Christ the King
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
We complete the liturgical year with this feast of Christ the King.
It is a new feast, designated as such less than 100 years ago in a world in which thrones had fallen and war had raged. It was only moved to this Sunday in 1969. But the feast carries some sense of inevitability as the theme for completing – summarising – the Christian calendar: ‘He took his seat at the right hand of the majesty on high”. Or as in the last chapter of the Bible, having traversed the streets of the new Jerusalem we come to “the throne of God and of the Lamb”, the One who is the root and descendant of David the King.
We have been hearing more than is usual this year of kingship. We have seen and heard the trumpeters announce the accession of HM King Charles; we have tried faithfully to remember to pray for the King and his counsellors, getting the pronoun right; and next year we expect to be witnesses to a king’s coronation, which none in this church save Fr Antony has known before.
Our brother Crispin held dear the memory of the coronation of 1952 and especially its sacramental liturgy. And Crispin and his sisters together watched the Queen’s funeral all through, including that moving moment when crown, sceptre and orb, symbols of that high responsibility, were handed back to the Dean of Windsor.
And when the safety and prosperity on which we have relied seem to be falling apart, indeed the very integrity of the planet’s environment, we may long anew and deeply for such a source of justice, stability and cohesion as the figure of the King portrays in human dimensions: the father of a nation.
Let’s look at a couple of ways in which this longing has taken form in Christian history. These are from the cathedral in Halberstadt, Eastern Germany, where Peter, George and I were last week with the brothers of St Matthias and the Dinklage sisters. Amid their many medieval treasures you can see this carved Jesse tree – the faith in a righteous branch growing organically from the creatures God has made and called. Then on the other side look at the tapestry: is Christ the King? No, this King is Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, crowned in a sacramental liturgy similar to that of Queen Elizabeth, and here being instructed in wisdom by the pagan philosophers Seneca and Cato.
The Jewish authorities led Pilate to believe that Christ Jesus was a king whose authority would rival that of Caesar.
And perhaps his first followers hoped for the same.
Later the Emperor Julian the Apostate seems to have thought so in his famous, if apocryphal, dying words, “You have won, Galilean.”
But in the 4th gospel Christ our King tells Pilate:
‘“My kingdom is not from this world”’
And at Epiphany here we sing:
‘Why, wicked Herod, should you fear that Christ the Saviour has drawn near? He takes no earthly realm away, who gives the crown of endless day.’
So what are we to think?
Is His a kingship we can recognise from the histories of other kings?
And if so should not there be a Christendom taking up the sword, or at least the levers of power? Or is the kingdom of which He is king utterly removed from the world, so that our part is to despise this life and look solely to the world to come?
Our faith in Christ the King does not commit us to either of these unattractive alternatives.
We are given a surer approach to understanding the nature of Christ’s kingship in Rowan Williams’ account of Christ, the Heart of Creation. Here he follows Austin Farrer in asserting that the supernatural, the action of God the infinite, cannot be another action comparable to a natural act, adding to it or competing with it – the infinite has no such contingent limitation: ‘He takes no earthly realm away.’
And if this is so then at the very same time God’s acting is in no way excluded from the actions of finite creatures such as ourselves. We act and God acts through us – as in the Jesse tree, and as in the figure of Charlemagne.
And in Christ Jesus we see the human being whose actions most perfectly manifest the justice and righteousness of God:
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The Kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the Kingdom of God is among you.”
(Luke 17: 20-21)
As a seed hidden in the ground it grows; as leaven it raises the whole dough: life by life transformed by this good news, action by human action, prayer by prayer, the nations of this world – whose hopefulness can be expressed in the kingship of this world – gain the light of the kingdom of heaven.
And we – we have a dual citizenship: subjects of an earthly crown so that we may make known by our deeds in the ordinary ways of human society the reality of the eternal crown.
The leaders of the society of Jesus’ day mocked him saying, “Let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God.” And so did the soldiers of the Emperor.
And even one of men condemned with him. But he would not draw back even at this extreme from doing right and gathering his flock. So it was in the sight of all that he reconciled to himself all creatures, making peace through the blood of his cross, as St Paul tells it.
David, when King Saul was put into his power, said “The Lord forbid that I should raise my hand against the Lord’s anointed.” But at Calvary men did so. Regicide has everywhere appeared particularly sacrilegious – murder of the hope of righteousness and justice. But Jesus received the death of the cross: ‘This man has done nothing wrong,” said the other condemned criminal.
When at the Huysburg, the Benedictine sisters of Dinklage spoke to me of Blessed Clemens August von Galen, the German Cardinal who spoke and preached against Nazi atrocities. He had owned the estate where they now live. When they moved in and created their cemetery, they did not know that the von Galens had named that plot of land ‘Paradise’:
‘“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”’
Let us pray for Charles our king and all called to an earthly throne
that their subjects may be inspired by them to hold fast to the way of Christ the King of all.