Things in Heaven and Things on Earth

Things in Heaven and Things on Earth

Solemnity of Christ the King. Fr Dominic White reflects on suffering and our role in redeeming creation (we also publish a poem written by fr Dominic on related themes).

“It’s not the end of the world!” Everywhere I’ve travelled, people say this. For our world to end would be a disaster: it would be the end of everything familiar, everything we know. The trouble is that when suffering comes to us – losing our job, relationship break-up, illness, bereavement, or a global disaster like the Philippines typhoon – we can indeed feel it’s the end of our world. And in a way we’re right: the old certainties, the old comforts, have gone – perhaps forever.

As Christians, we don’t try to explain suffering away. We don’t try to pretend either that it’s just not happening, or frantically try to avoid it. We see Christ on the Cross, suffering with us.

And we see more. In today’s Second Reading, St. Paul, perhaps quoting an early Christian hymn, gives us an essential insight into the cross. Jesus, who is “the Beginning, the first-born from the dead” reconciled “things in heaven and things on earth” on the Cross. Stretched between heaven (the invisible) and earth (the visible), between God and creation, and his arms wide to embrace the whole of time and space, Jesus embraces all that is good and all that is broken. And he makes peace: he makes it new.

But how? I suggest Jesus offers us an understanding of suffering which is beginning to be appreciated by modern psychotherapy. Suffering is not good in itself. We should not seek it. But when it comes, we have to go through it – we can’t avoid it. And we will only get through it with the strength that comes from understanding more deeply what is behind our suffering. As Christians, we don’t need to do that on our own. Knowledge and love, bring us a larger view of reality, come to us from God especially through the Sacrament of Anointing and the support and prayers of our Christians brothers and sisters. We start to see things more as they really are. This might bring us to make changes in our lives. An old world might come to an end and a new one start to come into being. And – I’m thinking of a devout Christian I knew who died of cancer in her fifties – the great hole of suffering which only God can fill may be the place of a surprising joy, right there in the middle of the pain. “Today you will be with me in paradise,” says Jesus to the good thief.

The Philippines typhoon is suffering on a massive scale – and the latest in a series of natural disasters which have shaken our planet in recent years. A major cause is climate chaos, and a major cause of that is human sin: exploiting and polluting nature, rather than tilling the garden and keeping it, as God directed Adam to do (Genesis 2:15). And the brunt is borne by people who live far from us. We have forgotten we are part of creation, not its consumers. Changing our ways, living by the true knowledge of creation which comes from God is to reign from the Cross of creation’s suffering. It is to put to death the old world of power as tyranny and exploitation. It is to understand instead what it means for us to be baptised as priest, prophet and king. A good king is a wise king, one who serves justly in universal love. It may take suffering to open us to receive this insight. And to start to know and love as God knows and loves is for the Resurrection to begin in us.

Christ the King is the feast of the end of a fallen world and its worldly ways. Next Sunday we begin Advent, as we long for the coming of the Risen Lord in glory. We long for the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21:1). And as we begin to live the Kingship of Christ, we will see that even in the smallest things, heaven begins now.

The End of the World

For Sarah de Nordwall, Bard Fondatrice

Cheer up, it’s the

End of the World!

It only comes once a year.

Behold, I looked down

From the cosmic bathroom

Up in the Northern Heights:

I saw the world at peace

In the final harmony of

Starlight and streetlight.

But what length (will you say?) some people go to with their platitudes, poetic in their splendid isolation and blind to the lies, the cries, the endless stress and mess of conflicts great and small, unlit by star- or streetlight, unheeded and unhealed suffering that makes this world? You only need cross this city’s breadth, western hopes of Heathrow suddenly crushed in microspace of hypertime across a tissue of moments passed (is your art any more than a hunt for highs?), arriving only to depart again from the higher rents of a dream and its garden in Hackney in the east.

But then I changed at King’s Cross, stopped running seeking hiding falling

Bowed my head

And marvelled

Under its lightness

This place where

One foresuffered all

Here at last.

And, though pain will come

As pain must

And dull incomprehension

Makes pain from pain (again)

Yet I am here

How strangely good it is

To descend into more

Still communion.

This beauty’s given

Itself and lovely

Because it’s no more my god.

And the Queen of the South

Will arise, wise

In shot-up Streatham

And astonish and exalt them

With her peace greater than

A Saturday stabbing.

They prefer to dance now,

And the commuters, wandering poets,

Write the light from the bridge

Where the crazy Blackfriars

Are building a station big enough.

Here you are at last,

Now in reality’s welcome depths

Where Adam lies, ready to rise, here, at the end of the world.


Readings: 2 Samuel 5:1-3|Colossians 1:12-20|Luke 23:35-43

Fr Dominic White is a member of the Priory of St Michael in Cambridge. He is a Research Associate at the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, and the founder of the Cosmos dance project and patron of Eliot Smith Dance Company.