Heaven, Hell, Death and Judgement. Not very jingle bells, is it?
‘The Four Last Things’ are traditional themes of Advent: Heaven, Hell, Death and Judgement. The four horsemen of the apocalypse. Bible readings in Church filled with florid images of the end of the World. Not very Jingle bells, is it?
Whilst Advent on Telly and on Oxford Street is all warm and tingly, the Church can feel more like a medieval wall painting or a Heavy Metal Goth(ic) Album Cover? So what are we supposed to make of this disconnect?
Let’s look a little closer in this View from St Giles’. When I was a school chaplain it was especially rewarding to look with people today (teenage Londoners in this case) at ancient aspects of the Christian faith, that could so easily be dismissed as unhelpful or just plain weird. But looked at faithfully and imaginatively, we discovered again and again that these ancient treasures are gifts for life today. They often turned out to be more life-giving and positive than our young people had first thought.
Perhaps that’s a good challenge for us in our age of sound bites, and judgment as quick as a scroll through a social media thread?
So, Advent does bring us the joy of the Baby Jesus. Perhaps some of us will be rushing around preparing celebrations for loved ones.
But we miss out on a wonderful gift if we simply whizz past The Four Last Things. Pausing to contemplate Heaven, Hell, Death and Judgment each year in Church and in our own prayers/meditation is to embrace a fabulous and rich thread of poetry and imagery from the final chapters of the Bible, St John’s Revelation.
So ‘trippy’ are these pages of the New Testament that Revelation nearly didn’t make the cut when the Canon of Scripture (The Bible, as we call it) was being formed in the early centuries of the Church.
If you’re already thinking I’m mad, stay with me! It’s a bold claim, I know, but to contemplate the end of me, us, and all things can be deeply liberating, and a source of joy.
When next you’re in St Giles’ find navigator John Speed’s memorial tucked behind John Milton’s statue on the South wall. He is holding a skull. Memento Mori. To live facing the fact that this life is finite was very important to our forebears. It needn’t be a source of fear or a threat. It can give us freedom and courage. It can be a source of gratitude and perspective.
Likewise, as your Rector I would encourage you to plan your funeral. Have a funeral (not a direct cremation like all those new TV ads suggest). I/we can help you. A society that does dying well is much more likely to live well too. By sweeping death under the carpet, we do each other a disservice. Instead, ask yourself what really matters to you, and how we might remember you with love and prayers; because we want to! Us human animals need to meet, mourn and remember. It’s essential for us – ‘esse’ meaning life, of course. It’s life-giving for us.
As a teenager I was a convinced atheist. To me, religious people’s lives seemed dishonest. Religion looked like a comfort blanket, soothing lies.
Now, I can’t see it like that at all, quite the opposite. It seems to me that living with faith is about not living a pretend life, but being truly alive and honest.
So to live Advent, in the context of The Four Last Things is to be honest about our finitude. To know that all life matters, and has meaning. And we can choose to live a life of purpose, a life that communicates the greater meaning of life. Love and judgement are two sides of the same coin when seen like this.
Judgment becomes not about condemnation but honesty and hope. Hell ceases to be a threat, and becomes a token of Christ’s victory over death and hell. ‘Death, where is thy sting? Grave, thy victory?’ Not a glib throw away, but a hard-won promise. To live life in the face of death, is to put death in its proper place – trampled down by the King of Love.
If this begins to make sense, great, join in.
If it doesn’t, come and see what we’re on about!
TS Eliot writes that ‘in our end is our beginning’ – all this apocalyptic imagery, all this talk of life and death is there to hold before us (like John Speed’s skull) the big questions of life. What are we for? What purpose has life?
We are living for the answer, and the answer is Love.
But it’s not a glib answer, not easy. We live towards it, waiting in the darkness of Advent. Perhaps, as another great modern Anglican poet R S Thomas wrote, ‘the meaning is in the waiting’
As a local community, our journeying and waiting through this season isn’t complete without you. Come to St Giles’ this Advent, look without blinking into the ‘deep but dazzling darkness’ of love, and live for the answer.
The Reverend Canon Jack Noble
Rector, St Giles Cripplegate
TS Eliot (1888-1965) ‘East Coker’, Four Quartets (Copyright Faber & Faber)
RS Thomas (1913-2000), ‘Kneeling’ (Copyright 2004, Bloodaxe Books Ltd)
Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), ‘The Night’