I was listening, this afternoon, to the service of 9 Lessons and Carols for Advent Sunday, a lesser-known choral service that is very rich and beautiful. I don' t know how many times I've heard or sung it. But this time what is really giving me pause is the closing collect of the service (which I must have heard many, many times in my life but I'm noticing it this year. That happens: one of the riches of a liturgical tradition.) The prayer goes:
O God, who makest us glad with the yearly expectation of thy coming, Grant that we, who with joy receive thy only-begotten Son as our Redeemer, may without fear behold him when he shall come to be our Judge, even thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
Redeemer and Judge together -- we've been talking about that in my "Ideas of God" class, but now I'm pondering. What might that mean to "behold him without fear when he shall come to be our Judge?" It seems to be connected, in this prayer, to the joy with which we greet our Redeemer. Surely the fearlessness before our Judge would not come from having made ourselves perfect or gotten it all right. No. It can't be that. Because if we were perfect all by ourselves why would we be so joyful about having a Redeemer?Some more demanding spiritual realism is called for here.
This makes me think of something I often say when I teach Flannery O'Connor's haunting short story, "Revelation," in seminary classes. I sometimes say to students that it's partly about how the experience of knowing oneself to be "under Judgment" turns out to be a radical experience of grace, because it brings us into greater honesty before God, and perhaps makes it more possible for us to cooperate with God in the redeeming and purging/purifying work that needs to be done on us, work that we can't even see needs to be done. The protagonist of O'Connor's story, Ruby Turpin, sees this grace for a moment. To us, the readers of the story, she is deeply, obviously unattractive and self-deceived, but she doesn't see this. She spends most of the story congratulating herself on being one of the good people, someone who knows how you're supposed to live, someone who is better than most. At the end of the story she is given a revelation: a vision of all the people of the world going into heaven, with most of those she thought of as her "inferiors" going in ahead of her. The people like herself, she observes, are marching at the end of the procession "with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away." ("Revelation," by Flannery O'Connor, as published in Peter Hawkins & Paula Carlson's anthology, Listening For God:Contemporary Literature and the Life of Faith (Augsburg Fortress, 1994, vol. 1, p. 35)
"Even their virtues were being burned away." That's got something to do with this strange theme, in the prayer, about welcoming our Redeemer and beholding our Judge without fear. We don't even know ourselves, but the good news is that God does -- sees us and this broken world as we are and gives us exactly what we need to be whole: a Redeemer. AND a Judge. And the grace to greet him joyfully and without fear.
I think it was Teresa of Avila who defined humility as total and complete realism about ourselves, in God's presence God. I think that is what this prayer is about.
Humility. "Even their virtues were being burned away." I'm going to ponder this for awhile, this Advent. It seems to be one of those prayers that could lead to new insight if I listen afresh. . . .
- Kathleen Henderson Staudt
- I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.