Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility, that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.
I talk about judgement today.
We wait for the coming of the Lord at Christmas. But the theme of Advent is more ominous than tidying up in expectation of the arrival of a guest. The theme is not simply preparing for the coming of the Lord at Christmas, but of preparing for the coming of the Lord at the end of time. We say ‘I believe … from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.’
Do we really believe that? Does this talk of judgement after death? Purgatory, in which we shall be cleansed, the dust beaten out of us like many of us used to beat the dust out of carpets? (Purgatory hasn’t been abolished … it’s limbo that was abolished). The trouble is that we’ve no evidence. Nobody has come back to tell us.
I think it trivializes heaven and hell and purgatory to think of them simply and solely as future states of reward and punishment. It leads to a score-keeping picture of a recording angel, like the school prefect standing by the school gate to see if we boys were wearing our caps as we trudged the mile or so in the rain from King Street bus stop. Bishop John Robinson said that heaven and hell were the same: ‘being with God for ever. For some that’s heaven, for some it’s hell.’ How does this fit with our ideas of heaven and hell?
I think we might look at judgement in a different way.
The story of the Garden of Eden, fig leaves, choices, scrumping, talking reptiles etc, paints a picture. It is NOT a picture of what actually happened at the beginning of time. Rather, it’s a picture of what happens all the time. It’s a picture of what happens every day, as we make choices based on pride and arrogance and selfishness. Of what happens when we cover up the truth that is in us, when we hide behind fig leaves of pride and arrogance and selfishness – when we, in the words of Psalm 17, become inclosed in our own fat.
In a similar way, I think of Biblical statements about judgement and heaven and hell not as advance coverage of future life, but rather as basic truths of this present life, here and now. More eminent theologians than I say that they are not about what happens at the end of time, rather they express religious meanings of what happens all the time.
Jesus is on record as saying that he has not come to judge the world, but to save it. There is no punishment meted out by the school prefect. ‘Punishment’ is the inevitable and natural consequence of our action. Just as we make our own choices, as we must decide between God (the way of love) and Mammon (the way of this world) ourselves, so we must take the inevitable consequences of our choices. Back to the Garden of Eden. We need to take responsibility for our actions. Sin, if you like, includes punishment as a natural and inevitable consequence. In other words, sin does indeed bring punishment, but that punishment comes from sin itself—the alienation and disintegration that follow. Imagine doing something that hurts someone else. Afterwards, perhaps, you begin to wish you hadn’t done it. You begin to feel shame. Then your heart hardens, you begin to twist the story in your own head so that it becomes the victim’s fault. You start to fear reprisals. You walk around with your head down, your eyes averted, you refuse to look people full in the face, you are constantly alert, in case you are being followed, ‘watchful for demons’. Paranoia sets in. None of this is punishment from God. It’s punishment from ourselves, it’s the consequence of our action.
It is we who judge ourselves.
I have no idea about what, if anything, happens after death. As I say, nobody has come back to tell me. Yet, I have this feeling that there will be some sort of reckoning at some time. And the sort of reckoning that I think most terrifying is that in which I find myself gazing into a mirror. When I shall see not as in a glass (mirror) darkly, but clearly, face to face. When I see the consequences of my actions. When I look back at them and see what effect they had on others and on myself. Looking into that mirror is something that we do every day. It is we who judge ourselves. All the time, not at the end of time. Past, present and future rolled into one.
The Lord called Abraham and the patriarchs to live by the light of faith and to journey in hope. The Lord called the Prophets to warn that actions have consequences. The Lord called Mary to put aside what she might have wanted for the sake of humanity. The Lord calls us to do all this, and to take stock. The Advent Sunday collect ‘give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light’ draws upon the words of St Paul: ’Now it is high time to wake out of sleep, for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Let us, therefore, cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light.’ There is some sense of urgency in this. The moment is critical because it depends on our decision now: do we, like Mary, say ‘let it be as you say’.
In the Litany we pray that we will be spared from ‘dying unprepared’ – that is, a death that comes before we have set right things that need to be set right. Here are some questions for us: What do we want to feel like when we’re on our deathbed? How do we want others to remember us? What do we need to do to set things right so that when we are confronted by that mirror and we see ourselves as we really are, we shall not be ashamed?