Hold Your Heads High
Hold Your Heads High

Hold Your Heads High

First Sunday of Advent. Fr Gregory Murphy preaches on the merciful judgement to come.

By a quirk of the calendar this year the First Sunday of Advent again falls in the month of November, the month in which we customarily remember and pray for the Holy Souls, those who having gone before us in the faith and now rest in the Lord. Indeed, as we approach the end of the Church’s calendar year our readings from Scripture, and our imaginations, are dominated by the four last things: Judgement, Death, Heaven and Hell.

We need not, I think, be overly concerned about the latter three: our dying and going to the Lord is inevitable, at some time; of heaven, the first letter of John assures us that while we are already God’s children “we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is” – perceive God as He is beyond the limits of our creaturely concepts (which is why most attempts to depict heaven in art and literature seem unconvincing); of hell, while in our freedom in principle we can reject God’s offer of sharing his life there is a long tradition in the Church that no-one ultimately is beyond the reach of God’s mercy. What of judgement? At the beginning of its year the Church invites us to reflect on this, orienting us to the second advent or coming of the Lord Jesus in glory.

In prophetic writings this ‘day of the Lord’ echoes Jesus’ warnings to his disciples in today’s gospel: it will be a day of wrath, ruin and devastation (Zephaniah); it is a day of retribution, a darkness, coming with a shock like a snakebite (Amos). These readings may seem apt for this time, when we are reaping the consequences of our failed stewardship of our world in wildfires and floods, with the attendant threats of famine, and when our complacency that we have conquered nature has been shaken by a new pestilence, exposing our own vulnerabilities and the stresses and inequalities within our societies.

But this is not the whole story. God’s grace always offers new possibilities for our healing and becoming holy. For in these days and in that time, the day of the Lord, against his predecessors, Jeremiah audaciously proclaims a message of great joy – symbolised in a branch growing from a fallen tree, new life from the ruin of the old – the restoration of integrity and peace in a Jerusalem made new. This happens because God is always faithful, never rejecting his covenant people – though they (and we) may turn from Him, as the psalm teaches us God shows the path to those who stray. Grace and judgement are closely connected in the writings of the prophets – while the love of God is fulfilled in the redemption of the people this same love consequently judges human sinfulness.

How do we understand this? The key, as Aquinas taught, is understanding that all the transcendental perfections (love, goodness, beauty, truth, justice and the like) attributed to God are as one, or interchangeable – Aquinas’ teaching on God’s simplicity. So, when we in our turn stand before the Son of Man we shall see ourselves, our actions, as God sees us, with all our masks and evasions stripped away – that is God’s justice. But at the same time we will be challenged to love ourselves as we are, as God loves us, unconditionally – that is God’s mercy, and accept God’s healing so that we can enter the communion of the blessed. That is why the Christian church prays for the dead, that they might come to fully share in the new life of the kingdom.

As the excerpt from 1st Thessalonians assures us, we are already a holy people, but we need to strive to be confirmed by God in holiness, in loving God by loving one another. So we need to be wary that the main project of our lives, growing in holiness, does not become obscured by other concerns and anxieties.

There are doubtless some who choose to obliviate care and anxiety by blotting it out through addictions and debauchery, though hopefully these are a minority. Most of us however do find ourselves threatened by the cares of this life – looking after ourselves and our families, work problems, concern about the affairs of government – all of this can make us numb to the coming of the Kingdom in the second advent of Jesus. Luke, in his misquoting Daniel – the Son of Man coming on a cloud rather than ‘clouds’ explicitly links the second coming of Jesus to his Ascension in his humanity to the Father – emphasises that where the Lord has gone we too hope to come. We should not allow ourselves, therefore, to become too oppressed by present anxieties. Rather, we should stand erect, with heads high and go confidently before the Son of Man, for our liberation from all cares, our healing and our redemption is at hand.

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16 | 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2 | Luke 21:25-28,34-36

Image: Mosaic from the north transept of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington DC photographed by Lawrence Lew OP

Fr Gregory Murphy is currently engaged in parochial ministry and teaching in the Diocese of Dunkeld.

Comments (1)

  • John Matthew

    Brilliant, Father Gregory and heartfelt thanks. The first time I read your homily I admit I was in a hurry and I thought it was a bit muddled but now after reading it again I feel so lifted up by your analysis. It will change my outlook so much. I now feel there is so much hope for me and everybody and I hope that everyone takes plenty time to read and re read your brilliant offering.


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