Advent; The Most Challenging Season Of All

Ambivalences of Time

How do we live, preparing for the future? A more problematic question is how do we live while waiting in the face of the unknown? For many of us our lives are lived in anticipation of the unknown. How do we live in the present-time sandwiched between expectations that point us towards the future, and memories that keep us prisoners of our past? Between the past and the future lie the uncertainties of the present-time.

The passage from the Third Isaiah writing in the context of the returning exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem echos the tensions of living into an uncertain future. Uncertain though the future might be, it is yet, rich in potential. However, the shackles of the past constantly threaten to resurface and derail progress into the new.

For most of us, our attitude towards time is at best ambivalent. We behave as if the past, present, and future are insulated from each other as if contained in water-tight compartments . We say: oh that’s in the past, to imply that nothing now can be done to change it. Likewise we regard the future in much the same way as we regard the past. We might say of the future: oh the future hasn’t happened yet it’s not real, it’s only a dream.

These ways of treating the past and the future are our attempts to bring some order and clarity to our experience of the flow of events in the present. Yet, time remains an ambivalent experience for us. The definition of ambivalent is, to have mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone. Both mixed feelings and contradictory ideas describe our relationship to time.

T.S. Eliot, is a poet whose work is familiar to many of you. Eliot explores the ambivalence of time in much of his poetry. Note a moment ago I used the present tense, Eliot is a poet. Is he a poet or was he a poet? See how our ambivalence towards time expresses itself in such ordinary figures of speech. Eliot explores our ambivalence towards time in passages like this in the finale to his Four Quartets; his poem Little Gidding.

What we call the beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. … We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time.

The past finds echo in our expectations of the future. In the yet-to-become-known we encounter the unresolved projections of that which is now only half remembered. That’s the way the human mind works. It pattern-matches experience so that present experience and future expectations are often strongly conditioned by projections of the way the remembered, or half remembered, or apparently forgotten, still actively influences us.

The season of Advent is the start of a new Church year. Advent is for many of us our most favorite season. Advent is a season of expectation, preparation, and waiting. Expectations are often-times difficult. How can we trust that our expectations will  really come to fruition? Preparation is somewhat easier. At least in preparation we have something to do, something that distracts us from the anxiety in the pit of our stomachs. In contrast waiting is an experience that is the most difficult to tolerate.Waiting is intolerable because it takes place in the space when preparations have finally ceased, and yet, expectations have  yet to be fulfilled.

Advent is Expectation

Isaiah is a favourite text for Advent. Isaiah dreams of a future that has yet to become fully realized.  It is a vision of a future that dares to break free of imagination limited by memories of the past. Although on a chronological level, Isaiah speaks to us from our collective past, we hear his voice speaking directly to our own experience of the present. The context changes, yet the challenges remain the same.

We live in a time when to have a positive dream for our collective future feels like a forlorn hope we can’t afford. Instead we feel we need to prepare for the worst as we survey a future where:

  • The post 1945 stability of the Pax Americana is fraying. New and ominous forces, both terrorist and nationalist, rise to threaten our world order. The world order of Pax Americana, which has for 70 years ensured stability and security no longer insures that stability and security are dictated only on our own terms.
  • In the face of apocalyptic visions of the future the cohesion of our nation fractures. We argue over the best way to address our problems. More serious still, we disagree about the nature of the problems facing us. Some argue that the way to secure the future is through  budget reduction, while others advocate the urgent need to renew our vital, but crumbling, infrastructures.
  • We hotly contest among ourselves the reality of global warming and the degradation of the world environment as natural disasters of epic proportion ravage the planet. We argue even though its plain to all that we are not insulated from the frightening power of nature as parts of the country are ravaged by flood, wind, fire, and drought.While some lobby for policies that might avert a coming environmental catastrophe, others argue that continued degradation of the environment is a price worth paying to maintain our competitive, economic edge.
  • We are witnessing a resurgence of institutional racism that many of us thought long dead and buried; our forgotten past rising to haunt our present.
  • Economic disparities increase to alarming proportions. The prosperity of the many is sacrificed to the profits of the few.
  • Our own middle class dreams of financial security evaporate before our eyes. We are not only fearful for our children’s futures, we are baffled and disquieted by the cynical indifference of our politicians to the future of our children as commitments to education and jobs for the young are abandoned in the face of economic expediencies.
  • Our political system becomes even more corrupted by unfettered restraint on the financial influence of vested interests. David Brooks, the conservative New York Times journalist who appears every Friday on PBS’s The News Hour, has noted the problem for the political system is not the amount of money pouring in, but the lack of transparency, so that we can’t know who it is that is wielding undue influence over our politicians. 

In the midst of political and national turmoil, Isaiah dreams of a time when the improbable will happen as part of a new messianic age. Jerusalem, now but a ruin to which the exiles are returning is to become rebuilt into a new hope for the future.  We live in the present, often a difficult place to be. We hear the ghosts of the past whispering in our ear. We long for the promise of a new future, if we could but have the courage to hope. In this Advent time God calls us saying: let us plant in the present-time, the seeds of our audacious dreaming of our future.

Advent as Preparation

So what is the point of Advent’s message of preparation in the face of our tendency to be so fearful of the yet-to-become-known? Advent is a time for expectation of things to come. Advent is a time for preparation, which means not preparing for the worst that can happen, but having the audacity in the present time to plant the seeds that will one day mature into our future hope. Advent means consciously rejecting the self-protective foreboding that results when we can only see into our future through the prism of our past.

Advent is Waiting

However, most of all Advent is a time for patient waiting. In my experience waiting is the hardest thing to tolerate. Yet, the ability to courageously wait is the hallmark of our task in this present-time. The Theologian Paul Tillich put it beautifully when he wrote:

Although waiting is not having, it is also having. The fact that we wait for something shows that in some way we already possess it. Waiting, says Tillich, anticipates that which is not yet real. That is, if we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. Those who wait, Tillich says, in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait. Theology of Culture as compiled at

Tillich’s theme: the power of that for which we wait is already effective within usis something I will return to as we journey together through this coming Advent.

Kingship or Kingdom

CHrist the KingKingly ways

November 23rd is the 24th Sunday after Pentecost and for this year it is the last Sunday before the beginning of a New Christian Year, which we herald next week on Advent Sunday.

In 1994 with the publication of the Common Revised Lectionary the mainline Christian Churches including those of the Anglican Communion adopted Christ the King as the last Sunday of the Christian Year. To me this is a somewhat perplexing decision. The commemoration of Christ the King is a relatively recent Roman Catholic institution.

In 1925 Pius XI proclaimed the feast of Christ the King as an assertion of the Catholic Church’s authority in the face of the rise of fascism and the growing power of communism. Pius’ proclamation is a challenge to the rise of totalitarianism. Yet, it also needs to be understood within the broader Italian context dating back to the unification of the kingdom of Italy in 1861 when Rome was effectively annexed as the capital of the new country. This resulted in the drastic reduction of Papal territory to the square mile surrounding St Peters, now known as the Vatican City, within which the Pope’s between 1861 and 1929 regarded themselves as virtual prisoners.

The proclamation of  1925 sits within a much longer historical trend. In 313, the Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, forever changing the developmental course of Christianity. The Church now became a great institution of state adopting the images and attributes of political and economic power. As Pius understood it, the proclamation of Christ the King, was a triumphalist assertion of the Church’s Constantinian power against the rising tide of fascism and communism. It was a proclamation of one totalitarian system against rival totalitarian systems, all of which were in competition for hearts and minds.

The Episcopal Church has no worldly power to assert. Consequently, for us the celebration of Christ the King as an assertion of the Constantinian Christ as Pantocrator, i.e. Christ enthroned and ruling over the world, is not part of our thinking. It does not sit easily with us.  For us, the commemoration of Christ the King is a celebration of the mission of the Christ and his Church, not as ruler of the world, but as agent of the Kingdom of God.

Three parables of the Kingdom

Matthew 25 contains three final parables of the Kingdom. It begins with the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, followed by the parable of the talents, and ends with the parable of the sheep and the goats. In the first two parables, the on-the-surface message seems to confirm the core values by which so many of us live today. These are the values of the individualized society. In the individualized society the concept of the autonomous individual holds sway.

Easily, we read in the parable of the virgins a confirmation of the individualized society’s values of self-sufficiency. Based on our own individual preparedness and forethought, we live in anticipation of the need to be prepared for all future challenges. We are bolstered in this approach to life by the fear. We are terrified of the shame of being exposed, as in the case of the foolish virgins, as woefully in-self-sufficient. Being in-self-sufficient  equates to social sin in our culture of the individualized society. I have more fully developed this theme in my entry for November 8th .

The second parable of the Kingdom in Matthew’s chapter 25 concerns the story of the talents. We so easily hear this parable from within the context of our 21st century financial system. Jesus appears to be applauding the ability to take risks in pursuit of maximizing a return on financial investment. The individualized society values initiative and investment risk- taking in pursuit of increasing the overall size of the economic pie. Yet, we still have not found the mechanisms ensuring a more equitable sharing of the fruits of economic growth between entrepreneurs and workers. Although the economic context in which Jesus teaches is markedly different from ours, the truth of Jesus’ maxim:

To those who have more shall be given, and from those who have not, even what they have will be taken away (Matt 25:29)

remains as troublingly true today as it was in his time. My entry for November 16th explores this further.

Taking an instructive detour

In response to mounting criticism of her policies, which to many of us in 1980’s Britain seemed to be a direct attack on the postwar British consensus of society built upon the pursuit of the common good, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, talking to Women’s Own magazine in October 31 1987, with characteristic vigor asserted: There is no such thing as society![1] 

I footnote her actual statement below to show the fuller context of her thinking, because for those of us on the center-left, these seven words became our anti-Thatcher battle cry. At the time, I and others like me had little interest in viewing these seven words within their fuller context. Yet, with the passage of time it has become possible to read her fuller statement as pointing to something more nuanced than a crude reiteration of the values of the individualized society. Reading the fuller statement reveals Margaret Thatcher in 1987, attempting to grapple with the social and political conundrums of our post 1945 age. Conundrums we are still struggling to work through. In fact, Thatcher’s 1987 comments pose an even greater urgency for us today. The years between 1987 and 2014 seem to shrink to a mere distance between yesterday and today, so pertinent have her words remained.

Chapter 25 ends with Jesus’ final parable of the Kingdom. In the parable of the sheep and goats the assumed direction of Jesus’ teaching, so easily heard by us as a confirmation of our individualized social values, takes a disconcertingly new direction. Prudence and success give way to the priority of compassion.

What I and many others like me on the center-left of the political spectrum could not have recognized in 1987, was the way Thatcher’s statement uncannily shadows the progression of thought in Matthew 25. Though I am somewhat loath to have to admit it, the progress in my own reflections over the intervening 24 years has led me to welcome her imagery. In place of a collectivized notion of society in which the prime responsibility for social good is exercised bureaucratically, Margaret Thatcher offers a compelling image of a: living tapestry of men and women and peopleI find my self embracing the idea that the: 

quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.’

Kingdom ways

       Icon of Christ on the margins, Br Robert Lentz OFM

Christ for othersMatthew 25 in its entirety presents Jesus teaching on the importance of taking personal responsibility not only for myself, i.e. the individualized society of the mythic autonomous individual, but the importance of taking responsibility for myself as a means, simultaneously, of looking out for my neighbor.

The need to take responsibility for my neighbor affirms the truth that my self-interest is always best served when I contribute to my neighbor’s flourishing. Neighbor is a relational term, and our capacity for relationship rests on the dynamic tension within ourselves between fear, which makes us self-protective, and generosity, which opens us to joy. In a further interesting aside, neuroscanning technology reveals to us that it is the same region of the brain that lights up, whether the subject is experiencing the joy of giving or the pleasure of receiving. Both giving and receiving use the same neurocircuitry.

The parable of the sheep and the goats reveals interdependency as a core value of the Kingdom of God. Neither independence nor dependence, interdependency offers a middle way between the extremes of individualization, everyone out for themselves, and collectivization, everyone subject to the depersonalization of the bureaucratic state.

I am grateful to Carl Gregg  for reminding me of the story in the Prologue of M. Scott Peck’s, The Different Drum; Community Making and Peace. Scott Peck relays the story of the abbot of a dying monastery who seeks the counsel of a hermit in an attempt to find a solution to the monastery’s decline. They talk and pray together but no solution presents. As the abbot takes his leave the hermit casually invites the abbot to consider that maybe the Messiah is already here among his remaining, now aged monks.

The abbot upon his return shares with his brothers the hermit’s invitation. Each monk now begins to contemplate the unlikely prospect that one of his brothers, whom he finds so tiresome, might be the messiah. He even has to consider that he himself might be the messiah and the combination of these two possibilities brings about a dramatic change in the interpersonal chemistry of the monastery.

Families began using the monastery grounds for picnics. Over time, through repeated conversation with the aging, but now newly inspired, monks some of the young men of the vicinity become drawn in the vocation to religious life. Soon new life begins to flow into the old monastery as new young aspirants join.

Christ the King is not a celebration of the kingly power of the Church. It is a recognition of the need to work tirelessly for the realization of kingdom ways.

Kingdom ways, as articulated in the parable of the sheep and goats is more than a simple injunction to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, visit the sick and the imprisoned, as a kind of modern religious social work. It invites us to embrace the image of society as a rich tapestry woven from the exercise of responsibility. This is not a responsibility to maintain our own self-sufficiency. Taking responsibility for ourselves requires of necessity, that we look out for one another.

Jesus invites his hearers to see God in themselves. Usually, we are invited to see God in others, but how can we recognize God in others unless we already experience the presence of God in our own lives?

Gregg also mentions an anonymous Franciscan blessing:

God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our heart. May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom and peace.  May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that we may reach out our hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen

[1] ‘I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first… There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.’ Margaret Thatcher 1987

An Adequate Return?

Historical anthropologists tell us that the parable of the talents had a very different set of nuances at the time of Jesus than it has for us today. In the Mediterranean world of antiquity the economic pie was pretty much fixed in size. Consequently, the behavior of the rich in becoming richer was viewed pejoratively, because the enlargement of one person’s slice of the economic pie was predicated on someone else’s slice shrinking. It’s a story as old as time. The rich enrich themselves at the expense of the poor. As Jesus sums it up at the end of the parable:

to those who have, even more will be given, but to those who have not, even what they have will be taken away. 

The rich person, as the man in this story entrusts the management ofimages-1 his wealth to his slaves, some of whom occupied a privileged place as stewards. The parable of the talents as seen within its antiquarian context, is a tale of the complex relationship between the owning class and the stewards they entrusted with the dirty business of growing their wealth. Given Jesus’s strong message on justice, heralding the Kingdom of God, it seems unlikely that he would have approved of wealth creation at the expense of the poor.

From our perspective in the culture of the 1st world of the 21st Century, we hear this parable as a tale of prudent wealth management. We identify with the master’s praise of his stewards who are able, through a combination of calculated risk and skill in the money market, to bring him a handsome return on his original investment. We frown on the steward who buried the talent in the ground because we think this is not a skilful way to manage money. It’s akin to putting it in the bank at 0.1% and leaving it there.

In our world the economic pie expands and shrinks according to the patterns of investment. Consequently, our view of investment in bonds and stocks is a morally acceptable activity. In fact, within the economic values system of Venture Capitalism, it is a praise-worthy activity.

Cultural bias

Culturally, I speak as a New Zealander who between the ages of 22 and 53, spent the whole of his formative years as an adult, in the UK. In both Britain and New Zealand there has been a long held belief in the role of government as an agent for economic redistribution, in the pursuit of social equity. I have been conditioned to value this as an important role for government. Yet, my first-hand experience is of the limited success, indeed of the positive drawbacks of this political approach to economics. It’s a great ideal, but experience shows that perhaps government is not the best agent for ensuring broad economic equity in society. By economic equity, I mean the recognition that no-one makes money on their own. I believe the challenge of our age is to find more effective mechanisms for ensuring a balance in economic interests across the whole of society. I refer to this because, for me, this is as much a spiritual challenge as it is an economic or political one.

Christian attitudes to wealth creation

Christian teaching on the ethics of economic production is most clearly articulated in the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s a pity that most of this sound teaching goes unheeded because the noise of the Church’s lamentable preoccupation on sexual matters grabs all the limelight.

Christian social teaching understands that wealth generation has two parts to it. It needs entrepreneurs and risk takers, supported by investors on the one hand. It also needs workers on the other. Workers and entrepreneurial inspired investment are both the necessary participants in wealth generation. A Christian vision is of a society where the contribution of workers as part of the generation of profit is fairly rewarded in terms of respect for the dignity of work, and a fair economic return on labor.  A fair reward should not be limited to the minimum wage. I note that from the workers side, this might not be such a universally popular idea. It’s great to share in the profit, but not so good when you have to share in the risk. In the pursuit of wealth generation profits can go down as well as up. Yet, it is only when profit as well as risk is shared that everyone has an investment in ensuring that economic endeavors are profitable and for the benefit of the whole of society.

Historical context

I find Jesus’ parable of the talents challenging, provocative, comforting, and disturbing, all in equal measure. From my 21st Century perspective it appears to validate the emphasis of our prevailing economic culture. Yet, Jesus didn’t live in our world. He shows little regard for material success. He stands in the Hebrew prophetic tradition of decrying the exploitation of the powerless by the powerful. Following this tradition, until the Renaissance it was forbidden by the Church for a Christian to charge interest on a loan; hence the important role that Jews, who could charge interest, played in medieval banking. So given all of this, what might Jesus’ intended meaning for this tale be?

Matthew locates the parable after the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. So he seems to be extolling in both parables the virtues of responsible and prudent behavior; of the need to be prepared for all future possibilities. Yet, Matthew follows with parable of the sheep and the goats, which seems to be turning the tables on what appears to common sense as wise and prudent behavior in favor of compassionate behavior. The message here seems to be that compassionate behavior conflicts with what seems prudent common sense.

Bringing the parable home

Sunday November 16th is a big day in the life of St Martin’s community. At 4pm we will celebrate my installation as the 12th Rector and at the same time rededicate ourselves to the memory of our patron saint, Martin, Bishop of Tours, and Patron of France. November 16th is also Ingathering Sunday, marking the end point of our month-long Annual Renewal Campaign (ARC).

Despite the ambivalence and enigmatic meaning of the parable of the talents, this tale fits well with our theme of month-long celebration, a celebration of gratitude and a strengthening of our commitment to live more generous lives.

imagesIn my commentary on October 15 lunching our ARC I said:

While there is a practical connection between our annual renewal and next year’s budget, there is no spiritual connection between the two.

The annual renewal process is not about how much money we need for the budget. If needed, that’s a conversation for 2015, but not now. Annual renewal invites us to conduct a spiritual inventory on our attitudes to giving. Our pledge is an expression of gratitude to God, not an offering towards keeping the lights on.

The extent of our gratitude, expressed monetarily, is an important element in our celebration of a feeling of gratitude that brings us to our knees in thankfulness for our experience of God’s generosity.

When viewed from this deeper and richer perspective, the parable of the talents is not about wise financial investment. It’s about the investment of ourselves in the greater life of the community, as the most fruitful expression of thankfulness to God.

It is only when our giving flows generously from our encounter with the sources of our gratitude to God, that it is capable of being for us, an experience of fruitfulness .

We are the talents

I believe the experience of being fruitful is something we are all so longing for. This quality of fruitfulness has nothing to do with how much or how little we have.  Through energy and a willingness to risk, we invest ourselves so that we bear fruit? Through our collective energy we forge a community that makes a difference in the world. Or are we like the talent buried in the ground, keeping ourselves safe and secure, keeping the risks low, and consequently, limiting our ability to bear fruit?

At the end of the parable Jesus says something that seems so out of character:

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 

What if this is a comment, not about material possessions, which would seem to be of little importance to Jesus? What if we read these words as a comment about gratitude? What if it’s a reference to the importance in life of taking risks in pursuit of our passions? We can live safely buried in our own concerns and insulated within our own self-protections. Or we can unearth, as in dig-up our talents, our gifts, our energies, and let our passion motivate us to invest ourselves.

Investment is always about risk. Risk, in spiritual terms is courage. We need courage to trust enough to move beyond the safe and sure, so to embrace generosity as the adequate return on our life’s investment.

The Plight of Virgins

Be prepared!

I remember from my days as a Queen’s Scout that our primary motto was: be prepared! A preoccupation with being prepared, being ready for whatever life might throw is a necessary prerequisite for the autonomous, self-sufficient person in our highly individualized society. I recognise the importance of anticipation in my own life experience.

Of course, no one knows what to expect of the future. We develop a tendency to anticipate events based on what we already know about life. Sometimes experience is an accurate guide, yet, often it is misleading. Facing the uncertainties of the future armed only with the incomplete recollection of past experience, feeds the wellsprings of anxiety in most of us. This is where the scouting motto: be prepared,  is a comfort. It’s a comfort because it insulates us within the illusion that we can be ready for what-ever lies around the corner.

The illusion of being prepared is to some extent a comfort. Being prepared is an important element in my own life narrative, i.e. the story I tell myself about who I am and why I am the way I am. The problem with anticipation as an expression of needing to be prepared is that it encourages risk adversion in life. Life lived too safely, is a very unsatisfying experience!

Our preoccupation with being prepared makes us vulnerable to judgment. Here I am referring to our need to judge others as a way of putting clear blue water between us and them. In our society we reserve our harshest judgments for those who fail the be prepared  test. How easily the phrases: well it’s his own fault,  or  she has no one to blame but herself, or its time they really took responsibility for themselves, trip lightly off my tongue. In fact, one of my favourite comments to friends of either gender is: oh, what a foolish virgin you’ve been!

Referring to the parable of the wise and foolish virgins is my tongue-in-cheek, way of being ironic. Irony is one of the higher achievements of British culture. Irony doWilliam_blake_ten_virginses not always translate well in the American ear.  I am attempting through reference to the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, to attribute another’s misfortune to their own fecklessness, or carelessness, or maybe even their negligence. This safely distances me from my own anxiety that: there but for my vigilant preparation, go I.

The parable of the wise and foolish virgins so easily lends itself in support of a very unattractive quality of smugness or complacency. I remember a popular aphorism growing up: I’m alright Jack! This expresses a complacency in thinking that because I am in a good place, that’s all that matters.

Historical distance 

Matthew’s parables of the Kingdom are a reworking within the priorities of his own context the powerful and often disturbing images that Jesus employed to communicate the radical nature of God and the expectation of the Kingdom. Matthew’s context is one of bitter controversy. Acrimony between Jew and Jewish followers of Jesus, and between the gentile authority of Rome and the growing number of gentile followers of Jesus. These external tensions are played-out between the various elements that are coming together to form the fledgling Christian community. The tensions in the Matthean community around inclusion and exclusion were very real. Communal survival is all. Individual survival is linked to communal survival. Matthew emphasizes the consequences of failure as in being unprepared. The denouement with which he brings each of his parables of the Kingdom to a close offers a threat of terrible exclusion as the punishment for being unprepared.

Moral failure

The early Church was gripped by the expectation of the imminent return of the Lord. Yet, as they waited day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by-year, they experienced the inexplicable fact of the Lord’s delay. The picture of the virgins, waiting for the return of the bridegroom is a powerful metaphor for the experience of the early Christians. They found themselves waiting. Waiting is difficult because it involves being caught between the expectation and its delayed fulfillment. Waiting is the most difficult of all the experiences that we face as human beings.

Be prepared!, is a warning from Matthew to his readers lest they succumb to the anxieties of waiting and fall away. Afterall, how were the early Christians to endure their suffering without the expectation that the coming of their reward was immanent? A reward they would enjoy only if they remained prepared. Being prepared is nothing short of the discipline that ensures survival.

A deep uncertainty plagued Matthew and his community. This same uncertainty dogged the lives of all the early Christain communities. A deep uncertainty plagues our own communities today, but the nature of the uncertainty calls for quite a different response.

For us the sources of anxiety in waiting are different from those of the early Christians. Episcopalians, at least, do not seriously anticipate the imminent return of the Lord. For us, the need to be prepared is the way we defend against the vagaries of everyday experience. A different kind of judgement is reserved for the unprepared in our own day. Being cast into outer darkness where there is much gnashing of teeth has been replaced with a need to attribute moral failure to those who are less prepared than we might be. Through this attribution we distinguish ourselves from others less fortunate than us. We comfort ourselves with the belief that their experience is different from ours. The unprepared are not those who will fail to get into the Kingdom. For us, those who seem to be unprepared for life’s vicissitudes are the spectre of what we most fear in modern life, i.e. loss of control.

The troubling question

I know how Matthew uses this parable but I still wonder how Jesus might have used this parable? My guess is that it formed part of a more extensive teaching about the need to make a choice. Will you choose to be aligned with the coming of God’s Kingdom, or not.

We have something in common with the early Christians. We too struggle to survive the experience of waiting. In a time of waiting, the delay in the fulfillment of our expectation plays havoc with our sense of certainty. We crave the certainty of being able to predict what to expect and when to expect it. Otherwise, we ask, how else can we safely know what is reliable and what it not?

Bringing the parable home

The context in which I reflect on this parable is one in which my community, St Martin’s on Providence’s East Side, is engaged  in its Annual Renewal Campaign. The parable of the wise and foolish virgins is timely, as well as troubling. This is a parable that reinforces notions that we live in a world of scarcity. In a culture of scarcity, you keep what you have by not sharing it with others. Within a worldview that sees resources as limited, the pie is only so big. People of necessity are divided into the haves and the have-nots. At St Martin’s there is no mistaking that we are among the haves when the world is viewed from the perspective of scarcity.

I am finding that my invitation for us to come together and share stories of gratitude to God, as a way of encouraging one another in generosity of spirit, is receiving a mixed reception.  Some people get the message about gratitude and generosity immediately and respond with enthusiasm. Others, are clearly bamboozled by the message and respond with caution or resistance. Others still, see the message as a cleaver and devious ploy to get them to open their pocketbooks. The question in these people’s minds might be: if he’s really talking about money then why not come straight-out with it?

Buried within the invitation to celebrate gratitude and generosity lies a different question. This is: what is our attitude towards money and our practice of using our money? Do we hoard it in fear of not having enough, or do we share it, letting it flow from our experience of abundance as a force for the greater good?

Celebrating gratitude and generosity is celebrating our actual experience rather than focusing on our fears. Our actual experience is one of abundance through which we expose as a lie, our fearful assumptions of scarcity!

What I invite the members of my community to consider is simple. How can we reconnect our giving with our experience of gratitude and generosity – our experience of God’s gifts of abundance to us? It is only when our giving flows generously from our encounter with the sources of our gratitude to God, that it is capable of being an experience of fruitfulness for us. I believe the experience of being fruitful is something we are all so longing for. This quality of fruitfulness has nothing to do with how much or now little we have.


Back to the parable of the virgins. One question keeps nagging at me. Why didn’t all the virgins just go into the wedding breakfast upon the bridegroom’s arrival? They all went to sleep while waiting. So, unlike in other parables falling asleep is not the offence. During the time they were asleep 1024px-Schadow,FW-Die_klugen_und_törichten_Jungfrauen-1they continued to burn oil and so why didn’t the virgins who were running short simply exclaim their delight at the bridegroom’s arrival and dance into the wedding breakfast behind him? Afterall it’s not their fault the bridegroom is delayed. Instead, they panicked and went rushing off to buy oil from shops already long closed for the night.

Why did they panic? The bridegroom is clearly a metaphor for Christ, who is more likely to have rejoiced in their having waited for his arrival.  The reaction of these women to the bridegroom’s arrival has the whiff of shame about it. What is their shame? It smells to me to be their failure to be self-sufficient. We all know that failure to be self-sufficient leaves us feeling foolish. They feel foolish and even in olden times, feeling foolish seems as frightening a prospect as it remains today. Their foolishness lies in their lack of self-sufficiency, they are the losers in the: I’ve got enough, I’m alright Jack, game

Isn’t self-sufficiency the enemy of gratitude?

So Great a Cloud of Witnesses


In the Piers Paul Read’s novel The Death of a Pope a conversation is taking place over dinner in Kampala, Uganda between a young English reporter named Kate and a Catholic aid worker named Uriarte. Uriarte in explaining to Kate Uganda’s tribal and political complexity mentions the forty-five Bagandan Christian martyrs slain by the 19th century King of Baganda, now modern-day Uganda. Of the forty-five martyrs twenty-two were Roman Catholics, and the rest Anglicans. Uriarte says: the Church flourished on the blood of the martyrs …. it was like the early days of the Church. The Twenty-two Catholics were canonized by Pope Paul VI. Kate asks: Aren’t the Anglican martyrs in Heaven? Uriarte smiles: I dare say, but the Church of England doesn’t make saints. They don’t have a pope.

Of Saints and saints

On the pecking order of sainthood the martyrs are the crowning glory. However, as Uriarte hints at, it remains a thorny question as to what we mean when we talk about the saints? Because the word saint has two distinct meanings depending on whether you are using a capital or a lowercase s. Uriarte is correct, Saints can only be made by the Pope, which after the Reformation severely limits Sainthood to members of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s a nice question: what is the post-death status of the Anglican martyrs, are they non-official Saints or merely saints?

There are three qualifications for becoming a Saint. The first is quite simple, he or she must be dead! The second qualification is she or he needs to have been an elite Christian, having at least one attested miracle to their name. The third qualification is having the good fortune of being in communion with the Bishop of Rome.

Episcopalians, being Anglicans can’t make Saints anymore.  The feast of All Saints is nevertheless so important a celebration that it is only one of four feasts that the Prayer Book allows to take precedence over the propers for the Sunday nearest November 1st.

Yet, what about the saints, the ordinary Christians who have died without any record of having lived lives of extraordinary holiness, or died the death of a martyr? Traditionally, these we commemorate in more mournful tones on November 2nd with the feast of All Souls.

The Three-Tiered Universemichelangelo-buonarroti-the-last-judgement-1534-41_i-G-66-6636-GRUE100Z

The division between All Saints and All Souls represents the Medieval conception of the three-tiered universe. This vision drew extensively from the Apocalyptic literature of Old Testament in writings like the book of Daniel, Enoch, 1st and 2nd Maccabees. This tradition is carried over in full voice into the New Testament in the book of Revelation.

An apocalyptic theme concerns the fate of the souls of the righteous. These were they who had suffered gruesome martyrdom for the sake of the Nation of Israel. By the time of Jesus, the souls of the righteous were understood to rest in the hand of God where they awaited a full bodily resurrection at the time of the coming of the Messiah.

Drawing upon this apocalyptic theme, Medieval Christianity pictured the Saints occupying the top-tier of the three-tiered universe. They were called the Church Triumphant and it is they that the writer of  1 John pictures in the year A epistle for All Saints. The souls of the ordinary dead, those non-elite Christians in life, occupied the second tier, called the Church Expectant. Their souls did not dwell with God but following death waited in either in a state of suspended rest or writhing in pains of Purgatory, depending on your theology. Here, like the righteous heroes of Israel awaiting the coming of the Messiah, expectant souls must await the Parousia, i.e. the Second Coming of Christ.

At the Second Coming of Christ all the dead, both the souls of the Saints in triumph and the souls of the saints in expectation were to be raised to bodily form again. Resurrection, the return to embodied life, as demonstrated by Jesus was not merely a spiritual life after death, which state the Saints in triumph already enjoyed. Resurrection both in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity meant embodied life . As N.T. Wright calls it: not life after death, but life, after life, after death.

Which brings me to the third or bottom tier of the three-tiered universe. Here the still living remained in the Church Militant, here in earth. The living, those who in the words of the great hymn For all the saints, still vainly struggle in the hope that maybe at the end of time, they too, will in glory shine.

The Communion of Saints

Today, the echo of the three-tiered universe still permeates our imaginations. Yet, it no longer dominates our rational minds. Consequently, the division between All Saints and All Souls is falling away. Today, we tend to run the two together in one great celebration of All Saints, replacing the Medieval tiered universe with the image of the more egalitarian Communion of the Saints. This is an image of that great cloud of witnesses, envisioned by the writer to the Letter to the Hebrews, surrounding us with perpetual prayer and love.

We experience the presence of the saints both with an S and s in our lives through the concept of being in relationship. Relationship ties people together in this life. Relationship continues to unite us with our dead loved ones and all those whose witness in life provides us with hope and courage for our living. This is why in our Anglican Tradition, though we can’t make new Saints we continue to remember exemplary Christians in our calendar of Lesser Feats and Fasts, now rechristened Holy Men and Women in its latest edition. The Saints, those canonized by a pope, and the saints, those we continue to remember are now seen as one, united together with the living within the one Communion of Saints.

For me, the division between All Saints and All Souls, no longer resting on a hierarchical distinction between Saints and saints continues to have some meaning, but only in a psychological and not an eschatological sense. Psychologically, the experience of death carries both the hope life with God and the sadness occasioned by the loss of loved ones. Human Beings need both to celebrate and mourn in the face of death. The different notes struck by All Saints and All Souls do at least honor this dichotomy of need.

Going Back to the New Testament

The writer of I John, states: Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. It’s easy to picture being like God as an image of perfection. Yet, in the Beatitudes, Jesus paints a different picture of what it might be to be like God. In the New Testament saint does not refer to the elite Christians whose souls now enjoy immortal life with God. It refers to ordinary Christians engaged in the daily tasks of discipleship on this side of the grave. The hymn I Sing a Song of the Saints of God picks up this idea. Allowing for its rather quaint English schoolboy/girl imagery it hits the nail on the head:


 …the world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or on trains, or in shops, or at tea. 

In the New Testament to be a saint you don’t have to be dead. Matthew tells us that Jesus turning to his disciples began to speak:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  (Matthew 5:1-12 NEB) 

Baptism not death

In the New Testament it is through baptism not death that we become saints. Through our baptism we come into relationship together within the community of Christ’s Church. Here we participate in the miraculous at the level of everyday living. On this All Saints Sunday despite not having a pope, we at St Martin’s are making a saint. His name is Benjamin Liam McCloskey. Benjamin, through baptism joins the company of saints, which is the way the New Testament talks about communities of Christians like the one at St Martin’s.


You could see miracles as expressions of the extra-ordinary. However, I find this completly unhelpful, because I do not have any experience of the extra-ordinary. I live amidst the ordinary experiences of everyday life. Therefore, for me this is what the miraculous of the everyday looks like:

  • It is the act of listening bringing the miracle of healing to a brother or sister in pain.
  • It is standing in the place of fear with another, sharing our common humanity with one another, standing together and surviving being afraid.
  • Sharing our joys and being open to the infection of another’s joy and delight.

Through the miracles of everyday life we advance the Kingdom Of God in the here and now with:

  • The smile of acceptance of another’s difference
  • The pledge of solidarity with another’s struggle
  • The generosity and grace in providing material support of money or food to another in need

I call these miracles because through them we participate in God’s regeneration of the world through acts of grateful love and generous service.


I continue to remind all of us at St Martin’s concerning this month of our annual renewal program. Our focus is a challenging one for many of us conditioned by the idea of giving to the budget. The focus I want us to have is on gratitude to God; an experience from which the exercise of tender competence for one another and our world flows.

At the heart of this process is an invitation. God is inviting each one of us to connect with the sources of gratitude in our lives and to become accountable to our calling as God’s saints.  God invites you and me to live up to the nobility of our saintly calling by never missing an opportunity to embrace a generous action. Gratitude, generosity, and service, these are the building blocks in the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God, like being a saint, is not something for the life hereafter. It is living and active, cutting like a two-edged sword in the here-and-now of our lives together. We have a role to play: be it high and lofty, or down and dirty, for the saints of God are folk like me, and as the hymn quoted above end: and I mean to be one too! 

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