EVERY time they attended church, our medieval forebears were confronted by their Doom. It was painted on the chancel arch, placed there as a reminder of the Last Judgement which awaited them at the end of this mortal life. But it was not so grim as we might suppose. The word “doom” in those days meant “deem” or “judge”; originally it carried no gloomy menace. The mural painting — a pre-Reformation feature in many parish churches, later destroyed by Protestant reformers — showed a scene of terrifying realism in which Christ sat in judgement, dismissing with his left hand the souls of the wicked into the jaws of hell, and, with his right, welcoming the souls of the blessed into the fields of paradise.
There are two ways of regarding our Doom. We can gaze at Christ’s right hand, rejoicing that he calls us to himself; or we can observe those on his left, and fear for our future.
Our ancestors enjoyed a cheerful religion, not because they lived flippant and foolish lives — on the contrary, they had little to sing about. Their lives were deprived of much we now take for granted: security, warmth, food, comfort. They were the victims of intermittent pestilence, war, and famine. And yet their calendar was punctuated by fun. They danced and acted the dramas of their life inside their churches, in the marketplace, and in the fields.
By contrast, most of us in Britain today enjoy standards of security and comfort unknown to our ancestors; but, where they danced their corporate faith, we have turned ours into solitary, often morose, reflection. Where they held hands and were jocund on the village green, we retreat into anxious introspection. In short, they looked to Christ’s right hand and hoped for joy; we look to his left hand and fear the worst.
WE CAN imagine the scene as it might have been in a village church somewhere in England. “Wake up!” the preacher says, as the people shuffle their feet in the straw, and pray that he will be brief. “It’s time you woke up. Wake up!” And he thumps the pulpit with his fist. The year is 1503, the month is December, and — because it is the first Sunday of Advent — there is a sermon preached by a travelling preacher. He knows his congregation; knows them well enough to spare them the formal text of a written sermon: he preaches extempore.
The more attentive shift uneasily as they remember St Paul’s text from the letter to the Romans. The preacher had recited it to them earlier in the mass, while the celebrant had mumbled the words in Latin. Speaking in Middle English (the dialect still in use at that time), the preacher said: The nyght went before, but the day hath nyghede.Therfore caste we awey the werkis of derkenese and be clothed with the armor of lyghte. As in a day walke we honestly, not in superflue of festis and in dronkenessis, not in beddis and unchastiteis, not in strife and in envy, but by ye clothed in the Lorde Ihesu Criste. (Romans 13.12-14)
The Day of Judgement was at hand. Who could escape the wrath to come? Were they all to perish in the flames? The question lingers in their minds.
Then the preacher’s voice changes. “Ah, my dear friends,” and he stretches out his arms to embrace them all, “My dear, dear brothers and sisters, let us look away from the dark. Let us turn to the light. The day is at hand. Look!” and he points across the church to the Lady chapel with its statue of Mary holding up the infant Christ. “Look there! There is your salvation!”
In that same year, 1503, a 14-year-old lad from Nottinghamshire enrolled as an undergraduate at Jesus College, Cambridge. His name was Thomas Cranmer. On Advent Sunday, in the college chapel, he heard the same Pauline text, with its startling juxtaposition of dark and light, judgement and mercy. Fluent in Latin, like his fellow students, he did not need an English paraphrase or a painted image. He was trained to apprehend the mysteries of faith through words, not pictures.
Many years later, now in his sixties, Cranmer would have remembered by heart much of the daily office and the mass. He had been reciting much of the Sarum rite since his ordination. The texts and prayers which formed a priest’s daily devotions were among the sources he worked on to create, in 1549, the Book of Common Prayer. He set as the epistle for Advent Sunday the same passage from Romans that he had heard in Jesus College Chapel, 46 years before.
CRANMER’s Collect for the First Sunday of Advent, retained in Common Worship, is one of the jewels of the Anglican liturgy. To the reader, to the listener, but above all to the worshipper, it opens out like a medieval diptych, its twin panels hinged by the words “that on the last day”. It holds before our eyes the two dazzling icons of our salvation: Christ’s first coming, at Bethlehem, when he “came to us in great humility”; and his second coming, “when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead”:
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Adrian Leak is a retired Anglican priest, whose recent publications include a collection of essays, The Golden Calves of Jeroboam (Books, 11 December 2020), and his memoirs, After the Order of Melchizedek (Books, 8 July).