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Gathering up the Fragments

An address by Fr John Slater

24 November 2002 11:00 | Fr John Slater

Some of you will be familiar with the tradition which calls this last Sunday before Advent the Feast of Christ the King, something you will find reflected in today’s hymns. Today the Advent season which begins the Church’s year has become essentially a preparation for Christmas in the way that Lent prepares us for Easter. But in some ways Advent is as much the climax of the Church’s year as its beginning, dominated by the sense of the Lord’s return in glory. Next Sunday we shall sing, Lo he comes in clouds descending… Christ appears on earth to reign.

London is already awash with the outward signs of Christmas from gift wrapping to trees, carols and holly. It is surely impossible for the Church to turn back this tide and perhaps we should simply try to make the best of a season where some vestige of religion still touches millions of people. So that other dimension of the Advent season - the sense in which it is the climax of the year when we think of the Lord’s coming in glory - has been given a new focus on this last Sunday before Advent, the Feast of Christ the King.

Well, I chose the hymns so there is nothing surprising to find the theme of kingship there. But look at today’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah, I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as King. The Advent season draws heavily on the writings of the Old Testament prophets with their powerful themes of human wilfulness, divine judgement and the hope of final redemption and restoration. If it is the kings of Israel and Judah who are most often blamed for all that has gone wrong with the life of the Chosen People, the hope for the future is also expressed in terms of a king like David. Because no king fulfilled this expectation, the hopes kindled by the prophets were projected into the distant future and the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ.

But today’s gospel is something of a surprise - nothing obviously about kingship or the return of the Lord as Judge; nothing with any obvious sense of the climax of salvation history. Instead we have the story of the feeding of the 5,000. The story tells us that Jesus feeds the hungry, just as he heals the sick, cleanses lepers and raises the dead. No wonder the people say, This is of a truth that Prophet that should come into the world.

But after feeding the people Jesus says, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost. Now this does have a sense of the final act of the drama of our salvation. Things may have gone badly wrong in the relationship of God and humanity, but the long-awaited Redeemer has come - to feed and to heal, to cleanse and to restore. All the broken fragments of humanity will be gathered up that nothing be lost. In the end, says St Edith Stein, nothing is lost; all is harvest.

But I encourage you to read the whole of the sixth chapter of St John’s Gospel. It begins with the story of the physical feeding of the 5,000. It goes on to speak of the sacramental food which Jesus gives us in the Eucharist. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh… he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.

But the chapter ends with a third dimension of nourishing - beyond the physical and the sacramental. This is the mystical union of the believer with both Father and Son. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me.

As we sang at Easter, Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ takes command. This feast of Christ the King is like a reminder of Easter, of victory won and darkness defeated. Today we celebrate both the kingship of Christ and also our sharing in the joys of his eternal kingdom.
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