Advent: "Seeing Visions"

The Revd Brutus Green

In times past there have been visions of how society should be and what the ideal life of men and women would be. Medieval times saw society as a scala naturae, a great chain of being, stretching from God through the divisions of the angels and humans, then through the animal kingdom finally down to rock, at the bottom of the chain with no greater claim than bare existence. Humanity has its own chain of hierarchy with the King (or queen) at the top and someone like Baldric at the bottom. In the New Year I am commissioning Kids’ Club to create a pictorial representation of the Great Chain of Being in St John’s. I will be accepting donations after the service to secure a high ranking.

It’s essentially conservative. The man or woman here should, above all, accept and best occupy the position life has given them. The wicked are those who in their family, in society or in nature claw their way up the ladder. So the medieval poet Dante puts Judas, Brutus and Cassius in the very mouth of the devil, at the very lowest part of Hell, reserved for traitors, and especially those who betray God, father and king.

But Brutus, the medieval villain is the hero of republicans and those who oppose dictatorship; the hero of the revolution. If we consider the socialist visions of the nineteenth and twentieth-century Brutus is the man you need. Violence is required, a little realpolitik. The basis of these visions was usually the principles of fairness and equality - that by eliminating private property the age old advantages of the privileged few, with the miseries of the masses, would pass. The idealised human of these visions was the dignified industrial worker, with cap, overalls and shovel. Those counter-revolutionaries who find these visions of burly men and head-scarfed women working side by side terrifying will no-doubt be delighted that today’s Left seems to be headed by Russell Brand. Comrades, your private property is safe!

The other twentieth-century vision of humanity looked for a purified tribe. Immigration was more than a concern. It was eliminated along with all defects, disabilities and alternative lifestyles. Traditional roles for men and women and a celebration of the national folk character were characteristic of Fascist countries. Intellectualism and creativity lost out to bold militarism. The idealised human wore a uniform.

Advent is traditionally a time to reflect on the state of our souls and how things will look if Jesus returns. Tonight’s carol service is themed on the book of Revelation which gives a particularly frightening and violent vision of the last days. So, as Christianity and the world has moved on since Dante had Satan chewing my namesake, there’s good reason to consider our vision of society and the individual soul.

The first obvious thing of note in how Christianity describes the end times is that it is a revolution - a fundamental and complete, everlasting change; which is partly to note that as it stands, things aren’t right. Isaiah describes a time of total conversion, when all the nations will stream to the house of God. St Paul in the letter to the Romans gives the revolutionary call, “It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep… the night is far gone, the day is near.” Our Gospel is eerily reminiscent of the worst regimes of twentieth century history, the horrors of dictatorships in Europe, Asia and Latin America, with disappearances and the fear of when they will come for you, concluding with a call for readiness when the Day of the Lord comes.

The second thing to note is that Christians look to a final vision of justice and peace. The Lord brings about a final arbitration between all people and the resolution is peace - that ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more’. It’s peace but it’s also social - it imagines a perfectly ordered world where injustice and deprivation are no more.

Finally, it is to be achieved through a trial of our character and resolve. Isaiah finishes calling us to ‘walk in the light of the Lord’. St Paul insists that we ‘live honourably as in the day’, that we ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ’; while the Gospel reminds us to ‘Keep awake’ and ‘be ready’, for the ‘unexpected hour’.

Well, brothers and sisters. The big news is that the hour is come.

The question is: are you a wise or a foolish virgin?

I notice that not many of your eyes immediately turned to the back of the church to see if Jesus himself was about to make an entrance. The vicar has not in fact ordered the doors to be locked so we can prepare for Armageddon. Neither, as you can see, has Margaret raptured away safely into the heavens so you understand that I’m not declaring that the world is actually about to end.

Jesus says today that ‘about that day and hour no one knows’. Christianity likes to paint big pictures and so often this is described as a final battle, a scourging of the earth and the kind of end of the world that Hollywood loves. Every generation has its apocalypse though. The book of Revelation gives us a taste of the violence of the persecutions of Nero and Domitian. When 9/11 happened the headline in the Daily Mail the next day was ‘APOCALYPSE’. Previous generations may have felt similar 50 years ago when Kennedy was shot, or when during the Cuban missile crisis Khrushchev wrote to Kennedy declaring that the US blockade was "an act of aggression propelling human kind into the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war". The two former generations felt the brutal reality of apocalyptic global wars.

But equally each life has its own apocalypse, no matter how quiet. We all face our mortality - the inevitability of death and taxes and the physical and spiritual battles involved in the destruction of the flesh.Now I began by talking about our social vision and how we see the life of the individual. Unlike the pope, it would be disingenuous for me to complain too much about consumerism, the fetish for everlasting youth and capitalism. Between Taylor Swift albums and second hand books I’m doing my bit for the economy. I am also turning twenty six for the last time in a couple of months. Next year I’ve decided I can no longer put off aging. In 2015 I’m finally turning 27. And, as much as our culture does love youth, it also hides death. The Western ideal person is sixty but looks twenty; is riddled with diseases and hypochondria but is kept healthy and happy with a plethora of drugs; lists shopping as a hobby for things that make him look thinner and younger; and has never seen a corpse.

I first saw a corpse a few years back when I spent a day learning about funeral directors. I saw a a couple beautifully laid out in chapels then headed down to the morgue where as luck would have it, the embalmer was at work. He was delighted to show us his work, demonstrating the damage done by an autopsy, pointing out various internal organs and showing us how to inject formaldehyde round the body to remove bruising. Afterwards the undertaker took us for lunch at McDonalds.

It is quite healthy to be more comfortable with the dead. I have been to more funerals than most now and have never seen an open casket funeral. I was talking to a group of people last week and none of them had seen a dead body. There is a danger that we come to believe that our lives are infinitely extendable and that we should live out a comfortable and pain-free life as of right. One of the striking things reading the Book of Common Prayer is the directness of the prayers about surviving the night. One of the only collects not to begin by addressing God is the final collect of Evensong: ‘Lighten our darkness, Lord, we pray, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night’. Nothing has done more to diffuse the near reality of terror and death than electricity. It will doubtless come as a shock and we will be significantly unprepared when our apocalypse strikes, but it will.

I say this with a full awareness that a proper comprehension of this takes time, a lifetime. I was born with a sense that life was just about to begin and seem to have carried it with me. It seems always that it is next year that I will be finally settled, or will finally take my place in society as a responsible adult. It is perhaps okay to play a slow game with this. But in between the Christmas celebration moments, Advent does give a chance each year to reflect that: yes - December is here again, yes we are a year older and amid the parties, the long nights and the cold, we never know who is the one that is to be taken and who the one left will be. A sobering thought amid the mulled wine, but one that might leave us better prepared when End Times finally come.

Having spoken of social visions, you are all invited to come round to Archery Close on Tuesday to discuss Boris’s. Of which as a foretaste I will advise that greed may well be good for the economy but it is not for us. It is imperative that as wise serpents we outdo these greedy fellows, stripping their funds and assets to pay for our own worthy causes. See, he has set them in the slippery places. I was also struck by one of his leading metaphors: “The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.” The prospect of an apocalypse is a great shaking of the packet. Unlike that Medieval Great Chain of Being you need not accept the life the world has given you. And, for all of us Cornflakes, this Advent season gives us the chance to prepare ourselves for the inevitable rise to the top,to the Holy Mountain of peace and perfect justice. Amen.