Sunday, 24 November 2013

‘Jesus, remember me when
you come into your kingdom’

Christ in Majesty ... John Piper’s window in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Sunday before Advent [Sunday, 24 November 2013], when the Calendar of the Church of Ireland celebrates the Kingship of Christ.. The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are : Jeremiah 23: 1-6; Colossians 1: 11-20; Luke 23: 33-43. Instead of a Psalm, the Lectionary provides for the Canticle Benedictus, although Psalm 46 is being sung at the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this morning.

The celebrant is the Dean, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, the preacher and canon-in-residence is the Revd Canon David Moynan, and the setting is Josef Rheinberger’s Mass in E flat, sung by the Cathedral Choir.

This morning’s hymn include: Rejoice , the Lord is King! (Processional, Charles Wesley); Crown him with many crowns (Offertory, Matthew Bridges); The head that once was crowned with thorns (Communion, Thomas Kelly); and Christ is the King, O friends rejoice! (Post-Communion, George Bell).

The Introit is Christus vincit, arranged by Martin Baker; the Communion Motet is the Gradual for Maundy Thursday by Anton Bruckner, Christus factus est; and the Organ Voluntary is Gigout’s Grand Chorus Dialogue.

Luke 23: 33-43

33 καὶ ὅτε ἦλθον ἐπὶ τὸν τόπον τὸν καλούμενον Κρανίον, ἐκεῖ ἐσταύρωσαν αὐτὸν καὶτοὺς κακούργους, ὃν μὲν ἐκ δεξιῶν ὃν δὲ ἐξ ἀριστερῶν. 34 [[ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἔλεγεν, Πάτερ, ἄφες αὐτοῖς, οὐ γὰροἴδασιν τί ποιοῦσιν.]] διαμεριζόμενοι δὲ τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ ἔβαλον κλήρους. 35 καὶ εἱστήκει ὁ λαὸς θεωρῶν.ἐξεμυκτήριζον δὲ καὶ οἱ ἄρχοντες λέγοντες, Ἄλλους ἔσωσεν, σωσάτω ἑαυτόν, εἰ οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ Χριστὸς τοῦθεοῦ ὁ ἐκλεκτός. 36 ἐνέπαιξαν δὲ αὐτῷ καὶ οἱ στρατιῶται προσερχόμενοι, ὄξος προσφέροντες αὐτῷ 37 καὶλέγοντες, Εἰ σὺ εἶ ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων, σῶσον σεαυτόν. 38 ἦν δὲ καὶ ἐπιγραφὴ ἐπ' αὐτῷ, Ὁ βασιλεὺςτῶν Ἰουδαίων οὗτος.

39 Εἷς δὲ τῶν κρεμασθέντων κακούργων ἐβλασφήμει αὐτὸν λέγων, Οὐχὶ σὺ εἶ ὁΧριστός; σῶσον σεαυτὸν καὶ ἡμᾶς. 40 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ ἕτερος ἐπιτιμῶν αὐτῷ ἔφη, Οὐδὲ φοβῇ σὺ τὸν θεόν,ὅτι ἐν τῷ αὐτῷ κρίματι εἶ; 41 καὶ ἡμεῖς μὲν δικαίως, ἄξια γὰρ ὧν ἐπράξαμεν ἀπολαμβάνομεν: οὗτος δὲοὐδὲν ἄτοπον ἔπραξεν. 42 καὶ ἔλεγεν, Ἰησοῦ, μνήσθητί μου ὅταν ἔλθῃς εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν σου. 43 καὶ εἶπεναὐτῷ, Ἀμήν σοι λέγω, σήμερον μετ' ἐμοῦ ἔσῃ ἐν τῷ παραδείσῳ.

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

Christ the King of Kings and Great High Priest ... an icon from Mount Athos on the wall of my study (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The setting

These readings, marking the last Sunday in Pentecost, also mark 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 this week gives us time to pause and reflect on the fact that we have followed Christ for seven months or so through Saint Luke’s Gospel. We have seen Saint Luke’s distinctive emphases on the poor and their inclusion in the Kingdom, their inclusion among those not normally invited as guests to the great feasts.

In this Gospel reading, we are at the moment when Christ is crucified. The crucifixion is truly emphasised on Good Friday, but this morning the emphasis is on the request to him by one of the criminals to “remember me” in the kingdom.

Three temptations, three emphases

Three points emerge from this passage.

First, we note the passage in general functions as a “last temptation of Christ” (verses 33-39).

Second, we see the recognition by the evildoer of Christ’s kingdom (verse 42).

Thirdly, we are challenged to accept that today, this day, σήμερον (símeron), this very day, is the time to respond to the claims the kingdom makes on us (verse 43).

Usually, when we think of the Christ’s last temptation, we think of either The Last Temptation of Christ, the book by Nikos Kazantzakis, or the film, or we think of the story at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, when he was tempted by Satan into taking a series of short-cuts to glory (see Luke 4: 1-13).

Just as there were three temptations in the wilderness, so there are three of them in this passage. In Luke 4, there was only one speaker – the devil. But in this passage we are introduced to three separate groups or individuals who verbally abuse or challenge Christ: the leaders, the soldiers and the criminals or thieves. Each of them challenges Christ on the same point that the devil made in chapter 4: “if indeed you are so great (or are the Messiah or the King of the Jews), you will save yourself out of this predicament.”

Perhaps the temptation here for Christ to act in some way to “save himself” might even be more compelling than it was in Luke 4. First, Luke skilfully uses language that puts Christ’s trials here in the Biblical context of unjust suffering. In verse 35 the high priests are said to “mock” him (ἐξεμυκτήριζον, exemuktérizon), they hold up their noses in derision. This extremely rare verb is used in one other place in this Gospel: Luke 16: 14, where “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him” (ἤκουον δὲ ταῦτα πάντα οἱ Φαρισαῖοι φιλάργυροι ὑπάρχοντες καὶ ἐξεμυκτήριζον αὐτόν).

The same word is used in Psalm 22, where those who stand around the oppressed person “mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads” (Psalm 22: 7).

In that Psalm, the people say:

“Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver –
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!” (verse 8).

Christ’s suffering and derision here is now placed in the context of another significant Biblical sufferer. Will God now rescue him or will he use his powers to get himself out of this predicament?

Of course, the temptation is even greater because Christ is at the end of his ministry. By having three successive groups of people – the leaders, the soldiers and the criminal – not recognise who he is, the temptation might have been to think his life’s work has been useless. Many people die in near-despair because they feel that all their efforts to effect change are in vain. Christ has spent his entire public ministry doing good, teaching and healing, calling people back to God. If he knew that he did not get through even to the disciples (see Luke 18: 34), how much less might he get through to anyone else.

But true majesty and the genius of power are revealed in those who have it and can use it but only do so sparingly. Christ’s choice here is not to gratify their requests.

Instead, he displays supreme majesty, for he “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave … humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore, God also highly exalted him …” (Philippians 2: 6-9).

Preparing for Christ’s coming

Looking out from the Church of Christ the King onto Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This Gospel reading may seem to be a little out of sequence for some this morning. We are preparing for Christmas, you may think, not for Good Friday and Easter. But we forget that so easily. I hear on all the radio chat shows people already talking about this being the Christmas Season … before Advent has even started.

But Advent is the season of preparation for Christmas, and in the weeks beforehand we even prepare for Advent itself, with Lectionary readings telling us about the Coming of Christ.

We have made Christmas a far-too comfortable story. It was never meant to be, but we have made it comfortable with our Christmas card images of the sweet little baby Jesus, being visited by kings and surrounded by adoring, cute little animals. The reality, of course, is that Christmas was never meant to be a comfortable story like that.

Christmas is a story about poverty and about people who are homeless and rejected and who can find no place to stay.

It is a messy story about a child born surrounded by the filth of animals and the dirt of squalor.

It is a story of shepherds who are involved in dangerous work, staying up all night, out in the winter cold, watching out for wolves and sheep stealers.

It is a story of trickery, deceit and the corruption of political power that eventually leads to a cruel dictator stooping to murder, even the murder of innocent children, to secure his own grip on power.

But those sorts of images do not sell Christmas Cards or help to get the boss drunk under the mistletoe at the office party.

That is why in the weeks before Advent we have readings that remind us about what the coming of Christ into the world means, what the Kingdom of God is like, and how we should prepare for the coming of Christ and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

The Feast of Christ the King

The Church of Christ the King in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I know of few Anglican churches dedicated to Christ the King, apart from the Church of Christ the King in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, London, which is now used by Forward in Faith.

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 credibility in Western societies, not so much to democracy but to burgeoning fascism – Mussolini was in power in Italy since 1922, and a wave of fascism was about to sweep across central Europe.

The mere mention of kingship and monarchy today may evoke 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.

But since 1925, the celebration of Christ the King or the Kingship of Christ has become part of the calendar of the wider Western Church. It took on an ecumenical dimension from 1983 on with its introduction to Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and others through the Revised Common Lectionary.

The end of the Church Year

Putting the Christmas trees up too early or hanging up the lights and frosting the windows ahead of Advent do not help to encourage a true Christmas spirit because they help us forget what Advent is all about.

Christ comes not just as a cute cuddly babe wrapped up in the manger and under the floodlights of a front window in a large department store in Grafton Street or the window of a leading brand shop in Dundrum.

Marking the Sunday before Advent by crowning Christ as King helps us to focus on Advent from the following Sunday, and Advent is supposed to be a time and a season of preparing for the coming of Christ.

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. Let me share three examples:

● 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, who died in 1975, sat back in luxury as his people starved to death; Emperor Bokassa, 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?

This morning, the Sunday before Advent now gives us time to pause and reflect on the why, over the past few months, we have been following Christ on his journey to Jerusalem. For it is there that he will be revealed in glory as the Son of Man and the King.

Searching questions

Christ the King ... Graham Sutherland’s tapestry in Coventry Cathedral

Discussing how the Lectionary can at times seem to provide readings that are incongruous or out of season, Canon Giles Fraser – who resigned as Canon Chancellor of Saint Paul’s because of the cathedral’s response to the Occupy protests – wrote in the Church Times two years ago [Friday 4 November 2011]: “For too long the Church has been obsessed with its own internal workings and with silly arguments about sex. Now is the time for a new debate and a new emphasis. For if we are not fully involved with complex discussions about the relationship between financial justice and the way our financial institutions work, then we might as well give up on being a proper Church and admit that we are the spiritual arm of the heritage industry.”

Describing how the Lectionary can be a cruel mistress, he recalls that the Evensong readings set for what was his last sermon in Saint Paul’s Cathedral included: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God … But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6: 20, 25).

He argues that the “whole point of having a lectionary is that it obliges the preacher not to avoid the hard bits of the Bible. Were the readings up to me, I would have chosen something much safer. But that is the whole point of having a lectionary: it stops you retreating into safety. There are some things that just must stay on the agenda, however uncomfortable.”

Conclusions:

Christ the King ... a modern American tapestry

This Gospel reading for the Sunday before Advent challenges us in a way that is uncomfortable, but with things that must stay on our agenda as Christians and on the agenda of the Church.

The genius of power is revealed in those who have it and can use it but only do so sparingly. Christ’s choice is not to gratify those who want a worldly king, whether he is benign or barmy. Instead, he displays supreme majesty in his priorities for those who are counted out when it comes to other kingdoms.

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.

As we prepare for Christmas we should be preparing to enjoy time with our families and friends, time for a good winter’s holiday. But we should also remember the reason we have Christmas, the reason Christ came into the world, and the reason he is coming again.

We can look forward to seeing the Christ child in the crib and to singing about him in the carols. But let us also look forward to seeing him in glory. So let us be prepared to see him in the hungry, the thirsty, the unwelcome stranger, those who are naked and vulnerable, those who have no provisions for health care, those who are prisoners, those who have no visitors and those who are lonely and marginalised.

A scene of Christ in Majesty at the Last Judgment in a fresco in the Orthodox Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Collect:

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, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin.

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