We crawl in as caterpillars and leave as butterflies
Liz Stuart, 25 October 2020
Nehemiah 8: 1–4a, 8–12; Colossians 3: 12–17; Matthew 24: 30–35
Bad joke coming up. I wonder if you can spell Armageddon. If not, don’t worry – it’s not the end of the world!
I wonder what you think, if you think at all, about the return of Christ in glory. On this Bible Sunday the Church asks us, through our gospel reading, to think about that. Throughout Christian history there have been those who have been obsessed (despite Jesus’ teaching that no one knows the day or hour), there have been people obsessed with pinpointing the day, if not the hour, of Jesus’ return in glory. And so far, they’ve all been wrong. So far.
My first parish priest wisely advised us that we could never know the hour of Christ’s return, but we knew for certain that at some point we each would meet the glorified Christ at our own death. To be well prepared for the latter is to be prepared for the former. So, he said, focus on that. Our reading from Colossians gives us guidance on how to be prepared for both those things: we must clothe ourselves only in love, let the peace of Christ rule our hearts, let his word dwell within us and we must be thankful. We should focus on seeking those things rather than obsessing on when Christ might return. If we do, we will be well prepared when he does.
St Bernard of Clairvaux argued that Christ comes to us in three ways. Christ comes to humankind as a fellow human being. Christ comes into humankind through the Holy Spirit and through the sacraments. He is present in every single person we meet and dwells deep within our hearts. Thirdly, Christ comes against humankind in judgement. You could certainly argue that we find ourselves in the second of these, awaiting the third. I want to suggest, however, that all three ‘advents’ are concurrent and collide in the Eucharist which we celebrate each week.
Christ is present in every single person we meet and dwells deep within our hearts.
Jesus tells his disciples that ‘this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place’. What happened in that generation, according to the gospel of St Matthew, is that:
- a sign– a star – appeared in heaven to guide the magi to a child in Bethlehem
- Jesus was encompassed by the clouds of heaven as his glory shone in the Transfiguration
- his power as the true king was revealed before the powerlessness of Pilate
- angels appeared to announce his birth and to roll away his gravestone
- the trumpet, the shofar – which is the voice of God, according to the book of Exodus – was heard at Jesus’ baptism and at his Transfiguration
- and Jesus offered salvation to all peoples from all nations.
Why do the tribes of the earth mourn at the appearance of the Son of Man in power and glory? Perhaps for the same reason that the people mourn when the Law is read to them by Ezra. Perhaps they feel convicted by it, under its judgement. But Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites tell the people to stop mourning and to keep a feast, because judgement is never the last word that God speaks. The last word is always grace. So why do Jesus’ people mourn? Perhaps because they know that his light exposes our darkness. Or perhaps because they realise that the power and the glory of the Son of Man is intimately bound up with his suffering and death; they cannot be separated.
Nehemiah tells the people to stop mourning and to keep a feast, because judgement is never the last word that God speaks. The last word is always grace.
Every week we come here to celebrate the Eucharist, which is the three comings of Christ. It is the sacramental extension of the Incarnation. Jesus transposes himself into bread and wine through which he enters into our being, opening our eyes to his presence in others and in the life around us. Through the Eucharist we remind ourselves of his sacrificial death. And every Eucharist places us under judgement because it forces us to face up to the fact that, like the chap at the wedding feast, we’ve failed to clothe ourselves in love.
But that’s not the last word. This is the feast of the kingdom, the feast of unconditional grace and mercy to which all are invited. We crawl into every Eucharist as caterpillars and we leave as butterflies, transformed once again by our encounter with the human, risen and glorified Christ, secure in the knowledge that, as Mother Julian of Norwich said, in God, ‘all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’, because the universe rests in the strong but gentle arms of a loving God whose words of forgiveness, healing and love will never pass away.
We do not need to look beyond a few days to encounter Christ in his Incarnation, death, resurrection and return in glory. It’s all here, every week. For you, for me, for everyone. Amen.