28 November 2012

Celebrating Christ in Majesty

Christ in Majesty ... John Piper’s window in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

I am presiding at the Community Eucharist this evening [28 November 2012], when we are celebrating the Kingship of Christ with the collect, readings and post-communion prayer of last Sunday, the Sunday before Advent (The Kingship of Christ).

Sunday’s readings, which we are using this evening, are: Daniel 7: 9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1: 4b-8; and John 18: 33-37.

Marking the Kingship of Christ on the Sunday before Advent, the Feast of Christ the King, is a recent innovation. At the end of 1925, Pope Pius XI published a papal encyclical, Quas Primas, in which he castigated secularism in Europe and declared that the secular powers ought to recognise Christ as King and that the Church needed to recapture this teaching.

At the time, the entire idea of kingship was quickly losing cache in the Western society, not so much to democracy but to burgeoning fascism – Mussolini was in power in Italy since 1922, and there was a wave of fascism sweeping across central Europe.

The mere mention of kingship and monarchy today evokes images of either the extravagance of Louis XVI in Versailles, or the anachronism of pretenders in Ruritanian headdress, sashes and medals claiming thrones and privilege in Eastern Europe.

Sunday was also the last Sunday in Pentecost, the last Sunday at the end of our journey in the lectionary with Christ on his journey to Jerusalem. We will begin it all again next Sunday, but we have time to pause and reflect on the fact that we have followed Jesus for seven months or so on this journey to Jerusalem as told in Saint Mark’s Gospel.

In this Gospel reading, we are at the moment when Christ is on trial before Pilate. At first reading this might appear a more appropriate reading for Holy Week than the week before Advent, a more appropriate preparation for Easter than Christmas.

But at this stage, Pilate demands to know whether Christ is a King: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18: 33).

And he answers Pilate: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here ... You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18: 36-27).

Before this, the promise of Advent is emphasised in the reading from the Book of Revelation:

John to the seven churches that are in Asia:

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.

Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it is to be. Amen.

‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. (Revelation 1: 4b-8)

True majesty

Christ in Glory ... Graham Sutherland’s tapestry in Coventry Cathedral

The readings and the theme of the Kingship of Christ are reflected in the hymns chosen for the Community Eucharist this evening:

Processional Hymn: Majesty, worship his majesty (Irish Church Hymnal, 276), by Jack Hayford, who was inspired to write this hymn during a visit to Blenheim Palace outside Oxford in 1977.

The Gradual: Christ triumphant, ever reigning (259), by Canon Michael Sward.

The Offertory Hymn: How shall I sing that majesty (468, but including verse 3 from the version in the New English Hymnal, 373, and the tune Coe Fen by Kenneth Naylor). This is one of my favourite hymns, but its message and meaning are lost in the version that omits this third verse. On the other hand, the Church Hymnal uses the tune Coe Fen where the New English Hymnal uses Thomas Tallis’s Third Mode Melody, with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Kingsfold as an alternative.

Recessional Hymn: Rejoice, the Lord is King! (281). Handel’s tune, Gopsal, used for this hymn, was discovered by Samuel Wesley in a manuscript in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Kingship may not be a good role model in this part of the island or for people living in modern democratic societies where the heads of state are elected. Nor are the models of kingship in history or in contemporary society so good. Three examples serve to illustrate this:

● We are familiar with a model of monarchy that paradoxically appears to be benign on the one hand and appears aloof and remote on the other hand, at the very apex of a class system defined by birth, title and inherited privilege.

● In other northern European countries, the model of monarchy is portrayed in the media by figureheads who are slightly daft do-gooders, riding around on bicycles in parks and by canals in ways that threaten to rob kingship of majesty, dignity and grace.

● Or, take recently deposed emperors: Halie Selassie of Ethiopia, who died in 1975, sat back in luxury as his people starved to death; Emperor Bokassa of Central Africa, who died in 1996, was a tyrant accused of eating his people and having them butchered at whim.

Is it any wonder that some modern translations of the Psalms avoid the word king and talk about God as our governor?

But Christ rejects all the dysfunctional models of majesty and kingship. He is not coming again as a king who is haughty and aloof, daft and barmy, or despotic and tyrannical. Instead he shows a model of kingship that emphasises what majesty and graciousness should mean for us today – giving priority in the kingdom to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner.


Eternal Father,
whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven
that he might rule over all things as Lord and King:
Keep the Church in the unity of the Spirit
and in the bond of peace,
and bring the whole created order to worship at his feet,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Stir up, O Lord,
the wills of your faithful people;
that plenteously bearing the fruit of good works
they may by you be plenteously rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

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