Apocalypse now: An Advent Reflection

images-3Advent Sunday sees the gospel focus switch from Luke, our guide through Jesus’ ministry over these last 12 months to Matthew, who will be our guide over the coming year. Advent Sunday 2016 opens with Matthew 24:36-44. In this little apocalypse  Jesus addresses the experience of uncertainty, loss, and expectation about the day and the hour no one knows. In a nutshell, Jesus tells his hearers that in the end, all is going to be as it should be according to the mind of God. However, the period of time between now and then involves a great deal of uncertainty and suffering. Can there be a worse message than this with which to open a new Church year? Uncertainty fills the imagination with dark foreboding.

So much of the way we manage our experience is to minimize uncertainty as much as possible. We are compelled to do this even if we are self-aware enough to recognize that our sense of certainty is nothing more than enveloping ourselves in an illusion of predictability. We need, it seems, a certain level of certainty predicated upon our faith in life as predictable. The past colors the present and sets the parameters for the future. What we can expect is conditioned by what we already know. How safe, and yet how limiting.

Apocalyptic writing emerges over and over again in the Biblical record. Its presence identifies periods of history when our ability to successfully envelop ourselves in the illusion of predictable continuity becomes impossible to sustain. When things get so bad, when social conditions break down under the weight of persecution, then the only option for believers is to project their hope onto the event horizon variously referred to as the end times, the Day of Judgment, the Second Coming of the Lord.In periods when apocalyptic language is the only language powerful enough to express a current experience of acute uncertainty and profound disappointment, hope leapfrogs into an imagined future.

Yet, apocalyptic writing is misleading if you think its attention is only directed to the end time event horizon. Apocalyptic writing is also focused on the response of the faithful to their experience in the present time. Scholars are divided on whether Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 are predictive of the fall of Jerusalem or a reframing by the Evangelist writing after the event itself. The use of apocalyptic language and imagery is uncharacteristic in Jesus’ teaching and this tends to lend weight to the opinion that chapter 24 is Matthew writing from within the acute social and religious dislocation following the destruction of Jerusalem.

Differing interpretations

Christian communities across America listening to this gospel reading on Advent Sunday will approach the text in three broad ways. [1]

  1. Strongly fundamentalist-separatist congregations whose approach to the world is inherently adversarial will see Jesus’ words as an accurate description of their experience in the present time filtered through a prediction of the immediate future. For these Christians, the battle is already joined and the victory of Christ’s return is nigh. In the meantime, the work is to remain pure, uncontaminated, and in some extreme cases to be prepared to take up arms to hasten the glad day of the Lord’s coming.
  1. Evangelical Christians, within the mainstream of evangelical thought, will tend to wonder more about the immediate predictive nature of Jesus’ words. For them, the Second Coming is a firm expectation, yet attending to the literal meaning of Jesus’ words will lead them to focus less on the when of the Second Coming and more on the need to be ready for it, no matter when it comes. Being ready is a matter of being watchful, vigilant, prepared for its arrival at any moment. In the meantime, it’s a matter of individual accountability in the work of conversion of souls as well as the transformation of society. Through whatever political means at hand, souls must be won and society must be conformed to an evangelical Christian belief in the Bible as an internally consistent rule book for modern government.
  1. Mainline and progressive Christian communities will understand Jesus’ use of apocalyptic language as metaphor, or even hyperbole, i.e. exaggeration for effect. Among these Christians, the Second Coming is no longer thought of as a once-and-for-all event, but as an evolutionary or unfolding process. Thus their understanding of the Kingdom is that it is already here and yet still in the process of unfolding – it is now and also not yet. Making the Kingdom a reality crucially depends on the capacity of God’s people to work in covenanted partnership with God as collaborative agents – working in the present time for justice and peace.

Confusing overlap

There is a temptation to mistake peace and justice for the metrics of the Kingdom’s coming. We so long to feel in control of events yet as Jesus reminds us all we can know is that in the fullness of God’s vision and in God’s own time the trajectory of the Kingdom always bends towards justice.

As a preacher, I believe my task is to address Jesus’ words for a community within a mainline-progressive Christian perspective. For many in my community, it feels the work of agitating for the expectations of the Kingdom just got a little bit harder with the loss of an attentive ear of government. Understandable though this perception is, it is nevertheless mistaken. Progressive Christian and secular humanist perspectives overlap considerably, yet they have quite different origins and motivations.

One of my tasks as a preacher within a mainline-progressive Christian context is to more clearly differentiate between the coming of the Kingdom and the Post-Enlightenment socio-political agenda. The latter focuses on the perfectibility of human society by its own means and according to its own insights. This is a boastful agenda that believes it has grown up and moved beyond any need to recognize the spiritual dimension in human experience.

In differentiating between a progressive Christian vision and a secular-humanist agenda, this Christian vision’s emphasis falls on the partnership between God and human agency. it is this partnership that provides the engine for social change as a fulfillment of the expectations of  God’s reign.

In contrast to the secular humanist belief in human society’s potential for self-perfectibility through political progress, i.e. with the right policies things will always get better and better, the mainline-progressive Christian vision is a sharing of the divine vision. This is a vision in which human beings’ have a part to play, but the vision does not originate with us and will not be accomplished by us without God.

A theology of covenant

This is the tradition of Covenant Theology, a continuous theological thread woven into the heart of the Hebrew and Christian understandings of the human-divine relationship. How does this task look on Advent Sunday 2016 in which we continue to find ourselves living in a world of increasing uncertainty? How do we maintain a hope-filled orientation to the world?

In confronting our experience  Jesus reminds us that uncertainty is not only natural but might even be desirable. Because we cannot know the day or the hour, we live in the hope of God’s promises. We implement our hope through the agency of human action, i.e. doing our part in partnership with God. If we do our part, God promises to do God’s part. This is not a matter of contingent promise – I will do my part only if you do yours – it’s a recognition that in accordance with our creation in God’s image as beings with free will, God chooses not the encroach into the areas for which we are the accountable party in the contract or covenant.

The paradox

We remember that to have hope, to expect is to live as if that for which we hope is already available to us. Hope moves well beyond any notion of pie-in-the-sky wistfulness. Hope costs, hope pains, hope risks. Hope is somewhat paradoxical in that it is the transformation of our experience of loss and disappointment into an alliance with the purposes of God.

Advent is a time for facing our disappointments and letting them become for us an opportunity for the transformation of our experience of pain, loss, and disappointment. Through grace pain, loss, and disappointment become reframed within a larger meaning.

st_johns_church_little_giddingWith the commemoration of Nicholas Ferrar, Deacon 1637, in the first week of the Advent Season, I am taken back once more to T.S. Elliot’s poem Little Gidding -the fourth in his extended series Four Quartets. The poem was inspired by his visit to the little church in the Huntingdonshire village of Little Gidding during the depths of the dark, war-weary winter of 1941. If you are looking for an Advent meditation, I commend the poem to you. In a Wikipedia entry, the editor speaks of the poem:

as a discussion of time and winter with attention paid to the arrival of summer. The images of snow, which provoke desires for a spiritual life, transition into an analysis of the four classical elements of fire, earth, air and water and how fire is the primary element of the four. Following this is a discussion on death and destruction, things unaccomplished, and regret for past events.

Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 are echoed in Elliot’s exploration of the play on time – endings being also beginnings, and the familiar providing an opportunity to know something for the first time. In juxtaposing winter and summer, regret and hope Elliot makes Little Gidding particularly pertinent for Advent reflection.

As we commence our own Advent preparations amidst the  commercial distractions of a premature Christmas, we might pay especial attention to the actions of God’s grace. Grace (Elliot’s fire) transforms thwarted emotional energy to become the engine of our hope. In hope, we discover the paradox that hope does not need to know the day or the hour, the time or the place. Being a transformation of the energies of loss, hope becomes the compass, the directional finder aligning us with the expectations of God’s Kingdom.

This Advent Sunday what kind of place is it we have arrived at? Are we not so sick and tired of ourselves that we long for something to be different and so are ready to risk in order to move forward? The apocalyptic language of Matthew 24 is a reminder to us of Elliot’s immemorial lines:

What we call the beginning is often the end
/And to make and 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.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3089

Modelling Resistance and Reconciliation

CHrist the King


This Sunday, the last in the season after Pentecost is Christ the King. Christ the King is a relative newcomer in our Anglican-Episcopal calendar, having been adopted only with the Three-Year Ecumenical Lectionary. The Sunday before Advent was traditionally known to us as stir-up Sunday because of the opening words of the Collect: 

STIR up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

The English joke that the name stir-up Sunday derived from this Sunday marking the first occasion for the many stirrings of the Christmas Pudding, presents a lighter side to this day. There is, however, a more serious side to the designation of Christ the King for the last Sunday of the calendar year. In 1925 Pius XI proclaimed the feast of Christ the King as an assertion of the Catholic Church’s protest against the rise of fascism and the growing threat of communism.

Against these forces, Pius XI asserted the old Constantinian power of the Church as the only center of allegiance for Roman Catholics. At a considerable cost to liberty and freedom of thought within the Church, he marshaled the Catholic legions against those he perceived as the enemy.

The historical context for the origins of the commemoration sounds a tone today that is also problematic. This is an old story of one authoritarian system asserting itself against competing, equally authoritarian rivals. This is problematic because the Episcopal Church lays no such claims to this style and exercise of political-monarchical authority. Consequently, we have to find our own more authentic understanding of Christ as King.


Luke 23:33-43, a section of Jesus’ Passion Narrative appointed to be read on Christ the King this year points us back to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion in our search for a model of Christ as King that is authentic to our tradition.

The crucifixion is the end phase of a process that has Jesus embroiled in a complex three-way political power play between the Temple Authorities, the Roman Governor, and an angry and anxious populace. Finally, the Temple priests have Jesus in their grasp. Yet, they fail to get Pilate to easily do their bidding. Pilate thinks he has adroitly outmaneuvered the Chief Priests in finding no charge against Jesus. However, as he prepares to release him he is confronted by the third force in this political quagmire – the people who on realizing Pilate’s intention clamor for the release of Barabbas, a much more dangerous yet popular rabble-rouser. Throughout history, crowds seem to have an attraction for bullies who appear to be men who will upset things and get things done. Pilate is trapped. Although fully prepared to thwart the designs of the Chief Priests he caves before the pressure of the threat of popular agitation.


Politically, there is nothing new under the sun. Like many at the moment, I find myself transfixed and at the same time repulsed by the drama of the Trump presidential transition appointments. I know that there are others who like me are also transfixed, but yet unlike me, are excited by this process and its prospects. At times, I do approach a feeling of excitement as I catch glimpses of the possibility that Donald Trump might be, inadvertently so to speak, the catalyst for the change we all so yearn for. In other moments, I am filled with fear at the dangers and uncertainties opening before us.

Amidst our uncertainties and deep soul questioning in this post-election period, we have a sense that something fundamental has changed. Whether fearful, or celebratory, or merely curious we all remain so close to events that it’s difficult to see clearly, exactly what it is that has shifted and whether this shift is for better or worse?

I read calls for reconciliation. I hear calls for resistance. I suspect both will be needed yet I am mindful that both reconciliation and resistance involve negotiating confusing tensions. When does reconciliation become simply a cover for appeasement? When does resistance degenerate into a party politically motivated refusal to accept democratic process?

Yet, I am increasingly aware of a third call beginning to emerge; a call for repentance. How has the Left lost the popular support of working men and women? It is sobering to remember that the block who unequivocally voted for the Trump ticket are the people who supported Roosevelt and the New Deal, and who most recently returned Barak Obama to two terms in the presidency. As the Democratic mainstream faces up to a need for repentance, it’s not a matter of diversity politics or jobs to combat poverty. Why not both at the same time, wouldn’t that be a novel idea?

In the interests of even-handedness, it’s also salutary to remind the Right, that although the Republican electorate, in the end, threw itself behind a Trump victory, this is not the wider electorate’s endorsement for Repbublican policies which overwhelmingly favor the 1%. One thing becomes clear, the working class electorate is not stupid as many had begun to fear, it seems to have simply become desperate.


I suspect as we move forward, the specificity of unfolding events will offer greater clarity to each of us about how we need to respond. In Luke 23 Jesus’ ministry has led him to such a moment. Hanging on the cross he makes the ultimate offer of reconciliation. Yet during his trial, he has presented a powerful if perplexing model of resistance in his refusal to play the tit-for-tat power game. Jesus’ strength lies in his very vulnerability and is this not why we overlook him as our model for our political response?

The vulnerability of non-violence reveals Jesus’ truth; that God can do nothing with our pretense of strength. Our pretense of strength squeezes God from our frame of reference. Our vulnerability, on the other hand, offers God an invitation to enter into our picture of the world and to partner with us. Jesus’ vulnerability becomes an opportunity for God to act for the crucifixion is not the end of the story.

That the fear of being vulnerable unleashes a virulent strain of paranoia in any culture, is not a new discovery. We see this coming to the fore as the voices of racial, religious and cultural purity gain ascendancy across the world as otherwise helpless politicians and leaders seek to advantage themselves through the exploitation of fear. Everywhere we see the mounting consequences for populations whose fate is to pose the specter of the utter helplessness we defend against recognizing in ourselves.

It’s a sorry story of history that Pius XI didn’t foresee his increasing resort to authoritarianism to confront authoritarian assaults would lead to a distortion that ultimately made it hard to distinguish between friend and foe.


The deepest insight of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition is that humanity is made in the image of God. The implications of this are rather far reaching to contemplate. So instead the Church has always had a tendency to reverse this central insight and to see God as refracted through our image of ourselves; Christ as an  earthly potentate.

When God becomes remade in our image the result is one where violence, oppression, hatred, and fear become divinely sanctioned – Christ dons the trappings of our earthly rulers’ pretense of strength. To realize that we are made in the image of God requires us to embrace vulnerability and be changed by this experience. This impels us to focus on solving problems at source. This is what it means to be agents, not of a worldly rule given the fig leaf of divine sanction, but of the continued in-breaking of the Kingdom of God that moves one heart, one mind, one breath at a time.

We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer continues:800px-hrdlicka_portrait_bonhoeffer_wien

Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men [and women]. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?  

As with Jesus, we may discover there is a cost attached. In searching for an interpretation of Christ the King that is more authentic to our own tradition, Luke’s gospel directs our attention back to the iconic image of Jesus, not robed in kingly power, but hanging on a cross. Perhaps here we can see an image of reconciliation as the ultimate expression of resistance. 

An anonymous Franciscan blessing goes:

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 doneAmen

Things Take the Time they Take




On Veterans Sunday, we honor the serving members of the armed forces. On Veterans Sunday we also confess our hypocrisy, for we praise these men and women while on the battlefront and ignore them when they return home with bodies broken and minds scarred.

Throughout the British Commonwealth, this is Remembrance Sunday. Both Veterans and Remembrance Days originate in Armistice Day, the day when in 1918 at the 11th hour of the 11th day, of the 11th month, the guns on the Western Front fell silent. It was to be the war to end all wars. This was a hope unrealized. A hope added to a long list of broken dreams. Across the globe, nations will remember their war dead with these solemn words from the third stanza of Robert Lawrence Binyon’s poem: For the Fallen.

For they shall not grow old and we that are left grow old: age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.

On Armistice Day in 1918, the first rector of St Martin’s, Dr. Washburn celebrated the Eucharist in France where he was serving as a chaplain in the American Expeditionary Force. The significance of the day for Dr. Washburn lay not only in its contemporaneous importance but also because it was Martin’s Day -the feast day of the St Martin of Tours, our patron saint. He wrote home to the Vestry of his feelings on this day and we have his letter in our archives.


In the hymnal we find at number 591 the words:

O God of earth and altar bow down and hear our cry. Our earthly rulers falter, our people drift and die. The walls of gold entomb us, the sword of scorn divides. Take not thy thunder from us, but take away our pride.

So begins the first stanza of a poem penned by G.K. Chesterton in 1906. Following a meeting of the Church Socialist League in 1912 the delegates marched on Lambeth Palace with a petition to the Archbishop of Canterbury. They marched through central London and across Lambeth Bridge singing the words of Chesterton’s poem to the tune of Kings Lynn.

This was a particularly difficult time in British national life. The Christian Socialists[1] marched against the background of viral militarist jingoism gripping the national imagination as the arms race with Germany intensified. They marched against the backdrop of deep labor agitation with a national coal miners strike in progress. The prospect of civil war was suggested as a solution to the nation’s ills. The First World War was welcomed by many in the Establishment because it provided the opportunity to cleanse the bloodlines of the nation – as Winnington-Ingram, Bishop of London -proclaimed on the eve of war in 1914.

G.K. Chesterton came late to Christianity and only became a Roman Catholic in 1922. He came from the Left and is reported to have said that:

the only alternative to being a Socialist was not being a Socialist- and not being a socialist was a perfectly ghastly thing. It meant being a small headed and sneering snob, who grumbled at the rates (property taxes) and the working-classes.[2]

The words seem both quaint and yet poignant for us living in another time and national context. O God of earth and altar rang out through the tumultuous years leading up to the First World War. These words continued to inspire the Christian Left during the tensions of the interwar years . They remind us that our own time of tumult is not unprecedented within living memory. The powerful and polarizing sentiments that suggest civil war as a solution to the ills that besiege us, is I fear, not far from some people’s minds.

We have been living through a period of increasing national polarization during which confidence in the integrity and functionality of our democratic institutions has been called into question.  Contempt for democracy and the Constitution has marked the very party that claims superior allegiance to the Constitution on the floors of both the Senate and the House. The recent election evidences at least, the integrity of the electoral process.

We can all take heart from this. The fact that a candidate for the presidency can win the popular vote and lose the Electoral College is a perennial complexity of the American system. Yet it is not an indication of any deficit in the democratic integrity of our electoral process. Therefore, we echo Mrs. Clinton, President Obama, and Bishop Knisely when we call upon all to respect the outcome and now to pray for the President Elect.


Mr. Trump seems now to be something of a blank canvas as we wait to see how the campaigning Trump transforms into the presidential Trump. Shakespeare reminds us that:

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.

I despise the way Mr. Trump campaigned. As I mentioned last week, his style of campaigning has unleashed dark forces into civic consciousness that will be hard to banish back into our collective unconsciousness. Yet he won on the promise of a real departure from business as usual in the corridors and chambers of political power. Many of us are still struggling with our grief and fear. Yet, whether as supporters or detractors, we all find common cause in earnestly desiring an end to our political culture of fiddling while Rome burns. Whether or not our hopes are fulfilled, time will tell.


In her poem Don’t Worry Mary Oliver pens:

Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.

Oliver’s words bring an important nuance to Jesus’ words of dire prediction in Luke 21 in which he confronts his disciples as they marvel at the grandeur and beauty of the Second Temple, a source of great national pride for them. Jesus’ words cut them off at the knees – as it were, as he warns them of the Temple’s eventual destruction accompanied by complete social breakdown – a prediction that must have seemed inconceivable to them.

Within the prediction of calamitous events of social and environmental collapse Jesus tells us that the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God will take the time it takes and we are not to worry about that – frustrating, even frightening, certainly disappointing for us though this may be.

Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple and with it the last semblances of a Jewish Nation. Luke records Jesus’ prophecy from the other side of the actual historical experience. It is tempting to draw parallels between this period and our own national situation in the second decade of the 21st century.

Mid to late 1st Century Jewish society had fragmented into conflicting factions -violently opposed to one another because of their disagreement over how to respond to increasing Roman oppression. As the increasing impossibility for religious accommodation to the political order mounted, different groups found different solutions[3].

Instead of Roman Oppression, today we divide along similar lines in response to a new imperialism of globalization with its propensity to favor technology and transnational capital flow over the human and societal interests of labor.

We have an urgent need to learn how to walk in one another’s shoes. Our differences reflect the way our own personal experience colors the way we see the world. Personally, I find the best way to do this, is, to be honest about what scares me and to invite others to do likewise. We all fear the experience of  the underdog in a culture where abundance is masked by anxiety and a general assumption of scarcity. Hense the rich get richer while everyone else stagnates if not become poorer in real terms. We all fear being oppressed and discriminated against by the imposition of someone else’s rulebook.

Consequently, there is an underdog experience somewhere in all our lives. We hide from this experience by uber-dogging one another. What if we begin to relate to one another across the seeming chasms that divide us with the assumption that what unites us is the shared underdog experience?


Despite the time it takes, Jesus’ message is that the Kingdom even when it is attended by the rumor of war, civil conflict, and familial betrayals, is one of assurance for God is a God of liberation –I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt– and his purposes cannot long be delayed.

In the meantime, we have work to do as we daily fulfill the five promises of our Baptismal Covenant. These commit us to redouble our fight for justice, equality, and freedom from the oppressions of racism, homophobia, and misogyny. In the meantime, let’s hope Mr. Trump does mean what he says about breaking open the Washington logjam by challenging the corruption of political and vested interest privilege. If he does this we might hear Jesus speaking through Mary Oliver’s words:

Things take the time they take. Don’t worry! How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine? 

So we pray for President Elect Trump. We pray that God will shape him in new ways as he takes on the mantle of leadership. As we do so we continue to sing songs of expectation, marching to the promised land!

[1] Americans need to be reminded that British Socialism grew not from the root of Marxism but from the Gospel imperatives as championed by Christians especially Methodism and other ‘Non-Conformist Protestant Traditions and by Anglo-Catholicism within the Church of England.

[2] Cited by Christopher Howse writing in the Telegraph, Sept 12th 2015

[3] The Essenes retreated into wilderness regions where they kept a strict separation from everything outside their communities, hunkering down to wait for the end-times. The Zealots took up armed conflict and took the fight to the Romans, at one point driving them from Jerusalem for a period of time. The Sicarii carried out street-level guerilla warfare assassinating Roman officials and Jewish collaborators. The Sadducees, the ultimate accommodationist party, fared poorly at the hands of the Zealots. The Pharisees suffered also as their ability to hold a middle way of fidelity to God and obedience to civil authority became less and less tenable. Those who did not take up arms found solace in an apocalyptic vision of their present suffering portrayed in future language and images of the immense final conflict that would usher in the reign of God and the vindication of the persecuted.


Multiple Reflections on All Saints-All Souls


The human race has a collective unconscious principally accessed through the vehicle of culture. Through culture, we gain access to the universal (common to all humanity) and the particular (located within the particularity of a culture) repositories of the collective unconscious. The word repository is a good one here.The collective unconscious houses the violent impulses of a society or culture. This is material too dangerous to allow free reign because the destructive nature of such collective unconscious material poses a threat to the stability of a civilized society.The collective unconscious is where a culture or society’s primal instincts, impulses, memories are banished through the mechanism of repression – a form of collective forgetting.

Because the mechanism of repression is a form of forgetting, we are easily lulled into a false assumption that what is forgotten has been deleted from our cultural experience. We are surprised when unconscious material resurfaces into the field of conscious awareness. Cultures and societies often imagine they have moved on from the memories of a more violent past. Like material we imagine has been deleted from the hard drive on a computer, the cultural violence of the past lurks out of sight and out of collective mind. On a computer hard drive deleted material simply awaits the right program to unlock its retrieval. In the case of a society or culture circumstances of uncertainty and conflict weaken the mechanism of repression; allowing the primitive phobias rooted in hatred and fear to re-emerge into the conscious awareness of the civic space.

The idea of a collective unconscious is one of Carl Jung’s important contributions to the field of depth psychology. Yet, the core idea of the unconscious is best summed up by a maxim of the great Sigmund Freud who said that what we can no longer remember we are destined to repeat.


I begin this reflection on the significance of the commemorations of All Saints- All Souls on November 1st and 2nd this year with this brief exploration of the workings of the collective unconscious because underneath the Christian carapace of All Saints and All Souls lie very ancient pagan spiritualities. Pagan spiritualities speak to a more primal level of collective experience. These continue to be represented to the modern American consciousness in the rituals of the Celtic Halloween and the Aztec Dia de los Muertos.

Celtic Halloween and the Aztec Dia de los Muertos represent an uncanny similarity. Each is historically and culturally distinct, completely unrelated to the other, yet, their similarity evidences the universal – transcultural – elements of the collective unconscious still very much in play. They both represent cultural responses to the fear of the power of Otherness – that which cannot be seen but remains strongly felt through its malignant influence upon everyday experience. The Halloween custom of disguise expresses our ancestors fear of death. They disguised themselves with costume, mask and face paint in an attempt to hide personal identity from the demons let loose at this time to roam the earth.

This All Saints-All Souls tide, we continue in the nightmare of dark collective and cultural forces reawakened and revitalized, demons of our collective past, which many of us naively believed had been deleted from the cultural hard drive. The endless cycles of an invasive news media communicate into our waking and sleeping the incontrovertible proof of the dark fears of Otherness let loose upon our civic landscape.  Xenophobia, homophobia, racism, or misogyny, fears we thought we had become either liberated from or had at least made social and cultural progress against once again slip their chains in our collective unconscious to re-emerge into the conscious awareness of our shared civic/cultural conversations.

These collective phobias of Otherness never go away. They have never really been forgotten. Our only protection against them lies in a constant conscious remembering to avoid the ambush of unexpected repetition.


images-2Everything in the universe is interconnected and interdependent, nothing is really forgotten. The Medieval Church understood this only too well in the grand panorama of a three-tiered universe comprised of the Church Militant here in earth, the Church Expectant – those having passed through death into a state of preparation for eventual entry into the third tier of the Church Triumphant – the saints in heaven who now worship night and day before the throne of the Lamb of God. Prayer as an expression of love and affection, of a sense of indissoluble interconnectedness and the ongoingness of relationship, flowed up and down along a two-lane highway connecting the tiers of the three-fold universe.

The 21st-century mind is not the medieval mind. Between them lie the vicissitudes of a process Charles Taylor has called disenchantment. For us the three-tiered universe is at best a wonderful metaphor that stimulates imagination, or is at worst a fairy story explanation, which having grown up, the Western mind is no longer in need of. Yet, at the heart of the three-tiered metaphor lies a profound understanding of the nature of interconnection communicating the indissolubility of relationship.

For many today, myself included, the medieval imaginary is now replaced by a quantum imaginary. The metaphors of web and network, particle and wave, and the structure of parallel dimensions provide the metaphors for interconnection and communication within a culturally syntonic (culturally compatible) expression of ancient realities.


Descending from a cosmic panorama to the human dimension we encounter the central truth at the heart of All Saints and All Souls. All Saints is the only festival that can be transferred to a Sunday so as to take precedence over the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. The reason for this is that spiritually and psychologically, All Saints-All Souls, link light and dark, white and black, joy and sorrow. These linked commemorations express the fundamental truth that for human beings death is an ambiguous experience.

All Saints expresses the truth that death is merely a biological event at a point along a continuum of life change. As the Eucharistic preface for the dead puts it – for to thy faithful people O Lord,  life is changed but not ended, and when our mortal bodies lie in death, there is prepared for us a resting place, eternal in the heavens. 

This expresses the belief that the life now and the life to come are interconnected by the ongoing nature of relationship continued and sustained through prayer. Thus in the saints, we rejoice with those who have been made complete in the love of God. We continue to request their spiritual concern and the support of their prayer so that the love of those who now worship from a nearer shore continues to strengthen us in our task to be the Church in the world.

Yet, unremitting cheerfulness in the face of death denies our wrenching experience of physical loss and separation from those we love but see no longer. Grief is the response to loss as we experience loved ones kidnapped by death. In the commemoration of All Souls, we give expression to this human dimension of death and although they do not need our commendation, we need to commend them to the mercy and love of God. For us, this is an expression of our continued sense of involvement with them. We ask their prayers and in return, we pray for them as they move into the next phase of a life that is eternal.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with endurance the race set out for us. Hebrews12:1

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑