Sermon by Prof Graham Holderness: The Second Coming – WB Yeats

The Second Coming (Advent and Revelation, Sunday December 13th 2015)

John answered, saying unto them all … one mightier than I cometh: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable. (Luke 3)

Advent speaks of the future, using a language of the past. In our Advent services we listen to the Old Testament prophecies by Isaiah and Ezekiel that predict the coming of the Messiah, the Saviour; alongside New Testament texts that show the Messiah has already come. John the Baptist is a crucial link between the old and the new: he speaks the language of Old Testament prophecy; but his prophecies have already been fulfilled, since Jesus is here, with us, as yet unrecognised: ‘the Lord thy God is in the midst of thee’ (Zephania).

John speaks of the first Advent, the coming of Christ on earth. But his language is apocalyptic, and future-oriented, and is really about the Second Advent, the Second Coming, when Christ will return and finally establish his kingdom; harvest the righteous and gather them into heaven; and condemn the unrighteous to everlasting fire.

He will thoroughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat  into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable.

A process repeated on a grand scale in the Book of Revelation. You see how Advent and Apocalypse, the first coming and the second coming, are poetically almost interchangeable. Later in Luke’s Gospel, in the so-called ‘little apocalypse’, Jesus foretells the end of days and the Second Coming:

And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.

A language that is reaffirmed in the Book of Revelation itself:

Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him.

In the ‘little apocalypse’ Jesus predicts as precursor to the Second Coming, a time of tribulation, wars and commotions, earthquake, famine, pestilence, fearful sights and great signs. The days of vengeance. When you see the fig tree sprout its leaves, he says, you know that summer is near. When you see signs like this, you know the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

It’s a wonderfully powerful kind of writing, this apocalyptic: alternately terrifying and liberating; equally productive of fear and of hope. But what exactly are we supposed to do with it? What kind of knowledge does it give us, and how do we live with it?

The early Christians in the 2nd century literally believed that all this would happen. When it didn’t, they shifted to a non-literal understanding of Revelation. St Augustine argued that the book should be read symbolically rather than literally. Revelation could be interpreted as a key to things that had happened; and could help to understand things that were happening; but could not be used to predict things that would happen in the future.

Literal reading of the apocalyptic literature we share with the other two Abrahamic faiths, can be extremely dangerous. It’s one thing to believe that at some time, in God’s time, the world will end with a great cataclysm, the reign of the anti-Christ, the establishing of God’s kingdom, the salvation of the saints and the destruction of the unrighteous. But quite another to believe that by contributing to those wars and commotions, to the tribulation of violence, your own actions can advance that apocalypse. It’s one thing to speak of God dividing the righteous from the unrighteous for reward and punishment; quite another to believe that you know exactly who they are, and have the right to pre-empt the divine judgment by taking it into your your own hands to destroy the ungodly. Such literal readings can turn apocalyptic into a theology of hate. It’s not the apocalyptic language, which is in any case a shared language, that’s the real problem here. But how it’s read, how it’s understood, how it’s applied in practice.

Clearly we live in a time of fearful sights and great signs; we live in days of vengeance. But what do those sights and sounds mean? How should we interpret them?

Surely some revelation is at hand!

Surely the Second Coming is at hand!

That last quotation is not from scripture, but from a poem by W.B. Yeats. Some of you will have attended the excellent lecture given across the road by the Irish Ambassador, and learned all about the Yeats family, who lived here in Bedford Park from 1898 to 1902. One of the small handful of poets acknowledged as among the greatest in the world, Yeats lived and wrote a few yards from here at 3 Blenheim Road. It was there also that he first met Maud Gonne, and fell hopelessly in love with her. Maud Gonne is an almost mythological figure in Yeats’s poetry: a woman of extraordinary beauty who in his view squandered her life on Irish republican and nationalist politics. She refused Yeats’s repeated proposals, and married republican John McBride, who was executed after the 1916 Easter Rising.

One of Yeats’s greatest poems, written in 1919, is called ‘The Second Coming’. It echoes the apocalyptic poetry of the Bible.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.


Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
Yeats then has a vision of the Egyptian sphinx waking from its two-thousand year sleep and beginning to move.

The darkness drops again; but now I know   

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats focuses on the tribulation preceding the final days, rather than on what come afterwards. Looking at the 20th century, immediately after the First War and just before the rise of Nazism, Yeats saw the future as a terrible Advent, a reawakening of a barbaric paganism. He homes in particularly on one of the drivers of this ‘anarchy’: ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity’. He was thinking of what we now call extremism or fundamentalism, the dogmatic adoption of a divisive politics of hate. Like the sectarian divisions of his own Ireland, which still of course bears the scars of those civil wounds.

But written at the same time, and sitting next to ‘The Second Coming’ in Yeats’s collected poems, is a poem that couldn’t be more different in its view of the future. ‘A Prayer for my Daughter’. Here Yeats the private man, the family man, in his home in Galway in the West of Ireland, watches over another rocking cradle, this time a real one, in which his baby daughter sleeps.

Once more the storm is howling, and half hid

Under this cradle-hood and coverlid

My child sleeps on …

I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour

And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,

And under the arches of the bridge, and scream

In the elms above the flooded stream;

Imagining in excited reverie

That the future years had come,

Dancing to a frenzied drum,

Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.

Imagining the future, Yeats sees the same apocalyptic cataclysm described in ‘The Second Coming’. But his concern here is not with apocalyptic, but with his hopes and fears, as a father, for his little girl. He thinks, as every parent does, of what he wants for her: what kind of future she will inherit, what kind of person she will become. Then he checks himself, realising that what he wants for her may not be what is in her best interests.

May she be granted beauty and yet not

Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,

Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,

Being made beautiful overmuch,

Consider beauty a sufficient end,

Lose natural kindness and maybe

The heart-revealing intimacy

That chooses right – and never find a friend.


The worst fate in life, the poem says, is to become possessed by hate.

… to be choked with hate

May well be of all evil chances chief.

An intellectual hatred is the worst,

So let her think opinions are accursed.

Have I not seen the loveliest woman born

[Maud Gonne of course]

Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,

Because of her opinionated mind

Barter that horn and every good

By quiet natures understood

For an old bellows full of angry wind?
Maud Gonne chose the politics of hatred. That’s not what he wants for his daughter.

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,

The soul recovers radical innocence

And learns at last that it is self-delighting,

Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,

And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;

She can, though every face should scowl

And every windy quarter howl

Or every bellows burst, be happy still.

So the fact that as a visionary poet Years saw the future in apocalyptic terms doesn’t stop him from wishing for his daughter the gifts of natural kindness, heart-revealing intimacy, radical innocence. As the nightmare of future history unfolds in his imagination, he thinks only of protection and care, and blesses his daughter’s crib with tenderness, concern and love. Like every parent, he wants to shield his child from the world’s storms, to take upon himself the violence and hatred to which she will be exposed.

Writing about 9/11, Rowan Williams made a contrast between two kinds of language: that used in the so-called ‘Spiritual Manual’ given to the hi-jackers, much of which is drawn from the Quran; and the last words sent in texts from the mobile phones of the innocent people on the planes who were about to die. One language is religious; the other not.

The religious words are the words that murderers are saying to themselves to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime. The non-religious words are testimony to what religious language is supposed to be – the triumph of pointless, gratuitous love, the affirming of faithfulness even when there is nothing to be done or salvaged … Someone who is about to die in terrible anguish makes room in their mind for someone they love. They do what they can to take some atom of that pain away from the other by the inarticulate message on the mobile.

Yeats was not a Christian poet, but he is a poet for Christians. That vision of a hopeful future that gathers around the child’s sleeping head is much closer to the spirit of Advent than any calamitous vision of apocalypse, any dividing of the godly from the ungodly. This is not the ‘rocking cradle’ of world history, but his own baby’s crib. And these are exactly the kind of thoughts and feelings we’re called upon to hold at Christmas, as we contemplate the Christ-child in the manger; thoughts and feelings of tenderness, of concern, of love for one another. For that child will grow to both manhood and Godhead, and take upon himself all the violence and hatred of the world.

Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord; I will repay.