Stirring it up! The challenging kingship of Christ

As you will realise if you read on, I think the Feast of Christ the King, offers us some challenges – but they are ones that are worthwhile to address! This reflection ended up being longer than normal, or perhaps even desirable, but I wanted to tease out (not least for myself) some insights linked to the themes and readings for the Last Sunday before Advent. It is not a particularly easy read! But I would particularly welcome feedback, and discussion about what I have explored below.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe; Clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

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 Christ the King in the Anglican Cathedral in Kurunegala, Sri Lanka.
The ‘cruciform’ shape of the figure is important.

I still (just) remember from my childhood the tradition of ‘Stir up Sunday’, the last Sunday before Advent. As many of you will already know it was called by this name due to the Book of Common Prayer Collect for the day, which read:

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people;
that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may of thee be plenteously rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

This was of course also the time that diligent housewives also made their Christmas cakes and puddings, ‘stirring up’ and mixing the flour with the various goodies, including ‘fruit’ (see prayer above) that got included in the mix.

The BCP lectionary readings for this Sunday are Jeremiah 23.5-8 (‘for the Epistle’) and John 6.5-14 (part of John’s account of the Feeding of the multitude). At first glance I wondered why that reading from the Gospel of John had been selected, as most of the passage doesn’t have an obvious coming-up-to-Advent feel about it. It was however clearly the final sentence that led to it being chosen, ‘This is of a truth that Prophet that should come into the world’. (John 6.14)

It is not always realised how varied was the ‘messianic expectation’ in Judaism around the time of the New Testament period. There was of course the hope that there would come a messianic king (a ‘new’ David) who would personify the kingly ideal, acting as a true king, both in terms of the execution of power and the administration of justice.  Normally when you read the word ‘Messiah’ in the New Testament it is probably this kind of kingly figure that is being thought of.  But there were also alternative, or overlapping ideas, for example of a messianic priest, ‘a Messiah of Aaron’. There was also the view, held particularly by groups with Samaritan links, that the coming messianic figure would have the character of a prophet, a sort of new Moses, fulfilling the words of Deuteronomy 18.15, apparently spoken by Moses, ‘The Lord will raise up for you a prophet like me, from among your own people’. It is clearly this figure that is being referred to in John 6.14 as ‘The Prophet who is to come into the world.’ (John 6.14)  It is an appropriate acclamation, given that Jesus had just fed a multitude, reminiscent of the way that in the time of Moses the people had been fed with manna in the wilderness (see also John 6.31-32). For the New Testament writers Jesus fulfilled all three messianic expectations of king, priest and prophet – and as Advent approaches we look forward to his ‘coming’ in all three roles. (In parenthesis the BCP selection from Jeremiah emphasises the ‘kingly’ messianic expectation).

There is in fact one additional form of the ‘messianic expectation’ that is important for the Gospel writers, perhaps in fact the most important of all. But you will have to read on to find out more about that…

During my adult life I have experienced several different lectionary patterns: first the BCP, then the two year structure introduced to accompany the Alternative Service Book (1980) and now the Common Worship lectionary which is closely based on the international and ecumenical three Year Revised Common Lectionary. (As it happens, since I was editing an ecumenical UK based worship publication in the late 1990s I also became familiar with a ‘four year lectionary’ proposed by the UK Joint Liturgical Group briefly used in some of the Free Churches but which never quite caught on. Sometimes, especially as a biblical scholar, I think that is a pity.)

One of the points in the liturgical year that lectionary writers have clearly had to wrestle with is those November weeks in the run up to Advent. Do we see these weeks as the ‘end’, fulfilment culmination of all that has been experienced earlier of the story of God’s work in creation and redemption, or are they the anticipation of the story beginning once again?

The lectionary used in the ASB clearly took its stand on the ‘beginning’. In effect it shifted the beginning of the church year to the start of November, and its use of the Old Testament in November and December makes transparent that it views this period as a time for retelling the whole story of creation from ‘Genesis’ to the birth of Christ. The Sunday before Advent found itself called ‘Thanksgiving Sunday’, but it really did not stand out from the preceding weeks, and there was certainly no strongly messianic/kingly or endtime themes in the biblical readings which were suggested.

As we know this ASB lectionary pattern did not really ‘stick’. One of the reasons that I think it failed is the particular character of November in wider culture, and even the seasonal pattern of the year, certainly in the northern hemisphere. The importance given by society to November as the time for remembrance of those who have died in conflict, and the reality that in this month we experience the darkening of days and the dying of nature, means that it feels a period which liturgically naturally speaks of eschatological culmination rather than new beginnings. Certainly by 1990, the publication of The Promise of his Glory, the first of a set of Church of England seasonal resources, people were already exploring different patterns of readings and themes for the days of November time. The description of ‘the Sundays of the Kingdom’ which The Promise of his Glorychrist church vienna cropped

Window at Christ Church, Vienna, depicting Christ the King. (Photo Ben O’Neill)

uses for most of the Sundays in November was clearly influenced by the suggestions offered in the then recently developed ecumenical Revised Common Lectionary, which itself owed much to the Roman Catholic lectionary authorised by Pope Paul VI in 1969. Alongside this and linked to this lectionary the Pope also changed the date of the Feast of Christ the King, which had been inaugurated by Pope Pius XI  and originally observed at the end of October, but which was shifted in 1969 to the last Sunday before Advent.

So the path was prepared for the developments linked to the launch of Common Worship at Advent 2000. Partly because the Common Worship lectionary is so closely linked to the ecumenical Revised Common Lectionary in which the Feast of Christ the King was already reflected in the lectionary, the celebration of this Feast was quickly adopted. by Church of England Anglicans. The current Church of England website refers to the Feast as follows.

‘The annual cycle of the Church’s year now ends with the Feast of Christ the King. The year that begins with the hope of the coming Messiah ends with the proclamation of his universal sovereignty. The ascension of Christ has revealed him to be Lord of earth and heaven, and final judgement is one of his proper kingly purposes. The Feast of Christ the King returns us to the Advent theme of judgement, with which the cycle once more begins.’

It is interesting that (as far as Anglicans are concerned) this could be described as an example of when a lectionary has been influential in developing church practice and custom, rather than vice-versa.

I think I have taken this amount of time and space to get to this point, partly because I am conscious that I personally am uncomfortable about the Feast of Christ the King, particularly being celebrated  in the Anglican tradition, and if I am going to ‘stir things up’ (see this week’s title!) then I feel that I also need to take seriously how and why we now celebrate it.

Why I am uncomfortable?  And what does this mean for our ‘reading’ of this week’s lectionary Gospel, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25.31-46, especially within the wider context of the Gospel of Matthew.

I think that my main questionmark about the Feast stems from two factors – which interlock in my own mind.

My first qualm is the context in which the Feast was initially developed in the Roman Catholic Church. It is widely, and probably accurately, said that Pope Pius XI established the Feast in 1925 partly as a counter-balance to the growing secularism and nationalism and political movements of the age, and because, at that time, the question of the political role of the Popes, especially in relation to the Kingdom of Italy was still unresolved.

So far, so good. But I cannot help feeling that even while seeking to offer a challenge to movements such as fascism, in fact the celebration of the Kingship of Christ has itself ‘shades’ that take itself rather too close to a quasi-fascist presentation of Christ. I find myself really quite uncomfortable when I see pictures of those gigantic statues of Cristo Rey (Christ the King) which decorate many hilltops in Spanish and Portuguese speaking territories, whether in Europe or Latin America,, most of which were erected in the 1920s and 1930s. And it is all too easy to move from this to the situation in which Christians make assumptions that the natural (indeed only possible) political position for Christians to be in, whether nationally or globally, is one of power and dominance. (To be both topical and blunt we are seeing something of this among ‘Christian’ supporters of Trump in the USA in these post-election days.)

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Statue of Christ-Roi, Les Houches, near Chamonix, France

My second qualm is due to insights that I have gained particularly from the well-known hymnwriter Brian Wren. Wren has wrestled for decades with the way that language can influence reality, whether positively or negatively. His 1989 book What Language shall I borrow? explores the way that the metaphors that we use in worship are immensely powerful for our thinking about the world around us. Wren offers a particular challenge to what we might call ‘patriarchal’ metaphors. The acronym that he uses to gather these together (and challenge them) is KINGAFAP. That is an abbreviation for ‘King, Almighty Father, All Powerful’. As many of you will be aware a characteristic of Wren’s hymnwriting is to seek to provide alternative metaphors that move us away from these images to ones that are rather different, acknowledge vulnerability, and which are not so obviously linked to the male gender. With Brian Wren’s strictures in mind I do find it ‘ambiguous’ to focus too readily on the ‘Kingship’ of Christ.

But next Sunday is, in the Church of England calendar, the Feast of Christ the King. And this year’s lectionary Gospel is Matthew 25.31-46. I want to honour both these realities, so what, bearing my earlier caveats in mind have I got to say about their intertwining?

Well (to tantalise you once again before I offer you my final response!), it is important to explore this in the overall context of Matthew’s Gospel. Over the last few weeks the lectionary Gospel has been in turn one of a series of episodes from Matthew 21 – 25. It will probably not come as a surprise to those of you who are regular readers of this blog that I have found several of these passages quite ‘difficult’, partly because as someone  who has worked professionally in the sphere of Jewish-Christian relationships I know how actually dangerous these texts can be in the wrong hands. Looking over them again as a whole one of the things that strikes me about several of them is how they focus on an authority figure who (by our standards) behaves in a way that can seem unfair or unjust, but who seems somehow to represent ‘God’ in the story. Is this the way that Matthew really thinks about God? It is certainly true that many modern Christian theologians find Matthew ‘difficult’. My friend Angela Tilby once did a brilliant ‘demolition’ job on Matthew which ended with the comment that, ‘Matthew lays the foundations for a Church sanctioned morality which has been enormously influential, creative and damaging.’ And then she pithily summed up Matthew by describing it as ‘an authoritative gospel, a gospel for popes, prelates and priests.’

But… perhaps that is not quite all that can be said. Perhaps, just perhaps, Matthew himself can occasionally be subversive of what we might assume he would think.

When you are seeking to work out the priorities of each of the Gospels, a key starting point is to look at the beginning and the end. And at the beginning and the end of the Gospel of Matthew there is a key motif, which will also be at the heart of our celebration of Christmas.

According to the angelic voice in Matthew 1.23 we are told,

The virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
And they shall name him Emmanuel’ which means, ‘God with us’.

So the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew proclaims the ‘withness’ of God. And this is then re-echoed in the final sentence of the Gospel. Matthew offers a majestic picture of a powerful risen Christ on a  mountain-top who is worshipped by his disciples (Matthew 28.16-28). A depiction of Christ the King we might say! But the very final words of the Gospel proclaim him also as ‘Emmanuel’, ‘Remember I am with you always, to the end of the age’.  And it is in between these two book ends that we should be reading Matthew’s story of Jesus, the story of the one who graciously promises to be ‘with’ humanity throughout all time ‘until the end of the age’.

So where can we find and see him today? Indeed Matthew himself directly and explicitly provides the startling – and shocking? – answer. For I believe that we are intended to read our lectionary Gospel, the story of the Sheep and the Goats in the context of this pledge of the ‘withness’ of God. And when we do so we discover that we are being offered the opportunity to see Jesus in some very unlikely places – in the faces of the sick, the strangers, the hungry and thirsty, the imprisoned whom the disciples of Jesus may choose – or refuse – to honour or minister to.  ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or naked or a stranger or in prison? ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did to the least of my brothers and sisters – so you did it to me.’

So this is one aspect of Matthew’s subversiveness – to discover that we can find Christ is somehow identified with the most powerless representatives of humanity.

I wonder if a second subversive aspect though is linked to the place that the story of the Sheep and the Goats has as the culmination of those other stories prior to it in the Gospel in which the exercise of authority can make us feel very uneasy? It sits, so to speak, on judgement, on them as well. The ‘sting’ of the harsh master of the Parable of the Talents (25.14-30) or the king who expelled the improperly dressed wedding guest into the outer darkness (22.11-14) is thus challenged by the royal figure who offers true justice to the very least of society and humanity in this very last parable of the Gospel, located just before the beginning of the passion narrative. This is therefore the Gospel’s final word on authority.

And one final thought. Near the beginning of what I wrote today I noted that there were several ‘models’ of messianic expectation current in New Testament times: messianic king, priest and prophet. And I said that there was one more model still to reveal. It comes in the opening sentence of this Parable, ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory…’ (25.31) Who is this mysterious Son of Man who features in all four of the Gospels but then virtually disappears from the rest of the New Testament?  Clearly it is linked in some way to the figure ‘one like a son of man’ who appears in Daniel 7.13 and who, after initial suffering is given ‘dominion and glory and kingship… that shall never be destroyed’.

The term ‘Son of Man’ therefore reflects an important further strand of Jewish (and early Christian) messianic ideology.  There is a great deal that can be written on this topic, but one thread that I believe should not be ignored is the reality that the Hebrew phrase ‘son of man’ can mean simply ‘a human being’. (The NRSV translation of Daniel 7.13 actually refers to ‘one like a human being’). So is this Matthew’s ultimate subversive paradox, that he offers us a ‘true human being’: that he tentatively identifies the ‘Son of Man’ who will be named as king and judge in this parable (Matthew 25.34) with all humanity, at least in anticipation, who will judge themselves, positively or negatively, by their response to the ‘little ones’ (who are closely linked with Christ himself)? If that is indeed the case are we being offered a paradoxical inversion of the language of kingship? So does the Feast of Christ the King invite us to celebrate the kingship of Christ shown not in ultimate power but in solidarity with vulnerable humanity?

 

 

 

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