- Written by Benjamin Carter
were we led all this way for
Birth or Death?
Words from the nameless wiseman towards the end of T.S. Eliot’s great poem The Journey of the Magi are a strange place to begin an Advent sermon you might think. Strange because it takes us straight to the end of the journey we will walk this Advent. After all, surely the one thing everyone knows about this time of year is that there will be a birth.
But what Eliot’s words remind us is that the Christian journey to the crib, the journey we share with the Magi is not an easy one. The cost of Christmas is that, as we journey towards the crib, we know that it also leads to the cross. That that birth leads to that death. So as we recognise the hardness of this journey we also recognise that this is indeed a fitting place to begin our Advent journey.
For centuries, the Church used Advent to reflect not simply on the promise of a birth, but to spend this time reflecting on our own mortality, our own fragility and limitations. This has traditionally been done through and examination of "The Four Last Things": Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell.
This reflection on our limitations, and our total reliance on the gift of that promised birth, is why this is a penitential season. Like Lent we put aside Glorias and Alleluias, and don purple as we reflect on our own shortcomings as we ask again whether we “were will led all that way for Birth or Death”.
Over the coming weeks I want to take the opportunity to explore in turn The Four Last Things. Using our readings from the book Isaiah I hope they will be an opportunity for us to reflect on this great Christian tradition, and through that understand again the transforming promise God makes to us in Advent.
The book of Isaiah is a fitting companion for our journey because of the vital role Isaiah plays in our understanding of the promise of Christmas.
Often described as ‘The Fifth Gospel’, the book of Isaiah contains within it many of the great prophesies of the Messiah quoted in the Gospels: the Virgin Birth, the Son of David. More than that it also carries with it the imagery and poetry we have subsumed into our imaginative telling of the Christmas story. Try as you might, you can't find ox and ass lowing in the Gospels; but they are there in Isaiah.
So as we begin to reflect on ‘Death’ – the first of our four last things – it is right that we begin today at the start of the greatest of the prophetic books of the Old Testament.
Death is a hard place to start. It is a hard place to start because death seems so final. Even if we live in “sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life” there is still a finality, an honest certainty to death. Much of this is just a fact of life. There is after all nothing certain in life except death and taxes. In our modern world death has become a singular state defined solely as the opposite of life.
But in the world of Isaiah, in fact in the world before our modern scientific age, death had a fuller meaning. Of course, death was that state which existed after the end of life. But death was also a state which surrounded us in life.
“In the midst of life we are in death”, we hear in the Book of Common Prayer. Words drawn themselves from the mediaeval funeral rites. Death in this pre-modern sense is less a scientific fact, and more a living-state where life cannot be lived. Whether through violence, or chronic illness, or the sheer fact of frequent and seemingly random mortality; death was a part of pre-modern life in a way which is hidden from the vast majority of us.
But we kid ourselves if we think that there are not those in our world who live in the midst of death. Countless numbers live in the midst of the death of grief, or chronic illness, the living-death of war or abuse. But I want to focus on one experience of this modern living-death, hidden in plain sight, the living-death created by the crippling power of debt.
In case you missed it, Friday was “Black Friday”. If you weren’t up at 5am spending-spending-spending then by all modern measures you were clearly doing something wrong. Over £2 billion spent on Friday. Some of that spending was no doubt for Christmas presents and gifts for loved ones. But much of it will have been spending for spending’s sake. And many people can’t afford this.
We live in a country where the average household now has £10,000 of non-mortgage debt. Finance through credit-cards and pay day lenders is easily available. Lives are ruined by debts which snowball, and lives entrapped by the clutches of loan sharks. This time of year as we are surrounded by adverts which tell us to “buy this” and “buy that”, to “just have one more”, and then another, and then another, and then well, you might be happy, for a moment.
But life doesn’t work like that. Money is a great servant but a terrible master. To live in debt, to live with money as your master is to live in a state a state of living-death. Not knowing how bills will be paid, how the house will be heated, how food will be bought.
In the midst of life we are in death.
But it does not have to be this way.
In our reading from Isaiah we hear God’s promise to the power of death – all death – with his promise of life. The prophet tells us:
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
This is such a well known passage that it is worth spending a little time with it.
The remarkable power of this promise is not that peace will come – that is after all the promise that all political leaders offer - but that peace will come peaceably.
God’s promise is not to fight the forces of death and destruction with more death and destruction. But that life shall over come death as ‘nation shall not lift up sword again nation/ neither shall they learn war any more.’
This powerful promise of the victory of peace, or the defeat of violence and death is made more transformative because this is achieved not by the casting down of the implements of death, but by their transformation.
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
These words can guide us all as we search for life in those forms of living-death we find in our contemporary society.
We naturally focus on the military aspects of this passage – but there is also a deep economic message it tells. Swords and spears – like our modern weapons of war – were very expensive in the time if Isaiah. So, to say that they should be transformed into tools for growing food was not just a poetic argument, it was an image of how we can transform the relationships of death through the wise and generous use of wealth and money.
Recently the Lifesavers project was launched. A Church of England initiative to teach young people the value of sound financial management so that we nurture a generation aware of the dangers and pitfalls, aware of the living-death, that poor financial management can create. Here in this project we have our own modern version of swords being turned into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.
At the beginning of this season we ask again whether we will journey all this way for a birth or a death. As with the Magi of Eliot’s poem we come to recognise that rather than opposites, the two are inseparable. That we can only find the true meaning of God’s promise if we face up to living realities of death.
But as we continue this journey we find again in that birth that deep promise that Isaiah speaks of; that contained in this promised birth is God’s deep promise to overcome all death.
Sermons and occasional musings of the Vicar and Curate of all the best bits of Hadrian's Wall.
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The Vicar: Benjamin Carter
The Curate: Gill Alexander
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