St Giles, Oxford, Evensong on Sunday 1st December 2019 [Advent 1]
The four weeks of Advent are a curious time in so many ways. As we perform the Church’s ritual of awaiting the birth, a birth that happened some 2020 years ago or so, we live in a world of Carol services and Christmas lights and acquisitive shopping entirely at variance with what is supposed to be a thoughtful, penitential season. We humans were in trouble, are in trouble and desperately need a saviour.
Readings oscillate between the joyously messianic:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings (Isaiah 52 :7), a passage I first remember from its being sung in a synagogue service, to the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel (Matthew 24:15), which refers to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, perhaps 38 years after Jesus’ death, one of the culminating disasters in the Jewish War against the Romans with implications which remain to this day influencing the development of Judaism and the formation of a distinct Christianity.
There are many strangenesses here. In the first case Jesus, presumably in Hebrew Joshua, was a Galilean Jew born to a young woman called Mary or in Hebrew Miriam. His life and his short ministry as a peripatetic preacher and healer can be understood in these terms. His radical teachings in favour of the poor and outcast and against the rich made enemies in the ambiance of the client king and especially when he crossed the frontier into Judea with the Temple authorities and the Roman ruling power leading to his execution, by worried authorities fearing a popular uprising during the freedom festival of Passover. Judaism was strongly sectarian, and though of course many Jews were unaffected, did not know about this episode or regarded it as another sad example of Roman oppression, Jesus’ immediate followers had evidence that something extraordinary had happened, Jesus had been raised from the dead. However, they were and remained as much Jews as everyone else, James and Peter, eventually Paul, and then Matthew for example. They maintained worship in the Temple and observed the Festivals. It was the destruction of the Temple and the effects on a defeated and often enslaved Jewish population that precipitated momentous changes.
The Romans realised that the Jews were an established people with their own custom and religions, and despite a further war against Rome under Hadrian when a Temple of Jupiter was erected on the ruins of the Jewish Temple , by the third century, Roman tolerance towards what was regarded as a religio licita was restored, though Christianity believed to be simply a subversive organisation was proscribed, that is until the time of Constantine in the early 4th century. Thereafter Christians began to see Jews as ‘other’, at best as people who had refused to accept Christian truths when they were first offered to them, and so began centuries of discrimination and persecution.
We all know of some of the most horrifying results in the Middle Ages and in modern times, exemplified in pogroms and especially the Shoa; there is a realisation that anti-Semitism, alas, still alive even in our country, was fed to a degree by the Church. However, the recent history of interfaith relations has been far happier; there is a flourishing Society of Christians and Jews and the Anglican Church has just issued an important document about the relationship between the two religions.
At one level, of course, both faiths and indeed different sects in each faith have inevitably been moulded by history and differently evolving patterns of thought. It is hard to see how they can be re-united and I am very suspicious of any attempt to convert Jews to Christianity or Christians to Judaism, both of which are to me symptomatic of over-dogmatic faith. There is a common meeting point in the Divine, in God, seen as one and illuminated by various aspects. For Christians the life of Jesus, his death and Resurrection illumines a key part of the Divine, separate from but at one with the Father and conjoined by the Spirit. In St John’s Gospel Christ is the Logos of God, his Holy Word, there from the beginning. He is in all things which means not just humans but the whole of nature, every single thing that is.
In Judaism there are certainly concepts like the Shekinah, and Holy Wisdom evoked in, for example, the book of Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon, in both cases eternal emanations of the Divine, the One. Jesus would have known such texts and certainly belonged to the Jewish world and no other. We Christians have taken him, this Galilean Jewish teacher, into our own understanding of his Advent as a supernatural event. The Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr has developed an idea of a ‘Universal Christ’ which to a degree holds these two concepts of the divine together, but for me such syncretism too rigidly insisted upon is simply too bland…I prefer to hold both in tension.
Both history and personal inclination together mould our individual faiths, but beyond all of us is a mystery which we dimly perceive and try to reach. I hold strongly with the Neoplatonist, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus that ‘not by a single path can we comprehend so great a mystery’. That has always been my guiding principle.
Advent is the season in which we Christians at least try to approach that mystery which even when we reach it is obscured by the myths in the gospels of Matthew and Luke and other accumulated additions (though such myths are admittedly themselves paths to truth like the quest for the Holy Grail another and later myth about a search for the divine mystery).Much more dangerous for the unwary pilgrim is that fatal consumerism and self-interest responsible for heartless cruelty to weaker members of our own species as well as other species: Greed is the besetting sin of our species, against which the prophets and, indeed, Jesus himself warned us and which now confronts us with the perils of environmental catastrophe, the desolating sacrilege for which we look to be bringing about..