GATES OF HORN (Matthew 25.31-46)

St. Botolph’s Parish, Sunday of the Last Judgment (Meatfare), 19 February 2017

He will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left (Matthew 25.33).

Running your hand over fuzzy green mould on the wall, your finger flips on a light switch. Antennae quivering, glossy wings and bristly legs hastily scurry under the floorboards, as the roaches try to escape the bulb. What is left of the old iconostasis lies in splinters, like a medieval Communion rail, sunken in piles of mouse droppings and ever-mounting dust. ‘Imagine’, you muse, ‘I once actually attended a service here. For her sake, not mine’. At the eastern end of the ruined church, on a raised step in front of the altar, you can almost hear the ranting, raving priest. ‘Really’, you scoff. ‘No wonder he emptied out this church. Black-bundled beggars. Hungry, sick strangers, wasting away in detention centres. Who cares to hear about such morbid things?’ As your voice echoes, you seem to spy a slight shape disappear behind a column. ‘Incense up my nostrils’, you recall. ‘Popish icons. All foreign rot, that church of hers. It wouldn’t even give me Holy Communion. Five minutes into the sermon, I up and leave’. As if wishing to relive your petty victory, you deliberately pass the spot where you left her standing. Huge dark eyes, moist pupils darting back and and forth. Afraid to leave. Afraid of leaving you. ‘She’ll not complain’, you assure yourself. ‘An undocumented refugee? A Christian? Send her back to Syria, if she gets out of line’. From behind her column, the slight, slighted shape looks on. Forlorn and lost.

Like a hare caught in a trap, light transfusing her white dress. Her white bones.

‘Scrawny little thing, wasn’t she?’ Auntie Agatha asks, pouring tea in her ivory bone cup. ‘From Syria, or somesuch?’ ‘Um, yes’, you prevaricate. ‘Good thing you didn’t marry her, Algernon. A pity dying so young’. ‘She was a refugee’, you reply, hoping in vain to evade the issue. ‘She was a Christian, wasn’t she? Anti, Anti-, Ortho- …’. ‘Orthodox’, you snarl. ‘Is that a sort of Catholic, Algie?’ naïve blue eyes enquire. ‘Worse’, you answer. ‘At least, the fanatic gave her the last rites. Morbid fellow, banging on about starving beggars and refugees. Like … her’. Bubbling up from beneath your waking mind, the slight, small form. A tangle of torn black hair, brow sun-kissed yet pale. Afraid of trusting, yet trusting in you. What made you so resent that priest, pull back from the hungry, sick, naked souls whose pain he invoked week after week? Was it not she? She who smiled pitifully at your jokes, for fear of angering you. She who loved you with a refugee’s love, thirsty, desperate – but loved God more. You made her choose. Shutting the bedroom door at night, you think to shut her out. She is always there. Closing the cover of that latest read, you think to close your memory. She lives on every page. As your mind slowly sinks into your pillow, you set foot on your nightly journey. Running your hand over that fuzzy green mould on the walls, you flip that light switch and enter that roach-infested church. You remember walking out. Only it is not an Orthodox church, sunken in piles of mouse droppings and ever-mounting dust. It is you. From behind every column, a bony white hand extends toward you.

Your lover’s eyes, moist with tears. Forcing you to relive that moment. Again and again.

Judgement wears no barrister’s wig, no scarlet tabs of a High Court judge, gown trimmed in purplish red. She wears the soft, unstained white of a would-be bride. Judgement casts no thunderbolts, no sadist’s lust for whips and chains, no frosty, damning eye. Rather the eyes of a refugee – huge, dark, moist with tears – fearfully pleading: ‘I was a stranger and you did not welcome me’. Pour yourself a cup of Earl Grey. Cut a slice of Battenberg and forget. At the close of a day, of a life – of time – her hand reaches toward you. Her love so casually despised … yet unquenchable, implacable. Always and forever there. True eyes of love that never look away. Rise and leave, as you will. Flee under floorboards.

Roaches always flee when you switch on the light.

In the light of a blazing noon, there is no shade of night. No fuzzy wool blanket spun from fibres of denial to pull back over your head. No column to hide behind. In vain you search for mild, misty words, evasive excuses to blur the boundary between a new us and them. He who comes in absolute light separates the sheep from the goats. From dark recesses of memory, he raises all your spirits. To the scrawny refugee from Syria, blackmailed and betrayed, he says: ‘Come to my arms, my bride, my fair one. I too am a Stranger, feared and despised’. To lips that spoke fearlessly for justice, he promises: ‘Inherit the Kingdom of my Father, you who are merciful’. To a stiff neck, and an evasive eye, he laments: ‘My hand reached to you, you pulled back. My eye sought you out, you looked away. My lips called out, you rose and left’. ‘When did I walk out on you, my Lord?’ you smirk ironically. ‘If you did not recognise me in a tangle of torn black hair, a brow sun-kissed yet pale, an abject heart that craved only your love, you will you not recognise me now.

‘I leave you the unquenchable fire of my love, my constant love. To warm your dreams’.

Beloved in Christ: on the Day the books are opened and all hidden secrets come to light, sleeping or unsleeping, you will arise. When a soft hand, sun-kissed yet pale, reaches to take yours, you will try to pull back in vain. When tears flow down from huge, moist eyes, pleading like an animal caught in a trap or a child forsaken in the forest, in vain you avert your face. Whatever its features, this is the face of Christ – and Christ will never go away. Love is the two-edged sword, fit for defending those who have no one on earth to defend them. Fit for slicing through a tangle of lies. In your waking hours. Or in your dreams.

Death is a dream, they say. A dream from which only the living awake.

When a day, a life, a world comes to its end, which dream will be yours? Which gates will you pass into eternity? The smooth broad gates of ivory that deceive, or the hard narrow gates of horn that reveal the truth? When the end is no longer drawing near but now, will the Day find you sleeping or awake? The Icon of meekness will not rouse you if you wish only to sleep. The deathless and immortal will not stamp his image forcibly on your heart. He will not begrudge you a slice of cheese, a can of Stella, a shudder in the loins. He will not be satiated with so petty a fast. He will take you by the hand, throw open the gates of horn, the book that is your heart … and show you what is there.

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