Dies Irae and the death of King Arthur
Advent SundaySaint Matthias’
Sermon at Saint matthias’ Church, Killiney, Co Dublin on 27th November 2005
“At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.
Back in the summer, Michael went on an expedition to find King Arthur.We went to Caerleon in Wales, and Glastonbury and South Cadbury in Somerset, and to Tintagel in Cornwall.I reflected at the time on Arthur as being a leader who tried to hold onto the benefits of the Roman Empire for Britain and thought how important Roman civilisation had been in the history of the church.
Of course, when I was a kid, I wasn’t a bit interested in civilisation, Roman or otherwise.I liked Arthur because he was a hero.I grew up with magical stories which transformed toe countryside around where I lived.The landscape of gentle hills and flat moorland became the scene for extraordinary happenings.Looking out my bedroom window towards Glastonbury Tor, I could almost see Arthur and his knights galloping along the ridge of the hills.
When we were there at the end of June, Glastonbury was full of people who had just spent three days in the mud at the pop festival; they didn’t smell the best!If we had travelled there in medieval times, we would have found a thriving community centred around the huge and immensely wealthy abbey.The abbey attracted thousands of pilgrims every year who believed the legends about Joseph of Arimathea travelling there with the cup that was used at the Last Supper.
But I had no interest in the real history of the place, what fascinated me was the traditions that concerned Arthur.Arthur was the king of the Britons; the leader who fought for light and truth against the darkness and evil of the Saxon invaders.There were stories of Arthur and the beautiful Guinevere; the brave Lancelot; Gawaine, who had strange encounters; and all the other knights of the Round Table.There was the story of the great sword, Excalibur; and, most exciting of all, there were the stories of Merlin the magician.
I loved stories of the supernatural when I was young.When people claimed to have heard the sound of horses and armed men in the dead of night; when there were claims that someone had met with the wizard Merlin, it was no surprise.There was one story that Arthur and his men were not dead, but only sleeping.One day, when the hour was right, they would again ride forth from the hillside where they slept and bring liberty and justice to the country.
Much as I loved those stories, in my heart I never believed them.Last summer, I stood in the great hill fort at South Cadbury looking out over the countryside around; there was no doubt, Arthur was dead.The words and the pictures from my childhood had been wonderful, but they were not true.
When we come to this season of Advent, I suspect there are many people who think about God in the way that I thought about King Arthur; the stories and the pictures in the mind are full of vivid colour and powerful images, but they are not seen as the truth.
The medieval pictures of the Dies Irae, the Day of Wrath, the great judgment day, may have terrified people of former generations, but they no longer have the impact they had in times past.
The words of Jesus in Mark 13 would have inspired many artists to see God’s Advent in the most terrifying of terms. On repeated occasions Jesus talks about the coming judgment as a disaster falling from heaven.’At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.’
Some of the greatest artists of former centuries, the foremost among them being Hieronymus Bosch, painted great canvases with the Last Judgment depicted in lurid detail.People going to art galleries now and looking at the work of Bosch and others would no more take them as a prophecy of the truth, than they would take stories of Arthur and his men riding from the hillside as a realistic prospect.
We can read James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ and almost smile as poor Stephen Dedalus, the central character, listens to the Jesuit preacher striking fear into the hearts of teenage boys with visions of hell.
What then do we make of Advent?Amongst all the activity leading up to Christmas, what do we make of the Lord coming in judgment?
As in the parables, Jesus uses Jewish ideas and stories to make his point.The words of Isaiah would have been familiar to him,
‘Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you’
Jesus wasn’t the only person telling stories like this; there were other wandering preachers threatening people with impending doom and disaster.There was no shortage of terrifying words to prompt fear and trembling in the hearts of listeners.
But Jesus uses this language, he conjures up these pictures in people’s minds, not to frighten people, but to tell them about God.The season of Advent is a season not of terror, not of fear, but of justice.
If we believe in justice, then, I think, we have to believe in judgment.If God is to be a God who means anything, then he must be a God who keeps his word.Time and time again throughout the Bible he promises justice for his people; but how shall there be justice, if there is no judgment?
If at the end Mother Theresa and Adolf Hitler both receive the same reward, then what meaning or purpose is there in Scripture or in the whole of God’s dealings with his people?Why would we try to lead good and faithful lives if our actions have no consequence?
Advent must be much more than a recalling of old traditions and stories, this is not King Arthur with whom we are dealing, it is the Most High God.
“At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory”.Jesus is promising that there is meaning in life, that there is a purpose in what we do.Jesus is promising that there will be Last Day, not in order that we might be terrified, but so that we might believe that God is a God of justice.
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