November 24 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Feast of Christ the King
Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
Theme: There's no great need to depart from the title of the feast, "Christ the King"; "the Reign of Christ" is apparently more politically correct, although I must confess I don't understand the distinction. Taking our lead from the wonderful choice of gospel passage for this celebration, we might want to beef it up into "Christ the King Enthroned on the Cross"; or to steal the first line of the chorus from Graham Kendrick's great hymn, "This is our God, the Servant King". [And if I may stray outside my usual brief, that hymn is a must for this celebration, and if you have a large crucifix available to gaze at as this hymn is sung, so much the better.]
Introduction. We come to the triumphant conclusion of the liturgical year with this great feast, which should be given far greater prominence than has been our custom in the past. This is not a day for the Church to be humble or apologetic – or overly sensitive to the feelings of non-believers or adherents of other faiths. This is a day to celebrate the vindication of Christ and all who have believed in him. This is the day when the extraordinary promises mouthed through the great prophets centuries ago, men like Jeremiah from whom our first lesson comes this week, are seen to be coming to fulfilment. This is a day for celebrating the extraordinary vision of St Paul, as typified by this week's passage from his Letter to the Colossians. Above all, this is the day to give thanks for the gift of faith that enables us to look at the tortured and broken body of Jesus of Nazareth dying the most terrible of deaths on the Cross and to cry out in joyful defiance, "THIS IS OUR GOD, THE SERVANT KING." What a wonderful finale to another year of worship that is; and what wonderful preparation for next Sunday (Advent Sunday) when we re-commit ourselves to the never-ending task, so beautifully summarised in the final verse of Kendrick's hymn:
So let us learn how to serve,
and in our lives enthrone him;
each other's needs to prefer,
for it is Christ we're serving.
Background. So many thoughts and images have been flying around in my mind this week as I have once again prepared for this feast. For some years past, when I was preaching regularly, I often took this Sunday as an occasion for summing-up all that we had thought about in the second half of the liturgical year. In broad terms, Trinity Sunday was the conclusion of the first half of the year, with its emphasis on the identity of Christ – Summing-up Sunday No.1, so to speak. Then at the conclusion of the second half of the year, with its central theme of discipleship, this feast presented an opportunity to summarise what it means to be a disciple of Christ. All very logical and sensible, perhaps – and maybe that approach has been helpful to some over the years. But it now strikes me as far too dry and "theological": above all, it doesn't seem to me to recognise "the mystery of our faith" – a mystery unravelled in particular by people like St Paul (and the author of the Fourth Gospel) who looked at the cross and saw – the King and Lord of all! It is in dying that we are raised to eternal life!
Various memories have come to me this week, as I thought about the usual images of royalty. I remember very clearly, my classroom teacher at primary school telling us that the King had died, and then bursting into tears. I had no idea what that meant, but anything that could bring Mrs Roberts to tears was enough to terrify me, so I burst into tears with her! I remember watching the coronation of our present Queen and being astonished at the size of the building: I have loved huge buildings ever since, despite my Christian (and political) convictions telling me I shouldn't. I still watch programmes showing splendid palaces and stately homes with great wonder and admiration. They are symbols of great power and wealth and success – they are what we expect of royalty and other important people. I remember the "rogues gallery", as we used to call a long corridor in the old Parliament Buildings full of oil paintings of terribly important people of the past, mostly long forgotten today, of course. And now I imagine for a moment what a religiously minded version of Banksy the artist might do by slipping a portrait of the crucified Christ in amongst portraits of the Kings and Queens of England! What a point that would make! And isn't that exactly the point our Lectionary is making with its choice of this passage from Luke's Gospel? We might have expected something from the Ascension, perhaps, or from the "Second Coming"; but instead we get this passage from the crucifixion.
This is real faith in a real world. Think of the things that have been in our headlines this week alone. Our Prime Minister and his equally important counterparts from around the Commonwealth dining in splendid buildings in Sri Lanka, discussing important things, while outside people demand justice for the victims of alleged atrocities. On to Thailand, and more important people, more fine food, more staggeringly beautiful buildings, sharing the news with increasingly desperate scenes of human suffering on a vast scale in The Philippines. More terrible loss from natural disasters in the US Midwest, while above the border the usually sane and settled Canadians are transfixed by the increasingly bizarre behaviour of Toronto's mayor. The list goes on and on – this is the world in which we live – this is the real world in all its shades of grey – and this is the world about which we are speaking when we proclaim that, in its midst, at this very moment, despite all appearances to the contrary, God is working his purposes out, and he has exalted the one hanging on the cross to be the King of all creation.
And finally I have been thinking again of the ongoing losses of people in this country – through the earthquakes, through the Pike River disaster, through financial scams and rip-offs, through problem gambling and material greed, through sexual and other violence, through bullying and mockery and suicide. And here all that is summed up in this extraordinary passage from St Luke' gospel. It all comes together at the cross of Christ. Crucified between two criminals, Jesus hangs on a cross, in full view of all sorts of representatives of humanity. Gamblers were there; some just looked on; others scoffed and mocked. And, according to Luke, the two criminals were divided in their own opinions of Christ. For Luke, this is the key to the cross: it is the supreme venue of judgement – which is another word for choice. Each person decides his or her response to the invitation of God written on the cross. Who is this who asks you to come and follow him? Do we stand and watch? Do we scorn and deride? Do we kneel and worship? Do we stand tall and proclaim "This is our God, the Servant King"?
Or, as Teilhard de Chardin put it:
[The cross] stands up even straighter at the crossroads of all values and problems, at the very heart of humanity. It can and must continue, more than ever, to be the place where the division takes place between those who climb and those who descend.
Which gets me to a more personal note. In my own spiritual practice at the moment I am using 15 Days of Prayer with Teilhard de Chardin by Andre Dupleix, O.S.B. On Day Three the theme is The Meaning of the Cross, and he ends with these "Reflection Questions":
How do I view the Cross?
Do I see it as a goal for which I strive, as a sad reminder, or as something to avoid?
Do I seek to unite myself with the Cross?
Do I seek to accept the suffering and transformation that accompanies the Cross?
Can I understand the Cross as a means of uniting myself to Christ in Suffering?
To which I would add:
Can I in all truth and with complete conviction proclaim – "THIS is my God, the Servant King"?
Jeremiah. A promise of better things to come for the people of God, following the pain of exile. The promise is threefold. First, a clear-out at the top – the leadership (the shepherds of the people) have failed and need to be removed. Secondly, God will re-gather the people and appoint new shepherds. Thirdly, God will raise up a new King from the line of David to rule the people with justice and righteousness.
Taking It Personally.
- A time for spiritual stock-taking. What do you need to replace – thoughts, habits, beliefs, attitudes, etc – as you prepare for a fresh beginning next Sunday?
- Are you too scattered – do you need to be more gathered, focused, single-minded in your faith practices? Where might you start that process?
- Have you enthroned Christ in your life? Do you seek his kingdom first? Do you bring your life as a daily offering of worship to him?
Colossians. Another wonderful gift from the pen of St Paul. First, a prayer to teach us how to pray; and secondly, a brief biopic of Christ to teach us how to adore. Recently, a group of us were reflecting together on intercessory prayer, particularly in the context of a service of worship, and we made an interesting discovery. We are comfortable about praying for the physical healing and well-being of our fellow-worshippers, but not for their spiritual well-being. St Paul would have found that even more baffling than we did. As for his paean of praise to Christ – again, remember that he is talking about the one whose death is being described to us in our gospel passage – and that he is writing this no more than 30 or so years after that death.
Taking It Personally.
- Use verses 9-12 as a template for your own prayers, first for your own spiritual growth and then for the spiritual growth of the members of your faith community, your family, and your friends.
- Would you feel uncomfortable praying for someone's spiritual well-being? Why?
- Read very slowly and prayerfully through verses 15-20, preferably before an icon of Christ ("eikon" is the Greek for image in verse 15). Offer prayers of adoration.
Luke. I don't think I need to say anything more about this passage: it speaks for itself. Avoid any intellectual game-playing – what does it matter that Luke's account differs in detail from the others? It is not addressed to our minds but to our hearts. If we are not deeply moved by this passage, our hearts must already have stopped beating.
Taking It Personally.
- A classic passage for praying with your imagination. Where are you in this scene? With the crowds looking on silently? With the mockers? What are your feelings? Are you scared for your own safety? Are you outraged? Why do you remain silent? What would you like to say?
- Which side of the cross are you – with the penitent thief or with the mocking one? Can you identify with both? Have there been times in your life when you turned against God in a crisis?
- Focus on verse 34. Is there anyone you have not forgiven? Was their offence worse than crucifixion?
- Visualise Christ on the cross and proclaim: This is MY God, the Servant King!