Where will I end up?
The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Sacrist
Sunday, 24th March 2019 at 11.15 AM
Before the city of Venice arose from its salty lagoon, raised on sunken piles of oak and pine, before then the most populated island in the lagoon was several miles to the north, where the refugee people of Altinum established a new city and built a new Basilica in the 5th C. Today only a small proportion of the visitors to Venice make the pleasant boat journey to Torcello, to see what remains of Venice’s older sister.
To be honest, not much remains, but the surviving Basilica makes the long trip completely worthwhile. In the 11th and 12th century, craftsmen from Byzantium adorned it with brilliant mosaics, and, as you walk in, you are drawn through the building by a full-length depiction of the Virgin and Child, shimmering in the golden apse above you.
Approaching the east end of the church feels like being drawn into heaven—as the builders intended—joining Saints surrounding the altar. But when you turn around to make your way back to the west door you are faced with an altogether more challenging scene.
There are a few surviving examples in England, of the Doom (the depiction of the Last Judgement) that was a common feature of medieval Churches, normally painted on the chancel arch, dominating the nave. Throughout the liturgy, the congregation would have been unable to escape the question this scene poses: Where will I end up? On the side of the angels, or chewed up in the fiery jaws of hell?
Whatever the preacher might have said, whatever comfort the Sacraments might offer, it must have been hard not to be completely fixated with this image, and the terror that it was presumably intended to evoke. The whole Gospel reduced to the stern message: ‘You’d better be good, or else!’
At least, for the people of Torcello, this image and its challenge only came into their line of sight as they turned around to make their way back from the altar, or, more importantly, towards the west door, on their way out into the world. At least it didn’t dominate the whole of their time in church, unlike their English counterparts.
I was recently challenged to give a one-minute account of the Gospel, and after I had given what I thought was quite a strong and impassioned rendering of the mystery of creation and salvation, I was then asked why, in all those 60 seconds, I hadn’t mentioned judgement. I think they had me down as a hopeless liberal, and I think I might have proved them right.
Judgement—the seriousness of judgement and the urgency of repentance is an inescapable theme in the New Testament, and not least in our readings today. The Fig Tree in Jesus’ parable will eventually be cut down, we are told, if it persists in its fruitlessness. The kind of calamity that befell the Galileans whose blood was mingled with their sacrifices, and those who died when a tower fell on them; the same kind of calamity will fall on you if you do not repent—Jesus promised his hearers.
And St Paul tells the Corinthians that they can’t presume on their baptism as some kind of protection from judgement. The Israelites in the wilderness were baptised into Moses, in the cloud and the sea, but they still perished when they displeased God with their idolatry, their sexual immorality, and their complaining.
In the midst of all this serious stuff, the words of Isaiah come as a pleasant respite;
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
God calls his people to a free abundance of the finest food and drink—think of the Foodhall at Fortnum and Mason, but without the price-tags.
But, having piqued our interest with the promise of a delicious feast, the prophet then appeals to us:
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
let the wicked forsake their way,
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them.
Here, again, is the serious message of judgement and the urgency of repentance. Like the mosaics of Torcello, Isaiah turns us both ways; to the glorious banquet of heaven on the one hand, and to the crisis of judgement on the other.
The idea that, according to Justice, given the seriousness of human sin, God would be entirely justified in consigning the whole lot of us to the pit of hell, is an idea familiar to anyone who has had to study the work of St Augustine, for instance. I remember hearing dark mutterings about the threat of hell from serious-minded Christian groups at University, and, indeed, Mr Tusk in recent days has reassured us regarding hell’s capacity, but I’ve never responded well to being threatened and perhaps you are the same.
However, according to many of our brothers and sisters, it is precisely our reticence to talk about the threat of damnation, our failure to hold up the image of the Doom in all its terror, that leaves so many in our culture at best ambivalent about the Gospel, and in the most part profoundly uninterested.
I’m not sure they are right, and I remain unconvinced that we’re going to be able to threaten people into faith, (let alone whether we should) but I have to acknowledge that fear is a powerful motivator; albeit one I am rather loathed to employ unless all else fails.
And I can’t help thinking that the parable of the Fig Tree suggests the same about God. The surprise in this story is not the threat to cut the tree down. That seems quite obvious and justified. The surprise in this parable is the patience of the Landowner, who, despite having already waited three years for fruit, is content to wait yet another year. Justice would cut the tree down now—mercy gives it another twelve months.
Under God’s justice we die; under God’s mercy we have a new lease of life. As Christians, we live constantly within this dynamic—it is symbolised in our baptism where we die with Christ and rise again with him—justice and mercy, death and new life—not just one moment, but every moment.
So it might be important for us, especially in Lent, to face the seriousness of judgement and the urgency of repentance; as St Paul says, to make sure we are still really standing—not so much concerned with where we will eventually end up but where we are standing now. Hell, and indeed heaven, is not simply a matter of there and then, consigned to some ultimate future; hell can be here and now, as the people of Christchurch, and Mozambique, will no doubt attest.
Perhaps we do need to contemplate the Doom every now and again to remind us how urgent it is that we actually get on with the business of loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves. Perhaps there is a bit of us that will only start moving in the right direction provided we are given a sharp enough prod?
But it is equally important that we keep before us the wonder, the sheer unmerited gift, the entirely unreasonable love and mercy of God that is shown to us in Christ; the mercy that accepts us back again and again to this table, this altar, where the promise of God’s mercy becomes tangible; where we taste the rich feast that Isaiah foretold.
But as we leave Church today, on this 3rd Sunday in Lent, perhaps we might imagine, for a moment, that we are in Torcello, with the Last Judgement laid out before us, and make that conscious decision, as we go out into the world, to do all we can by God’s good grace, to be on the side of the angels.