Advent – God is on the move

‘Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ – Mark 13.35-37

There is a well known passage in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, I think it highlights beautifully the Advent faith which this season seeks to distill in us. When the Pevensie children first meet Mr and Mrs Aslan_lucy_reunionBeaver the name of Aslan is introduced into the story, Aslan being the Christ-figure in Lewis’ masterpiece, and the children react in a multitude of different ways – Peter is filled with a call to action, Lucy with a sense of wonder and Edmund, having already met the white witch, is filled with the sense of dread; all because they hear the name of Aslan. What message do the beavers give the children? A simple one: ‘Aslan is on the move’. Aslan is on the move – God is on the move, and this is message of advent, this season when we reflect on how God moves in our lives and in our world.

In Advent we are called to cultivate the sort of habits and attentiveness that make us more alert to the coming of Jesus in our midst, the movement of God in our lives and in our world. The call of the Gospel then to keep awake this Advent is about developing the habits of looking for God’s movement within and without ourselves, for unless we do this,we risk simply missing Christ as he breaks into our everyday experience of life.

This means that keeping awake this Advent is about more than the state of not being asleep. It surely must be about more than just not being asleep, because lots of us go through life not fully awake to it, for all sorts of reasons. We follow familiar routines; we believe that the way things are is the way things must be; we do what’s expected, and often even do our best, without necessarily stopping to ask why we’re doing what we’re doing, or whether this is how life has to be. There’s a familiarity and a comfort to the habitual, to the patterns we weave for our lives, and that means that lots of us, lots of the time, are content to stay with the comfortable, and stop looking at it because we know its contours so well. We fail often even to recognise the things that make our conscience twinge: discrimination in our college, a homeless man in the street framed by the glistening lights of an expensive shop, images of war on the news – we are so used to this that we often fail to hear the voice of our conscience anymore; fail to recognise God’s challenging, reforming movement – the movement of him who is always making all things new.

To be awake to that presence in the world is partly to let the whisper of your conscience speak; to dare to imagine that we are made for more than the acquisition of wealth and that our lives are more than the sum of our achievements. And sometimes we need a wake up call to realise this – sometimes we have to be confronted again by the truth of God’s movement. Sometimes that wake up call is welcome: in falling in love, in the gift of a child, in responding to a sense of vocation, in simply hearing the name of Christ proclaimed in a new way to us. Other times we are jolted awake by illness, or bereavement, or redundancy, or a broken relationship, and suddenly the familiar contours of our lives are made strange. Redundancy, for example, can provoke us to see that we are more than just what we do. Bereavement and illness can make us re-evaluate what’s really important because they face us with the reality that we do not have limitless amounts of time.

Advent, in its liturgy and Scripture, is our annual wake up call – reminding us to be watchful, reminding us that the world as we know it is broken and in need of healing, and our lives, habitual and comfortable as they are, can always be more closely conformed to the Lord’s pattern. Being watchful for God’s movement begins when we learn to look for it in the whole of our lives. It’s easy to see God at work in the sunset, in the smile of a baby, in the touch of a lover. It’s much harder to glimpse his presence and movement in the unwelcome medical diagnosis, or in the bleakness of grief, or in the repeated lies of a person gripped by addiction. And yet the promise of Advent is that God moves in the darkness as much as in the light. To keep a good Advent is to begin to wake up to the presence of Christ in our midst, and sometimes that starts as simply as remembering to look for him.

This may seem a little shocking because, if we’re honest, I think lots of us don’t expect to find God in the darkness or in the mess of our lives. A big part of the problem is that we have this ridiculous idea that God only loves the bits of us we find loveable and, because of this, we start putting a face on for God, just as we do with other people. We have this false assumption that God only moves in the light, only works among good people in good situations. But the light of Advent, which grows brighter as we journey to Christmas, is the light that shines in darkness. We miss it if we look for its glow only in the light of our world and of our lives.

My sisters and brothers, as we worship in the presence of him who is the light of the world, we are reminded of God’s faithfulness, and his love for the world that he is always reaching out to save and make perfect. God is on the move; always and everywhere. For His promise is that at midnight or at cockcrow, in those silent hours stalked by fears, he will come – this holy light who shines in the darkness, and whom no darkness cannot overcome.

Therefore, in this annual service, let us pray to God – beseeching the Lord to open our minds and hearts to see his movement and presence in our lives and in the world. And let us here his call to us – keep awake.

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Christ the King (Homily, B)

Jesus said, ‘my kingdom is not of this world’

A joke, to give a slightly philosophical definition, occurs at the juxtaposition of incongruous elements – we laugh when the well-dressed business man slips on the banana or when grown ups behave like children, we laugh at the incongruity of life’s situations. At the heart of Christianity is a meeting of the most incongruous elements, in the centre of our faith there is a sacred joke. God, the one we confess as almighty, becomes a human – divinity and humanity meet, so that we can see in Jesus both God and humanity. As Chesterton goes on, for two thousand years Christians have laughed at this joke – we never tire of it!

Here, at the end of the liturgical cycle of the year, the Church reminds us of Christ the King – the whole cycle of the year builds up to the joke, this punchline of the sacred jest – this man, who lay in the manger too weak to raise his own head, who gives himself every moment seeking out the poor and the lost and healing the sick before pouring out his entire life on the cross in love for a sinful world, forgiving with love even those who crucified him – this man is God, this man is king of the universe. If you asked a child to draw a king the image would, I imagine, be of a man in a golden crown, revered by his subjects, lord of armies in majestic robes… but our King, our glorious, beautiful, holy jest of a King, is a man crucified and abandoned, condemned by society and the religious elite, betrayed by all but his Mother and closest friend. We gaze this morning at Christ on the cross and say ‘there is our king’ – it’s a joke, a juxtaposition of the incongruous, power and weakness held in an absurd relationship.

The earliest depiction of the Cross of Christ is amazing, we believe it’s from a training centre for young gladiators in Rome. It shows a crucified figure with the head of an ass, with a small man kneeling down in prayer – the caption reads: ‘the Christian worships his god.’ Unfortunately, this was probably aimed at some poor young gladiator, but it does capture the alex3strange incongruity of our religion – a crucified criminal is proclaimed king at the climax of the liturgical year and this is the joke we are all called to share in today.

Think of that amazing reading we heard from Revelation a moment ago: Christ who has made us a kingdom to his Father; Christ worthy of glory and dominion; Christ who will come with the clouds of heaven; Christ the Alpha and the Omega, the Almighty, the all powerful source and summit of all reality. And then think of the Creed we will recite in just a moment’s time, Christ: ‘God from God and light from light’, the one who is in himself God and King. Yet we, as Christians, can keep all that in mind and shift our attention to a landfill site outside Jerusalem in 30AD, because that’s what Golgotha was, and remember the scene – a young man, about 30, nailed to an instrument of torture – in the agony of death he is jeered by soldiers who specialise in brutal executions – almost everyone who paraded with him through Jerusalem two days earlier are gone. Naked, nailed to the tree, mocked and pointed at, laughed at and abused, they jeer at him, ‘he saved others, let him save himself’. We can survey this bloody, brutal scene and say this is the one the Creed is talking about  – he is Lord of Lords and King of Kings, he is the source an end of all reality, God from God and light from light. What a strange religion we share this morning? This is the joke of Christianity! And it is this incongruous juxtaposition which is the drama and the poetry and the beauty and the wonder of the Feast of Christ the King.

But, to declare this Jesus as King is to admit that our notion of kingship is entirely and grievously wrong. What we take to be kingship – authority, power, dominion – have nothing to do with the real thing, we are almost entirely mistaken. The power ISIS believe they wield in the attacks in Paris or in the torture of the people of Syria and Iraq is not true power, it is a sinful facsimile of the power of the Almighty one. In our world, if you have military strength you can subdue and dominate other nations, or personally, if you are wealthy you can protect yourself from the changes and chances of the world; if you have cultural influence, you can save yourself from being forgotten and protect yourself from embarrassment. But the true King does not seek to save himself, he forgets himself for us – he never aggrandises his own ego, he gives it up in love – he empties himself of all visible signs of kingship and godly power in order to empty himself and ‘take the form of a servant’. He, the Alpha and the Omega, the power which creates the entire universe is the power of self-emptying love. This is not what the world tells us – this is not military might or wealth or status. If you want power, proclaims the Christian faith, stop trying to fill up your own life in a self-protective way but reach out and protect someone else – if you want power, if you want to live in the power which created the universe, you need only do the smallest, simplest act of love and forget yourself.

Christ_Crucified_from_betsyporter.com_This is a joke to most people. To point at that naked man, jeered at by the authorities and call him king is a joke to the world. But calling Christ King is only a joke in the context of our sinful world – it’s only a joke because we’ve fallen so far away from God’s dreams for us. In terms of the transformed world, in terms of that deeper magic, this is not a joke but the reality of God in his Triune being – everything else in our faith, all the volumes of theology and endless sermons, my entire tripos, is a commentary on this deep reality, this truth of immeasurable significance.

Unfortunately, I’m aware that this might all seem like nice abstractions from an idealistic Welsh ordinand – yes, that’s all very nice and everything, but power does come with money and influence and strength to say otherwise is just to fool yourself. But these are not the pretty musings of an undergrad theologian, love has truly conquered in history and it will conquer again. We’ve seen it – think of Luther King and the Civil Right’s movement, who transformed whole societies, uprooted centuries old institutions and systems through the power of love; think of those families who have been held together despite everything by their love; think of every refugee who has escaped the brutality of their old life to bring their family to the shores of Europe by love, and think of those less glamorous times where love has triumphed, in a trickle of distilled water and the murmured invocation of the Trinity over a neonatal intensive care cot, or in a smear of oil that anoints forehead and hands as life ebbs away.

Love is the dynamite and power of the Church…

Love, my friends, is the dynamite and the power of the Church – the Church’s power is found in self-forgetting, self-sacrificing love, because that is the power of our King. In this Eucharist, as James offers afresh the sacrifice which brought about our salvation, Christ once more pours out his love into the distinctly ordinary elements of bread and wine, the food of the poor in Christ’s time, his body, his soul, his humanity and divinity, his kingly power comes into our midst in the most humble food and drink, yet we are changed by receiving these gifts – love triumphs in us, as it one day will in all the world.

Christ the King – a joke in this sinful world yet, for us who know him, this feast day is the deepest truth in God’s true world of grace and love, that world which breaks out in us and among us and will one day overcome the world.

Christ the Poetic King (Waldo Williams)

Waldo’s Poem, on which this post is based, is available here.

This week, the Church keeps the feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe as it is properly known. The Feast was institute by the Pontiff in 1925, in response to growing nationalism in Europe and to freshly emphasise Christ’s soveChristtheKing-672x372reign Lordship in the wake of the brutality of the First World War. For us today, the feast is given new significance in the light of the brutal attacks in Paris only last week, the violence of ISIS which has decimated much of Syria and Iraq, and the countless souls who have fled their homes in search of safety and a better life. The death of the innocent, at the whim of those who would use them to further their political aims, takes us straight to the very heart of the Christian
Faith. It takes us to the suffering of Christ on the cross for us. Two thousand years ago, after careful consideration by Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, along with the High Priest, it was deemed expedient that Jesus should die. And so he was nailed naked to that famous tree, abused and mocked by soldiers, whilst his friends, in their fear, deserted him. A week ago in Paris and daily in many parts of the world, terrorists and barbaric regimes reach the same conclusion, it would serve their interests for the innocent to die and we are left to weep, just as Our Lady Mary did two thousand years ago, as she stood at the cross and wept as she watched her own son suffer and die.

In our search for understanding, it is the words of Waldo Williams, writing about the time this feast day was inaugurated, to which I turn our attention now. Waldo was the most extraordinary Welsh poet of the 20th century, he stood in the long tradition of bardd gwlad, folk poets, and was a devout Quaker and passionate pacifist, whose poem Mewn Dau Gae (In Two Fields) has had a very profound affect on my faith and understanding of Christ’s kingship. I have printed off a few copies of the poem for you as you leave, it is a short, rich poem and I can scarcely do it justice in a single homily.

But now: imagination
shakes off the night. Someone is shouting
(who?), Stand up and walk. Dance. Look.
Here is the world entire. And in the middle
of all the words, who is hiding? Like this
is how it was. There on the shores of light
between these fields, under these clouds.

The poem begins in a field, workers engaged in a common purpose, yet basked in a light which mystically surrounds and enfolds them. Waldo’s poem is, in many ways, a rapture on the mystical ancient Welsh idea of awen. Awen a word which can only be poorly translated as ‘imagination’, for, in the Welsh poetic tradition, awen is the inspiration of the poet and the primordial energy of thought and language, that shared thing which inspires us and binds us together. The poem concerns itself with farmers working in the field but they are elevated by being basked in mysterious light, the power and energy of awen which binds them so closely – awen is the voice at the heart of the universe and it captures them now.

Somewhere between them,
through them, around them, there is a new voice
rising and spilling from its hiding place
to hold them, a new voice

The awen, the primordial energy, rises from our common purpose, our common working, in  Mewn Dau Gae, this is the hard farm work of the men, but awen is an energy which acts on us all and it calls us, as it does to these farmers, to recognise the fundamental truths of the universe and to recognise our fundamental and inseparable unity. This awen is the very power of unity, capable of drawing all things together and overcoming the lesser things which separate us. Awen is, for Waldo, the Spirit of Christ the King, who creates and saves us. These are the two fields of Waldo’s poem – one, the earthly sphere and the other the heavenly – but the light of awen binds and unites them. For Waldo, the world of heaven is not a distinct, far-off reality but is spilling into earth, blurring the lines and, by the awen, the Word of God, lifting us to taste the first fruits of its dawning. The glory of heaven, where peace and unity will reign, is overflowing into human community, into that field ‘full of folk’ as Waldo puts it, and the result is transformative.

Then the poet asks:
So who was it stood
there in the middle of this shameless glory, who
stood holding it all? Of every witness witness,
the memory of every memory, the life
of every life?

And the pilgrim clouds and the rustlings reeds give answer to the question, the King is life of every life and memory of every memory, the King is the awen. The  primordial nature of the whole universe is nothing less than a poetic utterance from the mouth of God himself, the same God and King who longs for the victory of unity over fragmentation, longs for the fulfilment of creation when the King comes again in shameless glory to make real the unity of heaven and earth.

Waldo’s understanding of Christ as a poet and the universe as his poem leads him to understand creation as the masterpiece of that cosmic poet from whom all being and beauty flow. This understanding of Christ’s poetic kingship led Waldo to become a passionate pacifist, even being imprisoned for refusing to pay income tax during the Korean war. He was a peacemaker but an aggressive peacemaker, who never withdrew from conflict but believed that the peaceful imperative was worth fighting for, but never with guns and violence but with words and protest. He was passionate only for the peace and flourishing of all people – he joined Christ the poet-king in seeking to wrestle with those powers of fragmentation in the world – a man passionate for peace, willing to wage peace with all the energy which we are so happy to waste waging war.

who with a quiet word
calms the red storms of self, till all
the labours of the whole wide world
fold up into this silence.

Waldo knows that the creative force of Christ the King and the work of his saints is to sweep away everything which divides and fragments because what is primary is what connects us one to the other, the awen comes first, the Word of God which is the speech which underlies our very being. To unite is to complete the work of creation, unity is true power and it is Christ’s work in the world. We can think of St. Paul’s famous words that in Christ there is no male or female, no slave or free, no Jew or Greek but the a prior, fuller, richer unity.

When I was a child, it was my favourite game to embarrass my mother by shouting ‘I’m not with her, I’m not with her!’ whenever she tried to hustle me somewhere I didn’t want to go, she would go bright red and people would look at us suspiciously. Mission accomplished, as far as I was concerned. But, Waldo, and I think he’s right, believed it is more than a childhood game but a near-universal tendency to say ‘they’re not with me’ or ‘I’m not with him’. We see it in our own day, in those who would banish Muslims from our island or close our borders to those who come to our shores in desperate need of help – to cry, ‘they don’t belong with us’ is such an easy, human thing to do. Yet Christians, Waldo believed, have a moral duty to fight against this universal tendency. For Christians, the only faithful response to those who are ‘other’ from us is to say, ‘you belong with us and we belong with you’. And this means, especially for us as Christians, a particular belief that we belong alongside the marginalised, the poor and the oppressed.

In the final and most beautiful stanza of Waldo’s poem, Jesus is described as the ‘the exiled king’ and it this image which reflects so beautifully the kingship of Christ in Waldo’s vision. Christ, the Word of God, is the awen – he is the energy which unites us and the one who creates us and longs for us to realise the perfection of his image within us. In Christ, the exiled king, God is emphatically one with us, he is literally born as one of us, he is willing to die as one of us, in order to show us that our true place of belonging is with him for all eternity. Christ does away with all the visible signs of kingship and godly power in order to ‘take the form of a servant’, to become one with us in our lowliness, in order that we might become on with him and one with one another. If all humanity is one in Christ, then we all belong together because we belong in him.

As I knelt in prayer for two hours last Saturday morning for the people affected by the Paris attacks, with many members of our Chapel community coming and going and the news reports still pounding in my ears, I grew increasingly aware that I was in the presence of the ‘exiled king’, who became one of us and hung helpless on a Roman cross. The people of Paris, and those whose lives were irreversibly scarred by those events were in the midst of deepest, blackest, Good Friday when the world seems utterly fragmented, where nothing makes sense and the unity of the mythical awen seems so far away – yet we assert that Good Friday is not the end of the story and, as the death toll rose and our hearts sank, there were glimpses of light and hope. There were glimpses of hope in the people who protected the Mosques of Paris as Muslims prayed, preventing any violent backlash against the Islamic community; hope in the Christians who gathered at the shrine of Our Lady of Paris to ask the Blessed Mother, who watched helplessly the suffering of her Son, to pray for them; hope in the people across the would who were reminded of our common humanity, and I felt a renewed longing for peace.

All these people, including us who gathered on Saturday morning, reasserted, in the very face of death and destruction, that Good Friday is not the end of the story – that the awen will one day sweep away the discordant fragments of our broken world and our unity under Christ will be revealed. His kingship will be made manifest and all other power will be subjected to Christ’s rule of love. This feast day, as on every Sunday and across the world, we are gathering both to weep and to hope – to weep for our brokenness and to hope that the exiled king will return and the poem of creation will be completed. And it is our hope and our prayer, watered by tears, which ascend to the very throne of the Crucified King and his kingdom draws near.

for it will come, dawn of his longed-for coming,
and what a dawn to long for. He will arrive, the outlaw,
the huntsman, the lost heir making good his claim
to no-man’s land, the exiled king
is coming home one day; the rushes sweep aside
to let him through.

– Amen – 

Between Two Fields (Mewn Dau Gae) – Waldo Williams

Between Two Fields (Mewn Dau Gae) – Waldo Williams
Translated from the Welsh by Rowan Williams

My reflections on this poem can be found here

Waldo_memorial
The Waldo Williams Memorial

These two fields a green sea-shore, the tide spilling
radiance across them, and who knows
where such waters rise? And I’d had years
in a dark land, looking: where did it, where did he
come from then? Only he’d been there
all along. Who though? who
was this marksman loosing off bolts
of sudden light? One and the same the lightning
hunter across the field, the hand to tilt
and spill the sea, who from the vaults
above the bright-voiced whistlers, the keen darting plovers,
brought down on me such quiet, such

Quiet: enough to rouse me. Up to that day
nothing had worked but the hot sun to get me going,
stir up drowsy warm verses: like blossom
on gorse that crackles in the ditches, or
like the army of dozy rushes, dreaming
of clear summer sky. But now: imagination
shakes off the night. Someone is shouting
(who?), Stand up and walk. Dance. Look.
Here is the world entire. And in the middle
of all the words, who is hiding? Like this
is how it was. There on the shores of light
between these fields, under these clouds.

Clouds: big clouds, pilgrims, refugees,
red with the evening sun of a November storm.
Down where the fields divide, and ash and maple
cluster, the wind’s sound, the sound of the deep,
is an abyss of silence. So who was it stood
there in the middle of this shameless glory, who
stood holding it all? Of every witness witness,
the memory of every memory, the life
of every life? who with a quiet word
calms the red storms of self, till all
the labours of the whole wide world
fold up into this silence.

And on the silent sea-floor of these fields,
his people stroll. Somewhere between them,
through them, around them, there is a new voice
rising and spilling from its hiding place
to hold them, a new voice, call it the poet’s
as it was for some of us, the little group
who’d been all day mounting assault
against the harvest with our forks, dragging
the roof-thatch over the heavy meadow. So near,
we came so near then to each other, the quiet huntsman
spreading his net around us.
Listen! you can
just catch his whistling, hear it?

Whistling, across the centuries of blood
on the grass, and the hard light of pain; whistling
only your heart hears. Who was it then, for God’s sake?
mocking our boasts, tracking our every trail and slipping past
all our recruiting sergeants? Don’t you know?
says the whistling, Don’t you remember?
don’t you recognise? it says; until we do.
And then, our ice age over, think of the force
of hearts released, springing together, think
of the fountains breaking out, reaching up
after the sky, and falling back, showers
of falling leaves, waters of autumn.

Think every day, under the sun,
under these clouds, think every night of this,
with every cell of your mind’s branching swelling shoots;
but with the quiet, the same quiet, the steady breath,
the steady gaze across the two fields, holding still
the vision: fair fields full of folk;
for it will come, dawn of his longed-for coming,
and what a dawn to long for. He will arrive, the outlaw,
the huntsman, the lost heir making good his claim
to no-man’s land, the exiled king
is coming home one day; the rushes sweep aside
to let him through.

My reflections on this poem can be found here

Holy Desire

For me, the influence of St. Augustine, a great friend to have (so to speak), has helped me understand this more than anyone. For Augustine, faith is not an experience of the constant and uninterrupted sense of God’s presence but is rather an experience of holy desire.

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We Will Remember Them

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Armistice Day is a day of symbols and ceremony, wreaths are laid and poppies worn as soldiers don their uniform and old monuments which, while usually hurried past with nothing more than a glance, are given new life and our attention is drawn back to them. To remember is natural, of course, it is written into our humanity remembrance-day-11300115224KT9and into the very fabric of our society and townscapes and to remember those whose sacrifice made possible our common life today is an important aspect of our corporate remembering. However, as I stood on Sunday among a small crowd of students, fellows, staff and veterans in Corpus’ New Court, as the splashes of red and the solemn sounds of the Last Post sounded after the silence, I began to feel very queasy about all this remembering. The line between remembering and glorifying is indeed a thin one; the symbols which we use to remember, the poppy, the flag, the national anthem, feel like symbols stolen from us by Britain First and the far-right jingoists and the whole ceremony feels like it belongs in a previous time, where morality seemed simpler and the memory of two great wars was keener. And yet, our country clearly cares about Remembrance, you need only look at the (frankly ridiculous) detailed analysis of the profundity of Jeremy Corbyn’s bow to realise that we, on the whole, believe we ought to properly remember those who have died.

Despite my misgivings, I agree with the majority, we ought to remember those who have died in the cause of war and especially those whose sacrifice has made possible our freedom and liberty today, those who safeguarded our ability to bow at whatever height we like. However, remembering at its best is not just a recalling of the past, but allowing the past to enter into dialogue with the present and to allow it to help shape the future. As we remember those who have died in the cause of war, we are confronted by the thought of those wars which still tear our world apart: the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the increasing tension jeremy-corbyn-wreathsbetween Israel and Palestine and in countless other places. To gather in Remembrance of those who have died in the past, is to allow ourselves time to be moved to action and compassion towards those who continue to live and die in war in our own time.

The cry of Remembrance, however, ought always to be one of sorrow, a solemn national cry that this should never happen again because every life lost is a tragedy and no war can ever said to be ‘won’. Remembrance services often feed in to a dangerous militarism, in which it is a glorified thing to die in the fight against so-called evil and ‘the old lie’, as Wilfrid Owen famously called it, is perpetuated and given fresh power by the clever recruitment adverts released by the Ministry of Defence. We should be cautious of any Remembrance service aimed at persuading those ‘children ardent for some desperate glory’, to quote Owen again, to sign up in order to make a name for themselves in a country which often fails to give young people any other inspiring options.

That being said, I strongly believe there are things worth fighting for. There are human values worth dying for and, although with sorrow and regret, worth killing for. In our own day, war has lost the morale clarity of the two World Wars; the enemies are impossible to fully understand or see, the threat seems less imminent, the demarcation between friend and foe is muddied, and the cause of action is unclear at best. However, in Remembrance services up and down the country we have a two minute opportunity to open our hearts and minds to these difficult realities and dream of a world where the futile loss of life is ceased and there is a just and lasting peace. We therefore have a duty to rescue the ceremonies of Remembrance from those who would use them to advertise a narrow-minded understanding of so-called “British Values” and refocus the attention on our shared human values. By re-emphasising the importance of Remembrance in terms of our shared objectives of equality, liberty and peace, we have an annual opportunity to spend a time of national reflection on these crucial aims and how we, corporately and individually, can contribute to bringing them about.

We have a moral obligation, as people who enjoy relative peace and prosperity, to do all we can for those countries who have descended into the blackhole of war or tyrannical government. We must remember the countless refugees pressed against the fences of Europe seeking our help as they flee from violence; we must remember the countries whose land cries out today with the blood of so many innocents; and we must remember those who suffer under the burden of structural injustice and poverty. These are not glorious causes, but they are critical ones and they are worth remembering and fighting for. As we observe that two minute silence or pin a poppy to our breast, we ought to do so in sorrow and gratitude for those who have died to secure our freedom but also to pledge ourselves to use our freedom and all we have, our money, our minds, our influence, to secure the peace and prosperity of all humanity. In this mission, freed from the limits of narrow-minded nationalism, we can truly do as John McRae asked of us in his famous poem, Flanders Fields:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Article originally published in Varsity, read it here.

Understanding the Book of Revelation: ‘The Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered’ (Rev. 5.6)

A more academic-style article, exploring the Christology (understanding of Christ) of the Book of Revelation. 

Introduction

The Revelation of John is an apocalyptic text rich in imagery and symbolism, with a particular Christological focus – indeed, it is described in 1.1 as ‘the revelation of Jesus Christ’ and concerns itself with the revelation of Jesus by Jesus, through the angel, to John the seer.  Therefore, it is through how Jesus is presented that we can gain a ‘way in’ to the study of this most complex text of the New Testament. However, having said that, the life and teaching of Jesus are largely ignored, and the focus is on the heavenly exalted Jesus post-resurrection. The book follows a three-stage kemaxresdefaultnotic Christological model with the midd
le act, Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, largely ignored with the focus on the preexistent and post-resurrection Christ. Before beginning, to explore the book of Revelation, we must note that the apocalyptic idiom of the book was probably necessitated by the situation of the Christians in Asia. In the midst of persecution at the hands of the Romans and conflicting claims to power, meant there was a need for a strong stance: if you confess God to have asserted his rule over the world, then you cannot put your trust in any other earthly power or authority.

The most important Christological descriptions we will explore are: Christ as universal saviour and judge who shares in divine authority; as the slaughtered Lamb; the eternal ‘alpha and omega’; and the one worthy of worship alongside ‘the One who sits on the throne’. Finding in chapters 4 and 5 the climax and interpretive key to the text, we will argue that the most significant depiction of Christ is as the Lamb, and we will discuss the implications of this striking image.

Christ: Sovereign Lord

The sovereign and eschatological Lordship of Christ is a central image in the Book of Revelation. Against the backdrop of persecution, it is natural to focus on the sovereignty of Christ, Christ’s judgement on the wicked and the vindication of saints and martyrs. The role of Christ is to turn the kingdoms of the world into the kingdom of the Lord (e.g. 11.15), which is why the concepts of salvation and judgement are so inextricably linked. Because Christ ‘shares the one eternal being of God, what Christ is said to do, in salvation and judgement, is no less truly and directly divine’ than what is said to be done by ‘the One who sits on the throne’. Salvation, the formation of this eschatological kingdom, belongs both to God and to the Lamb (7.10) and they are related together in the New Jerusalem (22.3), which will be the final consummation of Christ’s victory. In this, Christ and God are so closely connected, with language and speech often inseparable, demonstrating a clear sense in which they are seen as, in some way, one in their reign over all creation.

It is this unity in sovereignty which means that ultimate victory is assured and both God and ‘the Lamb’ can occupy the divine throne together (5.6-13). There are political overtones to this understanding of Christ, he is described as ’Ruler of the kings of the earth’ (1.5); ‘the one who is about to shepherd all the nations’ (12.5); ‘Lord’ (11.8; 14.13; 22.20); ‘lord of lords and kings of kings’ (17.14; 19.16), in contrast to the imagery of two beasts (ch. 13), which is an assault on the imperial cult. Clearly then, the image of Christ as ‘lord of lords and king of kings’ is very Christologically significant. It has a twofold purpose: it demonstrates the close identification of Christ and God; and the finality of Christ’s victory over Satan and thus, his lordship over creation. However, this politically charged and powerful language is subverted by the central image which John uses; the ‘Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered’ (5.6).

The Lord of Creation: The Slaughtered Lamb

In the cosmic imagery of the Book of Revelation, the slaughtered Lamb is at the centre of the divine throne and, in a literary sense, at the heart of Revelation. The sacrificial death of Christ is the governing image of how God rules the world and accomplishes salvation – the love-that-suffers-even-to-dying is the messianic conquest and the focus of the book (Boring, ‘The Theology of Revelation’). This image is so significant as it provides the lynch-pin to the book’s central claim: the death and resurrection of Christ has won a decisive victory for God (ch. 5) and the world only awaits the revelation of the already fully consummated victory of God. The Scroll, which governs the narrative of Revelation from chapter 5 onwards, is also closely related to this. Christ is the only one ‘worthy’ to open the scroll, which contains the secret purposes of God for establishing his kingdom (5.1). There is then a deliberate juxtaposition of the language of ‘the lion of Judah’ (5.5), with its militaristic overtones, and the image of the slaughtered lamb (5.6).

lamb-of-god-stained-glass
‘Behold the Lamb of God’

It is the opening of the scroll which is the climax of chapter 5, and John’s decision to subvert the traditionally powerful and militaristic image of the lion with a slaughtered lamb is very significant – God from his throne conquers the world by being a slain lamb and not a devouring lion, this is the shocking irony of Revelation. This reversal of power could be compared to the Johannine theology of the Cross, which subverts the traditional expectations of the glory and kingship of God. The strength, which allows the Lamb to open the scrolls, is deeply unconventional; it lies in the consistent and non-violent resistance to evil which is the witness of Jesus, a resistance which led to his execution. The slaughtered Lamb is rightly described by Boring as, ‘one of the most mind-wrenching and theologically pregnant transformations of imagery in literature.’ The lion, referenced in Proverbs (30.30), 1 Maccabees (3.4) and other Second Temple literature as a symbol of strength and military might is deliberately contrasted with the symbol of a sacrificial death and the meaning of kingship, conquest, strength and power is subverted and redefined.

The Lamb, as we have discussed it, is undoubtedly a significant image for John in Revelation, indeed, I would argue it can be considered the most significant. It is the most significant because it provides the interpretive key through which God can be understood; as the sacrificial-victim in the centre of God’s throne, he is worshipped alongside God, and provides the definitive expression of God’s activity of salvation and judgement. The centrality of chapters 4 and 5 to the book also confirms the importance of this image, which subverts the worldly understandings of power prevalent at the time, and also provides the means of understandings of Christ’s lordship as ‘king of kings’.

The Alpha and the Omega

However, before drawing to a conclusion, we must explore the image of Christ as ‘the alpha and the omega’. This concept is used both of God and Christ (God, 1.17, 22.13 – Christ 21.6 etc.), reflecting the remarkable extent to which Revelation identifies Jesus Christ with God, which prepares the ground for later Christological debate and discussion. The centrality of this designation is underlined by its use seven times, the number of completeness (see also the seven beatitudes scattered through the text). John, in this symbolic use of numbering, shows the significance of this idea and writes the theological detail of his work into the meticulous composition of Revelation. This Christological statement expresses John’s belief that Jesus belongs to the fullness of God’s eternal being. In contrast to adoptionist Christologies, which understand Jesus as only being exalted after his resurrection (although the resurrection is significant in Christ’s participation in God’s Lordship (c.f. 2.28; 3.21)) Jesus in Revelation shares in God’s eternal being from the beginning. This idea has its roots in Isaiah (c.f. 44.6 etc.) and in YHWH’s claim to exclusive monotheism – God and Christ are creator and the bringer of eschatological fulfilment; in other words, the origin and goal of all history. As well as its roots in Isaiah, this idea borrows from the Greek philosophical tradition, it is used in this sense by Josephus in Ant. 8.280 and Philo, as an explication the divine name. However, this is not a static designation of Christ, he is described as ‘to come’, placing the emphasis on the coming salvation and fulfilment of his reign. This is not an ontological expression of self-existence in himself, but a promise of faithfulness and commitment to his people in history.

The designation of ‘the alpha and the omega’ is one way in which Christ is closely identified with the God the Father, which leads us to our final significant way in which Christ is depicted: he is depicted as receiving worship. Worship is a central concept of Revelation, as it indicates that which is due to the One Creator and none else. John undertakes a deliberate treatment of the question of true or false worship: there is the division between those who worship and the dragon and the beast (13.4, 8, 12, 15; 14.9, 11 etc.) and those who worship the one true God (7.15; 14.3; 15.3-4 etc.); there is also the double rejection of worship by the angel who gives John the revelation (19.10, 22.8-9). The worship of Christ is therefore not done from neglect, as the book’s stringent claim to monotheism in the sphere of worship precludes this possibility.

John implies that Jesus is somehow included in the monotheistic being of God. For example, the worship of the Lamb (5.8) parallels that which is offered to God (4.11) and the ultimate aim of the worship of the Lamb (5.8-13) is that it leads to the whole creation worshipping God and the Lamb together (5.13). This is not bitheism, but a functional identification of God and Jesus, in such a way that he can be included in monotheistic worship – particularly interesting is the use of singular verbs (11.15) and pronouns (6.17; 22.3-4) when God and Christ have been spoken about. While this may not be a deliberate allusion, it certainly points to John’s reluctance to talk about God and Christ in the plural. Christ is depicted amongst the candlesticks, which represent the Church, showing his centrality ‘to the life and activities of the churches on earth’, alongside the angels proclamation of ‘the eternal gospel’ which includes the call to worship the Creator (14.7, c.f. 13.8) points to Jesus’ worthiness to receive worship.

Conclusion

To conclude, there are several significant ways in which Christ is depicted in Revelation: his depiction as Lord and ‘king of kings’; as the Lamb who stands slaughtered; as origin and source of all history; and as worthy of worship alongside God. Each of these depictions mutually interpret and inform the others: the Lordship of Christ is informed by his inclusion in the divine identity; his Messianic victory is subverted and reinterpreted in the light of his depiction as the sacrificial victim and the power, worthiness and authority of God are located firmly in the readiness of the Lamb to die. It is therefore, the image of the Lamb which is the most significant of the Christological depictions in Revelation, as it informs the others and, in its central place in the pivotal moment of the text, contains the most profound teaching of the Book; at the centre of the throne of God, which has conquered all creation, is a sacrificial Lamb who governs the way God’s will is manifest in history. It is this Christology which influences the rest of this highly Christocentric and theological vision of creation.

Adapted from an essay submitted for supervision in New Testament Christologies (C3) as part of my Third Year Theology Tripos
at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

On Everyday Sainthood

There was once a great Saint who, realising that God was calling him to a life of silent contemplation, became a hermit in a cave in the wilderness and hoped to live out his calling in mystical communion with God. Eventually, as the world so often All-Saints-for-Podcastdoes, he was forced out of his quiet retreat and founded a monastery to house all the people that sought him out for spiritual direction. After years of austere monastic life, with the recitation of the Daily Office, celebration of the Divine Eucharist and being profligate in all good works, he asks God a simple question, ‘Lord, am I the holiest man in all the world?’ God responds with a visionary experience, and he is taken in the Spirit to the local city, where he is guided to look through a window and he sees a humble, unintelligent and simple old man washing and preparing vegetables for dinner, as he did everyday. And God said to him, in the Spirit, ‘Behold, the holiest man in all the world.’ 

I am grateful for Fr. Robert who preached in Little St. Mary’s, Cambridge about this story recently, as it has sparked all sorts of reflection and prayer for me on the nature of sainthood and the call to sanctity which all Christians share. The story is a stark reminder that holiness is not the preserve of the religious elite; of those who devoutly pray the office or who devote all their time and study to holy things. Sanctity belongs, by God’s grace, to the ordinary people who, often in quiet ways, show something of God’s loving grace and kindness to the world. Of course, the Daily Offices and the Mass are sanctifying but God does not restrict his sanctifying power to those who, let’s be honest, often by luck, are able to participate in the holy things of the Church. If, as St. Paul tells the Ephesians, God is an artist and we are his works of art (Eph. 2.10), then all people are masterpieces of that cosmic artist from whom all being and beauty flow. In often quiet and unrecognised ways a myriad people go about revealing the holiness and love and grace of God. In the midst of messy, complicated human lives, a little of the divine light shines out and illuminates the world. They are like fireworks who, although of incalculable diversity, each bear witness to a different aspect of the One who sets them alight. We see this in those named saints who we know and love: in Mary’s sacrificial love we see a glimpse of God’s love for us; in St. Joseph’s faithfulness to Jesus and Mary we begin to comprehend God’s faithfulness; and the list could go on, but God is also manifest in the lives of countless thousands who remain unnamed and who have touched our lives personally.

I think of the stories told about my great grandmother, Nora Herron, whose self-sacrificing, practical faithfulness to the Church, her family and to the Lord whom she loved with childlike simplicity of heart, bears witness to the God who created her and called her and in whose arms she will dwell for eternity. There are glimpses of holiness all around us, we need only open our eyes and see. I often think to myself that Nora’s daughter, my nana, Maureen, reveals something of the tender love of God when she prepares the altar for the Wednesday Mass on Tuesday evenings. With devotion and gentleness, she lays out the sacred vessels and prepares the cloths, ensuring everything is perfect, not with irritable fastidiousness but with pure love for the One for whose revealing this altar is prepared. Open your eyes and the holiness of God is alive in the world around us, as well as in that glorious company who surround our steps from heaven. It this vast innumerable company of which it is said ‘the world is not worthy’, they are strangers and sojourners in this world, although fully committed to it, as their true home is with God eternally and they reveal something of the world to which their citizenship belongs in the everyday comings and goings of their life.

There is no criteria of perfection to be a saint, so if we’re looking for perfect people as examples of living saints, we will be looking forever. Saints, living and departed, are those in whom God’s glory is manifest and visible: I would count my dearly departed great grandmother in their company, as well as countless others who have challenged, inspired and enkindled my faith by revealing something of God to me. We profess Sunday by Sunday that the essence of our faith is that God the Son took flesh in Jesus Christ, and he continues to become incarnate in his disciples today but, if we believe that the Son of God could be found in a stable, homeless in Nazareth or even on a cross, we must be prepared to look for those in whom he incarnates himself today in very unlikely places. In our local shop, in the homeless shelter, on the sofa next to us, and even, despite everything, in our churches.

May all the Saints, known and unknown, pray for us
That we to might be made worthy of the promises of Christ

Of your charity, dear reader, pray for the soul of Nora Herron, a practical saint.