It was more years ago than I care readily to admit, but I can still remember vividly the morning of my ordination to the diaconate. Thirty of us had been in silent retreat over the weekend, and now, released from silence, we were chattering noisily if nervously over breakfast. The archdeacon in charge of us, who appeared to be enjoying his moment of glory, got to his feet and cleared his throat.
“There are,” he said, “just a few last things.”
The bishop looked up.
“I think you’ll find there are four,” he said, and went back to his cornflakes. He was, I suspected, beginning to get just a little fed up with the archdeacon.
The interesting thing was that even in those palmy, far-off days when we like to think the church preached the faith and everything was simply divine, not every one got the joke. Even then it was a long time since the church had been expected to spend Advent talking about classic four last things — death, judgment, heaven, and hell.
Of course we ought to have got the joke. We had spent most of the weekend in a chapel with Our Lord’s word from the Revelation to John carved above the altar in plain sight: Etiam venio cito æ“Surely I come quickly” (22:20). Shouldn’t that have put us in mind of death, judgment, heaven and hell?
Or perhaps the truth was, we didn’t really believe it?
Actually, to be fair to us, we could surely have been forgiven if we’d wondered whether whoever put it there really believed it, either. If they’d believed it, wouldn’t they have scratched it hastily onto the stone, or daubed it there quickly with a bit of paint, or scribbled it onto newsprint? As it was, the letters were two feet high and several inches deep, carved in solid marble. Whatever the words might say, those letters were made to last. Whatever the Oxford Latin Dictionary may claim, whoever carved them clearly did not think the word cito meant “fast” or even “soon.”
Or did they?
“Blessed is he who comes,” we say day by day at the Eucharist. And so we have been saying, give or take a decade or so, for two millennia. Of whom do we speak? Of the Christ, certainly, if we speak with those who spoke in the gospel. It is Christ who confronts us at the altar.
But then, where does Christ not confront us? From whom do I turn away, and I do not turn away from Christ? Benedictus qui venis! wrote Dante in the Purgatorio, “Blessed art thou that comest!”æand then spoke of the coming of Beatrice, through whom and in whom he saw the divine glory. That is what we must all say of whomever and whatever shows us the glory: “Blessed art thou that comest!”
Does a day go by in which, if I am honest, I must not admit that my judge has come to me, face to face, with mercy and justice?
There is, to be sure, grief and meaninglessness in the world—and most of it put there by human ingenuity or cruelty. Let us never underestimate the horror we can cause—to our neighbors, to humankind, to the planet, if we are cruel enough or greedy enough or simply do not have enough imagination to understand what we are doing. “For I reckon,” St. Paul wrote, “that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us”—but he did not say that the sufferings themselves were not real. African Americans survived slavery and lynching and Israel survived the holocaust: but that does not mean that those things were not horrific. Our Lord rose from the dead, but that does not mean that the crucifixion—his crucifixion and all crucifixion—was not horrific. Grace triumphs over evil, but that does not mean that evil is not evil. One reason why many of us (me included) find it hard to come to terms with Shakespeare’s King Lear, and why we need to, is that it presents to us without compromise a social order in which all human decency has been abandoned, and refuses to offer any possibility of reconciliation or hope in that abandonment. What we choose is what we get. As Archbishop Rowan Williams has recently reminded us, “at some point, even the most confident faith (whether in humanity or in God) has to be honest about what is utterly unresolved in human experience, what cannot be made sense of (if making sense means showing why it’s a good thing really).”
But even when we have said all that, our faith and hope remain that grace does triumph over evil, and destruction and death do not and cannot have the last word. Amid the horrors of racism and slavery there were those African-Americans who held fast to their hope in Jesus Christ. Amid the horrors of the holocaust there were those who died with the Shema upon their lips. Amid the horror of the crucifixion there was Our Lord’s prayer for those who crucified him.
All of which is to say to say that when we have admitted that the evils that confront us in life—the evils that we create for each other—are real, we must also confess there is something else that confronts us if we will see it—even now, even in the midst of grief: there is the divine glory. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as Gerard Manly Hopkins said, and today as in the beginning,
the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Or again, as another poet, Francis Thompson, has it,
Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars!—
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.
The angels keep their ancient places;—
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
’Tis ye, ’tis your estranged faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.
So what, then, is our Advent hope?
“Surely I come quickly,” our Lord saysæand surely he comes more quickly than we realize, even though the word is in front of us, carved in marble, and in letters two feet high. Yet what we remember especially on this first Sunday in Advent, or at any rate what we ought to remember, is that even this presence of Immanuel, God with us now, is not the end or the final promise.
There is something more.
In the end, the marble will crumble — even those wonderful marble letters made to last for centuries will come to dust. Nations, empires, planets, galaxies, and the universe itself will vanish.
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve . . .
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
And what of human greatness?
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
No one has said these things better than Shakespeare and Kipling in their different ways, though for those who want dominical authority our Lord said it too, and for those who want evidence the physicists will spell out more of the details.
Then we shall fall into the hands of the living God, which is, as the writer to the Hebrews said, “a fearful thing,” but which is also, as a famous British biblical scholar used to say, a good deal less fearful than the alternative.
Then God will judge us.
Some call it the Great Assize, or Judgment, and such language reverts directly to the name by which we call this entire season, “Advent,” and the Latin and Greek words that lie behind it (adventus, parousia—words meaning “presence,” “arrival,” “visitation”). These terms were a part of the rhetoric of imperial Rome. They were used of an emperor’s official visitation to a city or province, when he would (among other things) do justice.
So what will God’s doing justice be like?
Of course the biblical language about this, and all language about it, is metaphorical. What other language could we use of that which we do not yet know? But on the basis of Christ’s first coming, I think we may safely say at least two things about his final coming to us.
God in Christ will judge us by the standard of divine love, and by that standard we shall stand condemned.
God in Christ will judge us by the standard of divine love, and through that love we shall be saved.
And what shall we have to offer in return?
We shall, please God, have our tears, which are the signs of contrition, and our prayers and our desire to be prayed for, which are the signs that we acknowledge our dependence upon God.
Through tears and prayers God can work in us, until at last we will be able to say with blessed Mary, “Behold the Lord’s handmaid, let it be to me according to your Word.”
When we can say that and mean it joyfully, as she did, then we shall be ready to raise our eyes to the throne, and to enter the joy of the Kingdom.
When we can say that, and mean it joyfully, then we shall be ready to respond to our Lord’s promise: “Surely I come quickly.”
“Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”