Sunday, 23 November 2008

The Kingship of Christ and the Judgment of the Nations

Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican

Patrick Comerford

Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, Dublin: Sunday 23 November 2008:

The Sunday before Advent, the Kingship of Christ
Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1: 15-23; Matthew 25: 31-46.

May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.


I think it’s a sign of getting older that every year I think Christmas is coming earlier and earlier.

Despite the economic gloom and doom that we are all surrounded with at the moment, Dublin City Centre is alive all day and well into the night, with shops and streets decorated and an effort by the city council and the traders to breath a festive air into our lives.

And it’s happening everywhere … I’ve stopped counting the number of snowmen I’ve received on Facebook … they started arriving weeks ago.

We all look forward to Christmas … it’s holiday time, it’s family time, it’s a time for gifts and presents, for meeting and greeting, for family meals.

In every Church, we’ll see more people coming through the doors than at any other time of the year. People love the Carols, the tradition, the good will and the good feelings we get from even just thinking about Santa Claus and the elves, the tree and the lights, the crib and the Baby Jesus.

Even the most secular of revellers will admit, without much compulsion, that Christ is at the heart of Christmas, and that waiting for Christ, anticipating Christ, should be at the heart of the Advent season, which begins next Sunday.

But we forget that so easily. I hear on all the radio chat shows people already talking about this being the Christmas Season … before Advent has even started.

Advent is the season of preparation for Christmas, and in the weeks beforehand we even prepare for Advent itself, with Bible readings in Church telling us about the Coming of Christ.

We have made Christmas a far-too comfortable story. It was never meant to be, but we have made it comfortable with our Christmas card images of the sweet little baby Jesus, being visited by kings and surrounded by adoring, cute little animals.

The reality, of course, is that Christmas was never meant to be a comfortable story like that.

Christmas is a story about poverty and people who are homeless and rejected and who can find no place to stay. It’s a messy story about a child born surrounded by the filth of animals and the dirt of squalor. It’s a story of shepherds who are involved in dangerous work, staying up all night, out in the winter cold, watching out for wolves and sheep stealers. It is a story of trickery, deceit and the corruption of political power that eventually leads to a cruel dictator stooping to murder, even the murder of innocent children, to secure his own grip on power.

But those sorts of images don’t sell many Christmas Cards or help to get the boss drunk under the mistletoe at the office party.

That’s why in the weeks before Advent we have had a series of readings reminding us about what the coming of Christ into the world means, what the Kingdom of God is like, and how we should prepare for the coming of Christ and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

This morning’s Gospel reading is a stark and challenging parable that forces us to ask what the coming of Christ, the second coming, will be like, and what Christ has to say to us about the way we live and the way we should be living in world today.

The division of people into sheep and goats is well known. We all constantly love to divide people into two groups, the insiders and the outsiders, us and them, friends and foes, Manchester United supporters and ABU fans. We do it all the time, and sheep and goats are a good short-hand term for what we do.

In the Palestine of Christ’s time, and even to this very day, throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, sheep and goats are often difficult to tell apart until they have been separated. And when it came to insiders and outsiders, the goats were definitely the insiders and the sheep the outsiders.

Goats are lively animals and very curious. They are happy living either in herds with other goats or by themselves, while sheep are more docile, easily led, and always stay in groups.

Sheep are greedier than goats – they are more likely to overeat than goats if they have access to more food than they need. Sheep are destructive grazers, while goats are browsers. This means sheep eat grass and other plants all the way down to the ground, while goats, on the other hand, despite popular misconceptions, simply nibble here and there, sampling a variety of bushes and leaves, chewing on a lot of things without actually eating them.

Goats are among the best climbers in the world: they almost never fall or slip, while sheep, on the other hand, are much less sure-footed and can easily fall and get stuck upside down. We all know the parable of the lost sheep, but the parable of the lost goat just wouldn’t have had the same resonance, would it? Sheep can and will stay out all night, and are more resilient in bad weather, which is why the shepherds on that first Christmas were out on the hillsides looking after their flocks. Goats on the other hand need warmth at night, so might even have been in the stable alongside the ox and the ass.

So: sheep are outsiders, goats are insiders. And what happens to the insiders and the outsiders in our parable this morning would have been a shocking end to the story for those who heard it told for the first time in the Eastern Mediterranean in the first or second century.

It’s a parable or story that is stark and so challenging that it has inspired many of the great works of art.

The first-known portrayal of the Last Judgment in Christian art is a beautiful sixth century mosaic in the Cathedral of Saint Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (above). It shows a seated Christ flanked by two large Byzantine-style angels. To Christ’s right are three perky-looking sheep and balanced on his left are three more-sober goats.

Fra Angelico’s Last Judgment (ca 1425) is now in the Museum of San Marco in Florence. Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, in the Sistine Chapel in the heart of the Vatican (1534-1541), caused controversy because of its famous muscular, beardless Christ. And there were countless Doom walls throughout English mediaeval churches, on the inside, Western or back wall. It is a traditional image that is still popular in some Greek churches.

But, because of Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, and other great artists, we often see this story of the Last Judgment as a story about individual judgment and individual condemnation, when that is not how it was first told.

The story opens with Christ coming again in glory, sitting on his throne, and the nations gathered before him. It’s not atomised, isolated individuals who are gathered before the throne of Christ: it’s the nations, all the nations that are assembled and asked these very searching questions.

These are questions that are directly related to the conditions that surrounded that first Christmas; questions that directly challenge us as to whether we have taken on board the values of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5: 3-11; Luke 6: 20-31); questions that ask whether we really accept the values Christ proclaimed at the very start of his ministry when he spoke in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4: 13-29).

These are questions posed to us not just as individuals and as Christians, but they are also questions that are put to the nations, to all of the nations (πάντα τὰ ἔθνη), each and every one of them. The word ethnos is used in the Bible to refer to a tribe, nation, people, group, especially foreign nations that were not Jewish.

And that is where Christ comes into the world, both at Christmas and at the second coming, with the Kingdom of God. At his birth, the old man in the Temple, Simeon, welcomes him as the light for revelation to the nations (φῶς εἰς ἀποκάλυψιν ἐθνῶν), a light to the nations (Luke 2: 32).

Which nations on earth, at this very moment, would like to be judged by how enlightened they are, to be compared with the Kingdom of God when it comes to how each nation treats and looks after those the enthroned Christ identifies with himself: those who are hungry; those who are thirsty; those who are strangers and find no welcome on our shores; those who are naked, bare of anything to call their own in this world, or whose naked bodies are exploited for profit and pleasure; those who are sick, and left waiting on hospital trolleys or on endless lists for health care because they cannot afford it; those who are imprisoned because they spoke out, or because they are from the wrong political or ethnic group, or they didn’t have the right papers when they arrived at Dublin Airport as refugees seeking asylum?

When did we ever see Christ in pain on a trolley in Tallaght hospital or being mistreated at passport control in Dublin airport? But as long it was done in the name of our nation, we did it to Christ himself.

This college, Saint Columba’s College, was founded by some of the key figures in the Oxford Movement, including the Revd William Sewell (1804-1874), a friend of Pusey and Newman. The very architecture of this chapel reflects the aesthetic values of that movement, also seen in the chapel of Keble College, Oxford.

This afternoon, today’s Feast of Christ the King is being marked in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, with a special celebration of the 175th anniversary of the Oxford Movement. On a few recent occasions in the cathedral, the Dean, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, has reminded us that the Oxford Movement was about worshipping God in the beauty of holiness, and bringing that beauty into those parts of the world where there was no beauty, to bring light and beauty into places of darkness and squalor in the world.

The people who continued in the traditions of the Oxford Movement, worshipping God in the beauty of holiness, people like the slum priests in the East End of London, and some of the finest missionaries to be sent out from the Church of Ireland, were less concerned with ritual than with giving those who were on the margins of society, in squalor and in the slums, hope that the Kingdom of God was for them too, that it was especially for them. Their hard-pressed flocks were, in the liturgy and in reality, being invited to sit on the right-hand side of the throne of God.

This college was founded in the hope that some of the pupils and students here would be fired by some of those values and priorities.

As we prepare for Christmas, yes we should be preparing to enjoy time with our families and friends, time for a good winter’s holiday. But let us also remember the reason we have Christmas, the reason Christ came into the world, and the reason he is coming again.

Yes, let’s look forward to seeing the Christ child in the crib and to singing about him in carols. But let us also look forward to seeing him in glory, and let us be prepared to see him in the hungry, the thirsty, the unwelcome stranger, those who are naked and vulnerable, those who have no provisions for health care, those who are prisoners, and those who have no visitors and are lonely and marginalised.

And now, may all we think, say and do be to the glory of God, Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This sermon was preached in Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, on Sunday 23 November 2008.