Kingship… not from this world

Rylands Papyrus 52 recto
Rylands Papyrus 52 verso.

This week’s lectionary reflection is based on the Gospel, John 18.33-37, which is read on this coming Sunday, the commemoration of Christ the King

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship,

Though I very much appreciate Bishop Tom Wright as a biblical theologian, I don’t always agree with all his views in detail. I do however think that his critique of the recent adoption of the Feast of Christ the King into the Anglican calendar on the Sunday before Advent has some justification. Bishop Tom argues that there was and is already a Feast of the kingship of Christ in the Christian church – namely the Ascension – and that to focus on Christ’s kingship in this additional way, at this particular time, detracts from the kingly focus of the Feast of the Ascension. And on the whole I think Bishop Tom is right. Just think about the hymns sung at Ascensiontide: ‘Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne’  etc. 

And, as I have commented myself in this blog a year ago (though it doesn’t seem that long!) in a piece titled ‘Stirring it up! The challenging kingship of Christ’ (which can still be viewed if you cycle back through the blog) I am uneasy at gut level about the way that the Feast was introduced in 1925 by Pope Pius XI.  My point was that even though the Feast was apparently introduced to counter-act some of the problematic political movements developing at that time in Europe, the ’theme’ of Christ as King, whether intentionally or not, (certainly in the terms in which it was understood at that time) had itself shades of a Christian quasi-fascism about it. This is reflected for me in the monumental statues of ‘Christ the King’ that were erected in those years, both in Europe and Latin America. A good example of what I mean is the statue at Les Houches near Chamonix below. As I reflect on this, it is perhaps partly my own experience of living in Lebanon during a period in which the Christian Phalangist movement (which has its roots in political movements in 1920s and 1930s Europe) was powerful that makes me so uncomfortable.

Christ Roi statue near Chamonix in France

However if one is going to keep this Feast, then I heartily applaud the choice of this year’s lectionary Gospel from John as the key text for grappling with its meaning. For a primary feature of the Gospel of John (compared with the Synoptic Gospels) is its use of irony and paradox. That is certainly true in this brief discussion in John 18.33-37 about the kingship of Christ. Jesus Christ is King, but he gives a new meaning to the concept of kingship which challenges rather than reflects the ‘kingdoms of this world’ (John 18.36). Indeed in this Gospel Christ actually turns the meaning of kingship upside down.

One of the most powerful verbal motifs which runs through the Gospel of John is the description of Christ being ‘lifted up’. It comes e.g. at John 3.14; 8.28; 12.32; 12.34. There is a deliberate double entendre in the words. They are intended to speak of physical ‘lifting up’, but the verb also means metaphorically ‘to exalt’ – to be given the kind of position that a king would expect to have. Of course the moment when Christ is ‘lifted up’ is precisely when he is raised from the ground to hang on the Cross.  So in the vision of the Gospel of John there is a profound interrelationship between Christ’s kingship and that moment of supreme powerlessness, which turns conventional motions of kingship upside down. Kingship and Cross are inseparable.  The paradox is reinforced by John’s description of the time of Christ’s death as his moment of ‘glorification’. ‘Glory’ was also a word associated with kings – and indeed the divine presence.  So once again there is an ironic paradox that Jesus reveals his divinity most clearly when appearances seem to indicate the complete opposite. That is the ultimate ‘truth’ that Christ came to bring, yet those with apparent earthly power, like Pilate himself, can only fumble around asking ‘What is truth?’ To return to Tom Wright’s comments about the kingship of Christ and the Ascension – perhaps the challenge of the Feast of Christ the King requires us to hold on to paradox and irony in a way that is not really an aspect of Christ’s Ascension and that might be the distinction between the two feasts?

The picture at the head of the blog this week is Rylands Papyrus 52. It can be seen in the John Rylands library in Manchester. It is a fragment of John 18.34-38 (i.e. part of this week’s lectionary Gospel). It comes originally from Egypt and it probably dates from the second century AD. It used to be suggested that it came from the first half of that century – now there is less certainty about this, and it may have been copied in the latter part of the century. However it is still either the oldest or one of the oldest fragments of a Gospel in existence today. Is there something quite ‘powerful’ about the fact that this tiny and vulnerable scrap of material is sharing with us the meaning of the kingship of Christ?

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