Sunday, November 20, 2011
My thoughts delivered on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, 2011
It may not have happened exactly the way in which I tell it, but there is the story of a rich industrialist in 19th century northern England who literally bought his way up and into society. From nowhere and his own family poverty he built his textile business, and developed a vast even international business empire, trading in fine cloth and raw materials with Europe and the United States. Yet doing so at the expense of others.
Whereas a minority of English industrialists and entrepreneurs of that age were enlightened and respectful of their workforces, this man was in the majority. Conditions in his factories were dangerously appalling and the wages he paid were a pittance. And so his fortunes grew.
I said that he bought his way into society. He certainly did, buying a three hundred acre estate and country house complete with matching accessories. Stables, lakes, ornamental gardens and a chapel. A very old chapel which predated the main house by many centuries, and in need of repair.
He was not necessarily a religious man, but felt the need to restore this place of worship, and so the stonework and the roof were re-pointed as new. And he was told that the interior needed similar attention. An authority on medieval churches made a visit, and recommended that the recent whitewash be removed to expose the original stone. This man agreed to this, and slowly the work was carried out. Then one day the craftsmen called for the man, saying their work was completed. He came to the church and looked at the wall high above the chancel. There, now uncovered, was a fresco of the Last Judgment.
And the man’s instructions? Paint it over. I preferred the whitewash.
I wonder why he said that?
Paintings of the Last Judgment in churches normally date from the late Medieval period, say the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. They’re also referred to as Doom Paintings.
Each one is different, but most follow a distinct pattern and formula. Christ is central. And this is a regal Christ, an enthroned Christ. Sitting in judgment. And each hand is raised over two separate groups of people, left and right. Either to welcome them into the gates of Heaven, or dismiss them to the Hellsmouth.
These days we dismiss such graphic notions as being simplistic, and a product of their own generations. That they were, and how terrifying they must have been to the illiterate worshipper and passer-by. The perfect warning that unless a person behaved then they would be judged. And what a judgment it would be! The perfect way also of keeping religious order in the Church and political order in society at large.
One such doom painting was a part of my theological training in Salisbury, England. I would attend public speaking tutorials with a voice coach in the large parish church of St Thomas, about half a mile from the cathedral and the seminary. Those were the days when seminarians were put through the rigors of voice projection and elocution, disciplines nowadays sadly ignored. And as I would face east with my back to the imaginary congregation and read parts of the Eucharistic prayer, above my head Christ in glory was judging, to his left and right. And it became part of my prayer, because I knew that if my tutor judged me inaudible or lacking in diction, I would have to start all over again!
As an aside the Doom Painting was also capable of humor and politicization. That particular fresco in Salisbury reflected well the often bitter rivalry between the senior parish church of the town and the cathedral. Of those being welcomed into heaven numerous local townsmen and benefactors would have been identifiable, whereas in the line of those descending into hell there are three bishops!
On the Sunday now entitled Christ the King there is still a danger, still a temptation that we revert to such a medieval picture of the one we ordinarily worship as Lord and Savior. A Christ in glory, a Christus Rex who at the end of all ages will order us, left and right into our allocated places in eternity. And it is a neat and tidy faith, this one, of which there is not only a remnant of medievalism, but also a recent resurgence in belief among those who not only see everything in black and white, but also have found it necessary to bring the sentiments of the Doom Painting into the present day. They can’t wait for eternity, so they start the judgment process now.
But the other danger, the other temptation, is to dismiss completely the idea of judgment. For we are judged by Christ. Not by a Christ who sits on a decorated seat but by a Christ who is crucified.
Next Sunday, Advent Sunday, is the Church’s New Year. The seasons begin again, and we begin to prepare to celebrate the incarnation of God in the feast of Christmas.
What better time to remind ourselves that the king whom we worship and adore was the antithesis of the glorious messiah. Because Christ was crowned, reached his kingship, the moment he was nailed to a wooden cross. There was no golden throne, no mighty warrior, no conquering king - but there was judgment all right. Then and now.
For when we look at the crucifixion, we are judged. Do we see the Son of God hanging there? Or do we turn away. Paint it over. Perhaps the judgment is too strong. We therefore choose to whitewash over the way of the cross.
Posted by Tim Lewis at 8:58 PM