by Sr Ann Catherine Swailes o.p.
The best piece of advice I ever received about how to preach – and this will please at least one person here this evening – was from a Jesuit. I’m ashamed to say I can recall neither his name – though I know he was American – nor much about the context – except that it was at an otherwise fairly unmemorable vocations event at the NEC in Birmingham – but I’ve never forgotten, and I hope I never will forget – his wise counsel. Every time you preach the gospel, he said, you should leave your listeners saying “that IS good news”.
It sounds obvious, insultingly obvious, perhaps, but it’s not always easy, particularly when confronted with a scripture passage like the one we have just heard. The picture painted here, after all, is not a pretty one, nor, at first sight, a comforting one: distress and perplexity, whole nations-full of people cowering in terror, huddled together in face of the raging elements, finally seeking shelter in oblivion, fainting away in fear as the world spins off into ever more radical instability: the very powers of heaven are shaken.
At the beginning of this Advent, in particular, we may find apocalyptic language disconcertingly, perhaps unprecedentedly resonant: a translation into image after disturbing image of the realities we see, or screen our eyes from, daily in the media. And if the wars and rumours of wars that oppress and wound our world at the moment are one particularly obvious – and potent – source of fear, there are others, too: more subterranean, more subtle, perhaps, more personal: the shaking of the heavens of our own lives that come upon all of us from time to time. The sufferings of loved ones that send shock waves through what feels like the very foundations of our faith; the ripping open of ancient wounds of rejection when a new relationship that seemed to hold out hope of healing falters, or a cherished academic or professional project lies in ruins; the paralysing fear we harbour of our incapacity truly to love or to inspire love in others.
There is so much for us to fear. And I suspect that we fail to recognise the good news our gospel tonight contains, precisely because we are so afraid. Fear can distort our perspective; snap shut on our rationality like a snare, leaving us imprisoned in our worst imaginings. It can deafen us to what is really being said, blind us to the words on the page. Because, of course, if we can quieten our pounding hearts for long enough to listen, we will realise that the picture painted here is not of violence and oppression, but the loosening of the yoke, the ushering in of peace. Stand, and hold your heads high, because your liberation is at hand.
There will be signs, we are told, in the sun and the moon and the stars – and perhaps the very reticence of the text here makes it all the more alarming: as when, in a sermon on the last judgement I once heard, the preacher declined to go into Dantean detail about the infernal torments awaiting the impenitent, contenting himself instead with a whispered “let’s just say, it won’t be very nice”. In a similar vein, we might wonder: just what are these signs in sun and moon and stars?
Things are bad enough already, in our world, perhaps in my family, perhaps in my psyche: how much worse will it get, before it gets better?
If these are our thoughts when confronted with this passage, and I suspect for many of us they may be, I suggest there is one still deeper fear from which we need to be liberated, and the text itself holds the clue. In the account we have just heard from St Luke’s gospel, the details are sparse, but the other evangelists flesh it out. St Mark, for instance, speaks of the sun and moon not giving their light; the stars falling from the skies. From the fear filled perspective we habitually inhabit, it’s terrifying stuff: but is this the only possible perspective?
Some of the Fathers of the Church at least suggest not: they see, in the uncharacteristic behaviour of the heavenly bodies not a nightmarish unmaking of the world, a descent into chaos, but a kind of cosmic liturgy: the sun dimming its rays in deference to the Light of the World on his triumphal progress; the stars prostrate in adoration before their creator; the heavens, we might suggest, shaking not with terror, but with the song of the redeemed.
It’s a different vision; a vision in which awe and worship begins to edge out horror; but we might still be afraid; seeing in talk of standing before the Son of Man not an invitation but a threat. In the shadowy corners of many of our hearts, perhaps, there lurks the profoundest of all fears: the fear of God, or, rather, the fear of our image of God, compounded perhaps, of forgotten traumas and deathly memories. A fear, ultimately, that God is not on our side, that we are the object not of his love, but of his contempt, and that there is, therefore, no hope for us. Can we gain strength from our gospel tonight to cast away that dream of darkness? I think, if we remember who it is who is talking here, maybe we can. Because it is, of course, our Lord Himself, days before his death, calling himself the Son of Man. When have we heard this phrase on his lips before, in self-description?
Has his ever been the voice of an absolute monarch commanding his subjects with no regard for their fragile subjectivity? No: the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. Has it ever been the voice of one who seeks to humiliate, to crush, to annihilate? No, the Son of Man came to seek out that which was lost and restore poor, wounded, lonely humanity to its place in his heavenly Father’s heart.
There is only one Jesus. The Jesus describing his return in glory here is the Jesus of Bethlehem and Calvary; the Jesus who comes to us in the silence and humility of Holy Communion; the Jesus who when he comes in judgement still bears the scars he sustained out of love for us, the God who is so much on our side that he steps into our world and makes of our fleshly fragility a dwelling place for divinity. We are so afraid. We are all of us, so afraid. But perfect love, the love that brings Christ to his birth and his death, casts out fear, replacing it with the hushed wonder of the shepherds at the manger, the bystanders at the cross and in the garden of resurrection, the very powers of heaven themselves.
This IS good news. God news for our shaken world, our tormented souls, the restless heart of humanity. It is good news. Come, Lord Jesus.