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Trailing clouds of glory

01 December 2023

Charles Moseley offers a meditation for Advent


An icon of The Second Coming of Christ

An icon of The Second Coming of Christ

THE year turns: Advent again. Again, the yearly cycle of the liturgy begins.

The pattern of “our bounden duty, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks” to the Lord of all may not change, but we change all the time. As the years repeat their pattern, our perspective is always new. Our journey is no circle, but a spiral.

Each Advent, many of us sing Charles Wesley’s hymn “Lo, he comes with clouds descending”. Habituation could make it wearisome. But one evensong, years ago, I heard for the first time Christopher Robinson’s magnificent descant for the last verse. (We could certainly not have managed it in the village choir at home, when I was still a treble.)

Suddenly, the old warhorse’s tired familiarity from so many past Advents was stripped away: I sat up and took notice. Music can do that — break through the familiar into the unexpected. What you always knew, what was worn down by use like a comfortable old shoe, is suddenly mint-new, an adventure: another twist in the spiral. . .

Unarguably, Wesley’s is a great hymn, full of good divinity, from a great poet. It is, of course, based on the idea of the Second Coming, and even has echoes (in verse two) of the Dies Irae by Thomas of Celano (1185-1260). It is steeped in Wesley’s knowledge of scripture. Its opening puts Jesus’s promise (and warning) in Mark 14.62 into the present tense, and it closes with the last words of the Revelation of St John, of which the Aramaic form — maranatha — was used both as prayer and greeting by the Early Church: “Lord, come quickly.”

It is a hymn that breathes both urgency and awe — and awe is very close to fear, even terror:

Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quantus iudex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!

(How great will be the fear and trembling,
How great a Judge is he who cometh,
Strictly to examine all.)

For Advent is not just the run-up to the (literally unspeakable) mystery of Christmas and the gift of the Word-made-flesh. It is not just — as for so many in our greedy culture — an accelerating spending spree in the diminishing number of shopping days. It is a time for facing up to what the coming of the Lord might mean.

What would the arrival of the Desire of All Nations feel like? I can’t imagine that the Lord’s arrival on our doorstep, knocking to come in, would be comfortable and cosy, clouds or no clouds. Even Peter, boldest of all the disciples, was moved to say, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.”

ALL the Gospels show us a man of enormous and frightening authority. All the Gospels seem to insist not on a revolutionary programme for social justice — though that might indeed be a consequence of following the Lord — but on individual encounters. Jesus is always engaging with — talking to, challenging, healing — specific people, and always handing to them the responsibility, the inescapable need, to respond to his monolithic and frightening clarity and integrity.

To his friends and disciples, he says: “Who do men say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” — and they cannot not answer. To the rich young man whom he looked on and loved, he said: “Go and sell all you have and give to the poor” — the one thing that the young man could not do, and he “went away sorrowing”.

Jesus saw into the heart of the Samaritan woman, and — yes — into the hearts of Caiaphas and Pilate. And Caiaphas, poor man, stuck to his politically prudent agenda, while John 19.12 hints that Pilate did have some second thoughts that might have ruined his career.

So many people, like them, cannot throw off the exoskeleton that they have made for themselves of received ideas, and assumptions, and custom: their very identity, which holds them like a straitjacket in a prison so familiar that they dare not leave for the unknown.

The whole thrust of the Old and New Testaments is to think the unthinkable, to take risks, to abandon the self you know to find the true self — which implies trusting in something. Abraham had a promise when he left Ur, but no guarantee; Israel’s journey through those years in Sinai was built on trust — a trust that often faltered.

“Leave all and follow me” — now, not when you have sorted out the financial issues, and made sure the lawn will be cut, and the insurance paid up, and said goodbye to mum, but now! A very hard saying, like those words to the rich young man.

So many of us feel our courage fail, even when we have, with high hearts, begun the journey, or are well on in it, and we turn away, and weep, like Peter; for even the greatest of saints could fall. As Bunyan says, “Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven.”

ADVENT must make us ask ourselves whether we have the courage not to take that way, not to retreat from that last jump into the unknown, back into what we think we know.

If we seek the unknown Real, we have to give up the well-known Shadow; for we are afraid of being really loved, known as we are known, with all the things that we hardly acknowledge to our innermost selves seen in the cloudless, shadowless light of apocalypse: that revealing of all that has been hidden, that we have hidden. We are afraid of being born again, of the glory that shall be revealed in us. Nobody ever said that growing up was not painful.

And yet this season does lead us up, through our acknowledgment of our darkness and weakness and failure, to the generous joy of a birth. It leads, not to a door in heaven opening and angels blowing trumpets (at least, not yet), but to a simple cradle holding the Ancient of Days, made weak, helpless flesh like ours — not (as St Athanasius put it) “by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God”.

Our little minds may not understand the weight of glory, or the mystery of grace; for the lesser can never comprehend the greater. But, in all its brokenness, God loved his creation to death, and came among us.

In the perplexity that comes with the yearly challenge of Advent, I comfort myself with a saying attributed to that great mystic Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you ever say is ‘Thank you,’ that is enough.”

Just as these darkening days lead towards the solstice and the rumour of the returning sun, Advent does indeed lead to eucharist.

Charles Moseley’s new book,
A Joyful Noise: 24 hymnwriters and their times, will be published in 2024 by DLT.

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