“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour .” Matthew 24:44
Do we see outer things and fail to see their inner meanings?
One November Thursday in Dublin two years ago, I was due to take part in a service at civil service offices south of Saint Stephen’s Green at 5 pm. It was a grey November day and I thought I might have sat in Saint Stephen’s Green and read for half an hour before going to the service. I had forgotten it would be dark by 4.30, and the Green would be very firmly closed. Reaching the top of Grafton Street, the options for passing the time were limited.
People used to talk about being brought to Grafton Street when they were young to look in the shop windows at Christmas time; there would be little now to capture a child’s imagination. Uninclined to head back into the crowds and the Green, beyond the Fusiliers’ Arch, in darkness, Elvery’s Rugby shop was one of the few nearby options.
The shop was busy. Munster colours were in strong evidence, along with the green of the Irish national side, the blue of Leinster and the white of Ulster; there were even a good number of Connacht shirts. The search for a colour to lift the November greyness seemed, though, to be in vain.
An assistant came over, probably worried at a middle aged cleric wandering aimlessly in her shop. “Can I help you?”
“A Bayonne shirt? I have seen Biarritz colours in here and wondered whether you might have one for Aviron Bayonnais”.
“They are over at the door. At least, they were. I’m not sure if there are any left”.
She led the way towards a rack of shirts that was like an album of holiday photographs; the Catalan colours of Perpignan, the black of Dax; the red and white of Biarritz Olympique; and, on the front left, the colours of an August day, the sky blue and white of Bayonne.
Leaving the shop, the evening seemed not so bleak. The Shelbourne Hotel shone brightly and the cast iron street lamps looked like something from Dickens. Homeward bound office workers had a jauntiness in their step as I passed Loreto on the Green.
Getting home, the bag was unwrapped as swiftly as a parcel in the first light of Christmas morning. The Bayonne shirt has become something I hold in great affection; it has been worn to matches, even to Galway to watch Bayonne play Connacht in October
Is it about a rugby shirt? Of course not, it’s about all the memories that go with it, it’s about all that it symbolises. About summer holidays and travelling through France and hot sunshine and balmy evenings and about getting away from everything.
When we come to this season of Advent, there is a danger of looking at the symbols and failing to see beyond them. It is because we have not seen beyond the symbols, that we have lost a sense of what Advent is about.
The words of Jesus in Matthew 24 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. “For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man .”
The medieval pictures of the Dies Irae, the Day of Wrath, the day of Doom, the great judgment day, may have terrified people of former generations, but they no longer have the impact they had in times past. 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 go to art galleries now and look at the work of Bosch and others and they look at it as art it is not seen as a prophecy of the truth, as it would have been in former centuries..
We can read James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ and almost smile as poor Stephen Dedalus, the central character, sits in the chapel at Clongowes School and 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? It is important to see beyond the symbols.
As in the parables, Jesus uses Jewish ideas and stories to make his point. The words of Isaiah would have been familiar to him, “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains ”
Jesus wasn’t the only person telling stories like this; there were other wandering preachers threatening people with impending doom and disaster; it would have been like Ulster on a Sunday in the 1980s. There was no shortage of terrifying words to prompt fear and trembling in the hearts of listeners.
But Jesus uses these symbols, he 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 a season 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 is a time for seeing beyond the symbols to the truth behind them. “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” 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 a Last Day, not in order that we might be terrified, but so that we might believe that God is a God of justice, and to believe in justice means to prepare for justice.
“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” We must see beyond the symbols.