“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory” Luke 21:37
I grew up here in Somerset hearing the legends of King Arthur. I grew up with magical stories which transformed the countryside around here. Our 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.
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.
When we come to this season of Advent, I suspect there are many people who think 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 judgement 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 Saint Luke Chapter 21 would have inspired many artists to see God’s Advent in the most terrifying of terms. On repeated occasions Jesus talks about the coming judgement as a disaster falling from heaven. “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great 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 Irish writer 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 this story of the Lord coming in judgment?
In the parables, Jesus uses Jewish ideas and stories to make his point.The words of Jeremiah would have been familiar to him,”‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” Jesus wasn’t the only person talking about the days being fulfilled, talking about the Lord coming in power and glory; 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 justice. This season of Advent is a season not of terror, not of fear, but of justice. Belief in justice demands a belief in a day of reckoning. 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 the Christian message? Why 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. “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great 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 so that we might believe that there is justice.