope.  And when things are dark and we are tempted to despair, when the poor are with us always and violence is abroad, when terror stalks the lives of many and more still are helpless or in pain, it is precisely then, at this nadir of solstice that we need to recover our hope.  John Donne is right: life without love is empty, without purpose.  But life can begin again because God is with us in the coming of Jesus our Sun of Righteousness. 

So we can trust God’s meridian line to lead us out of the shadows.  At midwinter we can lift up our hearts, for on this day of solstice, the axis of the world is turning back towards the light. 

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Light up a Life: a hospice service

Light and life belong together.  Each child that is born, every new life that comes into the world, is another priceless gift, another cherished soul, another point of light.  And when our loved ones die, it’s easy to think that their light has been extinguished, gone forever.  As I have said at this service before, my father died on Christmas Eve a few years ago, and this makes Christmas poignant for me.  But this year is different for our family, because in February we shall become grandparents for the first time. So this Christmas we have our own birth to look forward to. 

Birth and death, tears and laughter, tragedy and comedy belong together in this life: ‘man was made for joy and woe, and when this we rightly know, through the world we safely go’ said William Blake. Christmas has a unique way of gathering up and embracing both our sadness and our joy.  Our memories matter as part of this.  Perhaps the most important thing we do for those who are given to us is to hold them in our minds and hearts. One way of knowing that you love someone in a lasting way is that you hold them within you all the time.  You are present to them and they to you in the imagination, mind and heart, even if physically separated either for a while for the rest of this life.  

Especially at Christmas time, we have memories of happy times, good experiences, the give and take of intimacy and affection. Sometimes those memories are coloured by sadness, regret, guilt or pain: But to come here tonight, to light up a life and to remember and pray is to remind ourselves ‘holding’ our loved ones in our minds and hearts doesn’t end with death.  It goes on for as long as we ourselves are alive.  It’s something we do for those who have died, just as one day, other people will do it for us. 

Jesus says: ‘I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life’.  Those whom we love light up our lives, shed illumination upon us so that we know ourselves in a new way.  But our lives are lit up by a greater light still.  It’s the light of Jesus himself that we hold up to one another, the light of Jesus that bathes all our living and dying in hope. This Jesus lost those he loved, as we do; he wept as we do; he faced death himself, as we do; he rose from the dead, as we shall. 

At Christmas time we tell of how God came into our world in Jesus.  ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’  And that light is the light of love, God’s love is even stronger than ours, it endures for ever, it holds each of us in its arms. We only exist at all through God’s thinking and willing and loving us into life. He loves us in our birth and our living, in our childhood, youth and ageing, in our sickness and our pain, in our joy and in our sorrow, in our dying, and in eternity.   We love, because he first loved us, and loves us to the end. 

So we kindle a flame to lighten the dark, and take all fear away, for perfect love casts out fear.  In the Word incarnate, the resurrection and the life, we find hope once more – for those we have loved, for ourselves, for the time when we shall be reunited with joy, and for our world and its peoples in their longing for God’s coming dawn of justice, truth and peace.

9 December 2012 at St Cuthbert’s Hospice Service Light up a Life

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Advent Calendar: a meditation on a poem by Rowan Williams

We have recently heard an anthem new to Durham, Advent Carol by Michael Berkeley. It was commissioned by Justin Welby and premiered at Liverpool Cathedral in 2010. I have been pondering the text of the carol this week.  It was not new to me, but the music helped me to read it in a new way. 

The poem is by Rowan Williams and is called ‘Advent Calendar’.  It is a haunting piece: austere, deep, searching, suffused with wintry aches and longings we recognise as peculiar to this season. The language is as spare as naked trees, tough as hardened earth.  It is intended to make us shiver.  Its dense texture needs patience to grasp its complexity; its flinty Anglo-Saxon words are unsoftened by soothing Latin or French cadences.  The four stanzas each elaborate a different simile: ‘he will come like’ the fall of the leaf, like winter’s frost, like darkness following a late afternoon flash of sunlight, like the cry of night-time. It stands in a long tradition of northern Europe poetry in which the cold short days around the winter solstice echo our wintry spirits when our light burns low.

The point about imagery is that we shouldn’t explain it, for that would be to explain it away, reduce poetry to prose.  So I simply want to meditate on each of the stanzas in turn and allow them to help us enter more deeply into this season and it meanings.  And because this is an Advent Calendar, I imagine its stanzas taking us through the four weeks of the season up to the point where you open those double-doors and glimpse what it has all been leading up to. 

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
Has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
Wakes choking on the mould,
The soft shroud’s folding.

Week one of the calendar suggests a violent side to Advent.  This kind of dying is not going gently into that good night.  It is a sudden judgment visited at the turning of the year when beautiful autumn is abruptly cut short by the wind tearing through the trees stripping them bare of their golden canopies so that only their naked skeletons rear up to the sky. He will come like that.  It recalls the daring apocalyptic language in which the gospels speak of the last days, when the heavens are torn apart and the stars fall from the sky like autumn leaves, or the parables where the kingdom of God comes unexpectedly like a thief bursting in at night.  Experience tells us that sometimes he does come to us like the god who rides upon the storm, who in the imagery of the psalm shakes the wilderness and strips the forests bare.  Judgment is one of the ancient themes of Advent: last judgment, judgment now and judgment then as we reap the consequences of what we were and did, the endless compromises and refusals whose undertow over a lifetime drags us away from the pull of mercy and grace.  When the kingdom of God comes, it presents us with the truth of who and what we are.  This is why like the trees, our spirits need to be stripped bare (to quote a poem by Lawrence Binyon) if the sap is to rise again and we are to come back to life. 

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
Opens on mist, to find itself
Arrested in the net
Of alien, sword-set beauty.

Week two is quieter.  Its image is of the frost stealing silently across a misty landscape that seems to retreat into itself in hibernation.  It’s a beauty not its own, says the poem, ‘alien’, given to it from somewhere else, but clothing it nevertheless in place of the leaves that were stripped away in the first stanza. In a poem by R.S. Thomas, frost and rime encrust the heart, freezing its capacity to respond to the impulses of grace. And here, the image of a tranquil winter’s day is interrupted by two words that suggest that all is not as it seems.  The earth finds itself ‘arrested’ in a beauty that is not just alien but ‘sword-set’. So winter has caught and held the earth in a fierce and unrelenting grip, like the Snow Queen or the world-weary rejected lover whose frozen heart is echoed in Winterreise, Schubert’s winter journey that leads into oblivion.  How can God come like that?  Perhaps because our teeming souls, always restless, never still for long enough to notice God or our own selves need to be frozen by an arresting beauty that transfixes us, holds us in place, making it impossible for us not to pay attention, allow his truth to penetrate our being as the frost penetrates the soil.  The cold and dark and silence of winter is necessary if the earth is to lie undisturbed so that the life that lies latent deep within it can come to birth when the time is right.  Advent should make us stand still, watch and pray, become alert to God and the world and our human condition.  So it’s a metaphor of renouncing falsehood, being true, embracing the one who comes into our lives often by stealth, often unnoticed, arresting us by his grace and truth.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
And penny-masks its eye to yield
The star-snowed fields of sky.

Week three takes us on towards the solstice and its ‘bursting red December sun’.  I imagine this as one of those days when slate-hued clouds hang low over the earth and leach all the colour from a fervourless landscape (‘as fervourless as I’ says Thomas Hardy in another famous wintry poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’).  Then just as the light begins to fail, there is a clearing in the west and a flash of glory reveals a setting sun.  Too soon it sinks below the horizon, and it is dark and clear and cold and the ‘star-snowed fields of sky’ appear.  So this is not the radiant sun that late in time rises with healing in its wings to warm the land and coax it back to life.  No, this is the solstice, John Donne’s weak winter sun whose strength is spent at the year’s midnight.  That phrase ‘star-snowed fields’ keeps us well and truly shivering.  So the sun’s brief splendour heralds night not day.  And he will come, says the poem, not like the sun but like the dark that follows its all-too-brief epiphany.  I think that like the first two stanzas, the poet wants us to read the daytime of our life in the light of its ending: just as the leaves fall and the land freezes over, day turns to night and reminds us of the night into which we must all go.  And like the wind and the frost, the night brings its own truth to bear upon our condition.  What we are at night, when we are so to speak naked only to God and ourselves, that is the truth of what we are.  When this night falls, the poet does not lead us indoors to seek warmth and comfort, or even wrap the darkness round us to protect us.  We are still outside in the cold, watching, waiting, wondering, longing, hoping against hope that in the dark there is a kindness and a mercy.  This is Advent. This is life. 

He will come, will come,
Will come like crying in the night,
Like blood, like breaking,
As the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child. 

After the wintry death, judgment and hell of the first three stanzas, fierce, freezing and dark, the final week culminates in a marvellous surprise.  The threefold ‘will come, will come, will come’ echoes those three comings like knocks on the door.  The repetition delays the disclosure we wait for and heightens its importance, for here is something new: not the inanimate forces of winter but a voice, something alive and breathing in a forlorn and icy world, something ‘crying in the night’.  It’s a reference to Tennyson's ‘infant crying in the night, an infant crying for the light’ – and this is precisely what we ourselves have been, outside in the bleak midwinter where the third stanza has left us.  Is it the echo of our own cry that we hear?  If it were, it would be the ultimate mockery, for we would know that we were alone out there, lost and helpless.  But we are not.  Warm blood and the energies of breaking and writhing tell us that something else is happening, something eucharistic that says that life can begin again and we can be thanful.  There is a birthing that will give us our lives back again. ‘He will come like child.’  That wonderful last line gathers up all the earlier comings and humanises them, no, it divinises them in the simple truth that all our hopes and hungers and longings find their fulfilment in the birth that will heal and save us.  For this Child, a child of the earth and son of man as we are, is ‘tossed free’ (a resurrection image as well as a birthing one) and therefore makes us free too.  In the Letter to the Romans, Paul speaks about creation’s birth-pangs that will one day make us not only free but more than conquerors, thanks to this Holy Child who has come out of love for us to be the firstborn of a new, redeemed humanity. 

We have arrived at the final doors of the Advent Calendar.  The comings of truth and judgment in wind and cold and dark were needed, are always needed if our lives are to be cleansed and our vision purified.  We need Advent to recall us to what is fundamental to human living: as individual men and women, as communities and societies, as churches, as a race.  The word ‘judgment’ is krisis in Greek: life’s storms and frosts and darkness do not always feel survivable.  If we are to face krisis with equanimity and live through it, it will only be by the grace and truth of the Holy Child.   Many voices clamour for our attention in Advent.  His, the Voice that cries out to us in the night, is the one we must hear, and turn to; and when we have found him, we must never let him go.

Advent, 2011

The Grapes of Wrath

It’s a rather bloody matins today.  Forget about Christmas trees, baubles and The Snowman played in a thousand shops while we are at worship this morning.  This is more the grim world of John Steinbeck's dust bowl.  Prepare to be startled, even shocked. Here is Advent in all its seriousness and with the blood flowing freely: death, judgment and hell, laid out for us in two magnificent but perplexing readings.

The Book of Revelation is better called the Apocalypse.  It means the unveiling of what is hidden, kept under wraps until the time is right. It is a familiar genre in the scriptures: the Book of Daniel is its counterpart in the Hebrew Bible. In each case what is ‘unveiled’ is secret knowledge about the future.  But not just any future.  Apocalypse concerns the specific future of the people of God: Israel in the Old Testament, the Christian Church in the New. Ask yourself when the future matters most to us.  The answer may be, when it is uncertain, when we have reason to be afraid of it. Apocalypse comes into its own when life is frightening and fragile, threatened by nuclear holocaust, global warming, terrorism, or more personally, terminal illness, death, bereavement. At times like these we want to know whether we shall survive, still be here tomorrow.  To the apocalyptic writers, the threat that promised to overwhelm their communities was persecution.  Whether it was the Seleucid kings at the time Daniel was written, or the Roman emperor Domitian in the days of Revelation: these books are meant to open up a future that puts a question against pain, suffering and mortality.  By affirming that it lay in God’s hands, it aimed to bring strength and hope to the persecuted and afraid.

Apocalyptic uses the literary device of putting these visions on the lips of well-known prophets or seers from the past, those who had proved trustworthy in predicting the future. It reads as if everything that is taking place now was foretold ages ago.  But it was dangerous for the persecuted to speak too openly about their faith. They risked torture and death, as the stories in the apocryphal books of the Maccabees from Daniel’s time tell us. So they adopted elaborate codes, complex systems of symbols and images drawn from the scriptures and elsewhere with which to cloak their visions. ‘Unveiling’ it may be, and perhaps was for those with eyes to hear.  To us, the imagery seems to wrap the text in still deeper obscurity. One of the best and most learned of all Bible commentators, the great John Calvin, professed himself so bewildered by the Book of Revelation that he gave up trying to write a commentary on it. In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer lectionary, you will see that while the gospels, Acts and epistles are read twice through at Morning and Evening Prayer, Revelation is read only once, during Advent and Christmas where today’s baleful reading from chapters 14 and 15 are set, of all days, for Christmas Eve.   

With that background, what do we make of this tough text?  We can at least understand why it has been chosen for Advent Sunday. This season is meant to turn our minds towards the future that is coming upon the world, what theologians call eschatology.  And happy is the church that sustains this powerful theme without distraction all the way to sundown on Christmas Eve. Today we begin this Advent journey by considering the grand sweep of the eternal purpose for the cosmos, for our world, for humankind and for ourselves personally. This purpose contains the old Advent themes of death, judgment, hell and heaven, the four last things that provide such rich resources for our meditation at this time of year.  This passage faces us with all these, but especially with the unwelcome but inescapable fact of divine judgment. I spoke earlier about crisis.  It literally means ‘judgment’ which is when we think about it what every crisis presents us with: a judgment on how we shall respond, what our motives will be, whether the easy speeches about loyalty, goodness, obedience and trust that we make in good times will still be on our lips when things become almost unendurably hard.   

The image of judgment is the ripened harvest.  It is reaped by the Son of Man with a golden crown and a sharp sickle in his hand. The picture is borrowed from our Old Testament lesson in Joel, but which is also present in the ‘little apocalypse’ in the gospels where Jesus says that when the powers in the heavens are shaken, all will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with power and great glory, who will send out his angels to gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of earth to the ends of heaven (Mark 13.25-27). The wicked of the earth are always a preoccupation of apocalyptic where they are contrasted to the remnant of the righteous few.  The bloodbath that occurs when the terrible sickle is wielded is likened to the harvested grapes that are thrown into the great winepress of the wrath of God.  There comes a day when evil is openly named for what it is, when in the imagery of our passage, the Warrior gathers the nations to claim his victory and a river of blood spreads its crimson stain across the land. You can see how this image (this time from Isaiah 63) would comfort those undergoing fierce persecution.  Those with no hope whatsoever in this world could only throw themselves on the mercy of God to intervene spectacularly, wind up history, banish wickedness to its place and redeem the his faithful.  The redeemed could then look forward to resurrection and immortality, singing Moses’ song of liberated slaves that we heard at the end of the reading.

But there is another dimension enfolded in this Christian apocalypse; we could miss it if we did not look for it. ‘The wine-press was trodden outside the city’ says the seer.  We know from the New Testament that the shdding of blood ‘without a city wall’ carries a deep significance.  For blood that is shed in that place proves to be not only judgment upon evil but also the redemption of the world. God’s strange work at Calvary, says St Luke,  embraces those who ‘know not what they do’. The cross turns out to be the work of Love where love conquers all things.  At the end of Revelation, the river of blood that issues from the place of the skull is transformed into a river of the water of life that flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb. The essence of judgment is revealed.  When ‘the wounded surgeon plies the steel’, the sickle that cuts into our flesh and bone hurts.  It exposes all that needs to be cut out if the body is to live, for the pain of judgment purifies us from the cancerous corruption that threatens destroy us.  But it saves us from ourselves. 

If we are serious about Advent, this purifying of aspiration and motive is a good task to set ourselves: not as an effort or a work, but as a God-given discipline or ascesis.  It will prise us open more and more to God’s generous, forgiving grace. It will help us to see clearly, mend our broken spirits, strengthen us to become holy and wise once more. Love was, love is always, his meaning. I am not going to tell you in Advent 2012 that this theme of judgment no longer matters.  It does, as anyone who knows the fallibility and corruption latent in the human heart knows well.  So at the core of our Advent longing, before we get to the manger of Bethlehem, must be the realisation that God must act in judgment to root out evil and vindicate whateverall that is true and honourable and just and pure. 

‘In wrath remember mercy.’ Whatever we read in the law and the prophets, in wisdom and apocalyptic is summed up simply in this:  ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.  That is the clue to the heart-work we must do in Advent, Love’s work that God does in us at every moment.  Don’t linger on the intoxicating images of Revelation.  Simply pray the Lord’s Prayer each day.  And add this: ‘Amen. Come Lord Jesus!’

Advent Sunday 2012
(Joel 3.9-end, Revelation 14.13-15.4)