More from The Portal, this time for Advent...
|Christ 'with clouds descending', from the Doom painting|
at Wenhaston, Suffolk
cheeks fair of colour,
wealthy and needy, Father and Brother,
maker of brothers,
this, sure, is Jesus, whom we should we welcome
as Lord of rulers,
lofty and lowly, Emmanuel,
honey to think on.
(Madawg ap Gwallter, 13th century Welsh Franciscan friar)
A group of Christian leaders recently met in an African country (I won’t say which) to put together a response to the threat of Ebola. The outcome included a statement that this terrifying illness was likely to be a punishment from God for their people’s immoral behaviour (again I won’t go into details. You can probably guess.) So, is this the God, Emmanuel, whom we prepare to welcome - for whose sake we’re buying gifts for each other and untangling last year’s fairy lights? The punitive judge? (who, one might add, seems not to make a very good job of it: one of the horrors of Ebola is the apparently indiscriminate way it strikes.)
Well, it is indeed Advent, when we think of the Four Last Things; and they include Judgment. Perhaps the question is rather, who is the judge? How are we judged? There is a clue in the Gospel: we will look into the eyes of our Father and Brother and realise where we have, and have not, encountered him in the hungry, the naked and imprisoned. And he will often have been in less attractive guises than the baby in the manger.
‘Where is God?’ is the question that has resounded from hospital wards, concentration camps and the silence of broken hearts over the years. Enthroned impassively on high, or here in the mess? We meet Emmanuel in the outcast, the scapegoat; the African child’s body drenched in disinfectant and thrown into a hastily-dug grave; the person too weak to live the life of heroism seemingly demanded of them, and the one who in loneliness and hidden grief strives to live by the Church’s teaching and sometimes fails. Emmanuel, who even in great mediaeval Doom paintings ‘comes with clouds descending’, yet naked and wounded: human. In some ways, because of that, an even more fearful judge… ‘Lord, when did we see you?’
How then does this vulnerable and broken Emmanuel save us from all for which we fear being judged? What’s the Good News? I teach a class on Patristic spirituality, and what I long for most is that the students will catch some of the excitement, the life-or-death power, the saving wonder of those early declarations of faith. For example, the Council of Chalcedon: ‘one and the same is truly Son of God and truly son of man… A lowly cradle manifests the infancy of the child; angels’ voices announce the greatness of the Most High.’ Life-giving paradoxes echoed in the Welsh poem above. Christ is, in the words of St Leo the Great, ‘totus in suis, totus in nostris’ (complete in what is his, complete in what is ours). We find him in suffering, our own and others’, and he knows even more clearly than we do what the depths of human despair can be; and in that suffering he overcomes, redeems, raises us with him to new life and to share in his divinity. Only he can save; only he can judge - thank God.
As the then Cardinal Ratzinger preached at the start of the Conclave which was to elect him Pope: ‘Jesus Christ is divine mercy in person: to encounter Christ is to encounter the mercy of God.’ Honey to think on.