The Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King
24 November 2013
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in thy well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Last Sunday at the eleven o’clock announcements I confessed my dislike of the name “Christ the King” for today’s celebration. “Christ the King” is not even the official name for today in the Book of Common Prayer. Rather, we are simply to call it the Last Sunday after Pentecost, although admittedly our collect and lessons do directly address themes of Christ's kingship. In fact, there is no Sunday entitled “Christ the King” in the traditional Catholic sources and such a feast only appears in the mid-1920s, when the Roman Catholic Church invented it as a reaction and response to the weakening of the papacy’s secular power in Italy. The Romans moved the celebration to the last Sunday of the liturgical year only in the 1960s. This is not, therefore, a solemnity of any antiquity and it certainly has nothing to do in this form with the Anglican tradition.
And yet, here we are. So other than my particular streak of anti-papist feelings, why do I have problems with the feast of Christ the King? Well, I think that the best way into this problem is to look to the many images of Christ as king that we find in the history of art. We have images of Christ enthroned in splendour, Christ crowned in glory, images of Christ triumphant surrounded by the symbols and trappings of secular power. Kings and princes have from the time of Constantine contrived to appropriate the notion of Christ’'s kingship and have been happy to fashion our Lord in their splendid images. In doing so they have presented us with potent visual evidence to suggest that Christ is on their side and that their authority somehow derives from his kingship. Such monarchs have usurped the image of Christ as king to justify their own autocratic, self-interested rule. Just this morning, in fact, the Episcopal Church posted on their Tumblr page an image of Christ as white with blonde hair, crowned and robed, standing triumphantly before us, thereby presenting this vision of our king to the legions of mostly young people who are looking to share ideas and inspiration, personal thoughts and feelings, in that corner of the internet.
From a theological perspective I have never been comfortable with these images and their message. As you know, it is not that I believe somehow that the powerful do not fall within God’s loving embrace. Quite the contrary, and in accord with how I truly understand the Christ as a model of kingship, I feel very strongly that those who wield secular power have a particular duty to live fully into their Christian vocations and exercise their authority and privilege in accordance with God’s loving purpose. No, what makes me uncomfortable with the triumphalist Christ the King is that is simply un-scriptural and inauthentic to Jesus Christ himself. It is a vision irreconcilable with the Christ we meet today upon the Cross, the Christ we meet hanging from his true throne.
I have said it many times from this spot: Christ is a king. He is our Lord, but like no other king or lord we have ever known. We remember Jesus saying that his kingship is not of this world, but there is more to it than this. His kingship may not be of this world in the sense that he neither wields nor aligns himself with secular power. That much is clear. His kingship, however, does have a great deal to do with the world in that the authority that he embodies and exercises has meaning for us in our lives, in the here and now. Christ’'s kingship is a reality and it matters to us.
Indeed, we are very much Christ the King’s subjects—those creatures whose lives matter in and of themselves and have significance as well as genuine autonomy and freedom. We are not merely objects to be possessed, like pieces moved strategically (or worse, at random or willfully) around a great chess board. We, as Christ’s subjects, have that unbreakable relationship with God that I have named as faith and that connects us to him in bonds of deep interconnection and mutuality. This model of relationship, in fact, would have been recognisable to Christians from the late Antique period right through the eighteenth century, as embodying the kind of mutual relationships that exist between those of differing social strata, between rulers and subjects, patrons and clients. God in Christ is our king, is our great patron, but his model of kingship, as I have said, how he rules us is both unique and subversive.
Today’s Gospel suggests to us, creates for us, an alternate image to those glorious portrayals of Christ the King. The real throne upon which Christ sits is the cross and the members of his court are made-up of the thieves with whom he is crucified. Our king is the one who has really thrown his lot in with his people. He is the one who has taken on our humanity, our perspective, our thoughts and feelings and has experienced the consequences of human life. Jesus has not simply tried on, tried out human living like he is some kind of “undercover boss” or romantic prince-in-disguise. On the cross, suffering the humiliating death of a criminal all because he taught and healed, preached the gospel of Love, Jesus does not simply rip off his disguise at the last moment, jump off the cross and, ninja-like make mince meat of those who put him up there. He does not swoop down and put everything right. No, Jesus—Christ our King—goes all the way to death as he exercises his solidarity with his people in order to show us that the powers of the world are nothing in the face of the power of God’s love.
Our king is not the warrior, the avenger, the know-it-all, the great property owner and man of wealth. He is the son of a teen-aged mother, the poor teacher and healer, the itinerant preacher and prophet. He is the one who talked with and ministered to the woman at the well, full knowing all about the past that has made her an outcast. He is the one who healed the woman with the flow of blood who was too ashamed to talk to him and only felt she could touch the hem of his garment. He is the one who gratefully received healing from the unnamed woman who poured costly, perfumed oil over his head much to the dismay of his own followers; he is the one who said that wherever the Gospel was preached that this story would be told in memory of her. He is the one who told the thief on the cross that he would see him again in paradise.
Christ our King sees us as we are, loves us as he finds us, understand us in our discomfort as well as in our joys. He gives to us and receives from us. He is not, in the words of Alfred North Whitehead some “oriental potentate,” sitting on his throne in a remote chamber at the heart of a great fortress set apart on a hill. Our King is in the midst of life with us, meeting us where he finds us and holding out the hand of love, an act more powerful and consequential than the work of any army or bureaucracy. Were we to look to Christ the King as he truly is and fashion our models of leadership on what we see, we would radically alter our understanding and experience of life and be moving closer to that reconciliation with God and all things that is the promise of the Kingdom.
Ultimately Christ is the king who shares his power. He gives his people access to the greatest power of all, the power to love with the love of God. In doing so, in giving us the true freedom to love without condition, to love without coercion, he is the king who risks our rejection—the same rejection he experienced on the cross. Taking this risk, making himself so vulnerable to the worst people could heap upon him, he allows room for us to truly love him and each other, love in ways so pure, ways that would have otherwise been unimaginable.
Christ the King is not a feast to demonstrate God’'s untrammelled, triumphalist, power, let alone that power exercised by the Church. It is a feast, a Sunday, a commemoration of the Resurrection in which we celebrate the sacrament in which we are united with our King in one body, and when we can look with clarity and freedom at our relationship with our God and King who meets us as both our Lord and our equal. He has given us true freedom to make our choice to remain his subject, the freedom to make our choice to love him, the freedom to make the choice to love each other and exercise our ministry of love in the world.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Clement of Rome, 23 November 2013
© 2013 Andrew Charles Blume