Sunday, 25 November 2018

When Jesus tells Pilate, ‘My
kingdom is not from this world’

Christ before Pilate (John 18: 33-37) … an image on the façade of Gaudí’s Basilica of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 25 November 2018,

The Sunday before Advent, the Kingship of Christ (Proper 29), and Mission Sunday.

9.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer, Castletown Church, Co Limerick.

Readings: II Samuel 23: 1-7; Psalm 132: 1-12 (13-18); Revelation 1: 4b-8; John 18: 33-37.

Christ enthroned between two archangels, Saint Michael and Saint Gabriel, in the south apse in the Church of Santa Fosca in Torcello in the Lagoon of Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Already the Christmas decorations, including trees and lights, are up in the streets and the shops. Vicky Phelan bravely turned up to switch on the Christmas Lights in O’Connell Street in Limerick last Sunday [18 November 2018]. This morning, we are still a full month away from Christmas Day, but already the Shopping Centres would have us believe Christmas has arrived, although Advent does not begin until next Sunday [2 December 2018].

Sometimes, we make Christmas a far-too comfortable story. But 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 out all night in the winter cold, beset by wolves and sheep stealers.

It is a story of trickery, deceit and the corruption of political power and even the murder of innocent children.

It is a story of family made homeless and forced to become refugees, strangers in a strange land.

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 as King and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

The mere mention of kings 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.

Kings may not be a good role model in Ireland or other democratic societies where the heads of state are elected. Nor are the models of kingship in history or in contemporary society so good. It is worth considering three examples:

In these islands, we are familiar with a monarchy that provides the media with style icons and magazine covers, a monarchy that paradoxically appears to be benign on the one hand and 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, kings are often is portrayed as 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 deposed emperors from the last century: Halie Selassie sat back in luxury as the people of Ethiopia starved to death; the Emperor Bokassa was a tyrant accused of eating his people in Central Africa and having them butchered at whim.

Christ ‘coming with the clouds’ … the window in the Mortuary Chapel in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Athlone, depicting Christ in Judgment, by Earley of Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

In this morning’s Gospel reading, Christ rejects all those dysfunctional models of majesty and kingship. He is not happy with Pilate trying to project onto him models of kingship that are taken from the haughty and the aloof, the daft and the barmy, or the despotic and the tyrannical.

What sort of a king did Pilate expect Christ to be?

Indeed, what does majesty and graciousness mean for you today?

Today is also the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. For me, alongside the story of Vicky Phelan’s bravery, the sufferings and compassion of three mothers in recent years illustrate how loving parents can be reflections of divine majesty and grace.

When her son Sebastian was murdered in Bray almost ten years ago, in 2009, Nuala Creane spoke movingly at his funeral as she told her story, telling all there that ‘my story, my God is the God of Small Things. I see God’s presence in the little details.’

It was a beautiful and well-sculpted eulogy, carved with all the beauty, precision, delicacy and impact of a Pieta being sculpted by a Michelangelo. She spoke of how the God of Small Things had blessed her with a sunny child, was saying, is saying, ‘let the child inside each of us come to the surface and play.’

She understood generously and graciously, and with majesty, the grief of those who loved the young man who had killed her son and then killed himself, believing these young men ‘both played their parts in the unfolding of God’s divine plan.’

She spoke of the heartbreak and the choice that faces everyone confronted with the deepest personal tragedies, asking herself: ‘Do we continue to live in darkness, seeing only fear, anger, bitterness, resentment; blaming, bemoaning our loss, always looking backwards, blaming, blaming, blaming, or are we ready to transmute this negativity? We can rise to the challenge with unconditional love, knowing that we were born on to this earth to grow ... Our hearts are broken but maybe our hearts needed to be broken so that they could expand.’

Broken hearts, expanding hearts, rising to the challenge with unconditional love … this is how I hope I understand the majesty and the glory of Christ, at the best of times and at the worst of times.

When the Cork All-Star hurler Donal Óg Cusack published his biography, Come What May, his mother went on the Marian Finucane Show on RTÉ and spoke movingly about how ‘very difficult’ it is for his father to accept that their son is gay.

Bonnie Cusack spoke honestly of how ‘very sorry’ she feels for her husband who was finding the situation tough to deal with. But while her husband did not find their son’s decision to go public easy to accept, they both fully supported Donal Óg, and she proudly described her son’s courage as the ‘most important quality a man can have.’

Bonnie Cusack said she knew that her son was gay from the time he was aged about 16. But in the face of the discrimination and the taunts her son suffered at matches, despite the lost hopes for the future, of ever having a daughter-in-law, of ever having grandchildren, she is proud of her son and his courage. She loves him unconditionally.

And her dignity on the Marian Finucane Show was regal and majestic … a lesson for every mother on how to publicly show love for a son who has made a difficult yet public decision.

Around the same time, an Irish backpacker was killed in Australia, evoking a graceful, majestic, regal response from his compassionate and loving mother.

Gearóid Walsh (23) suffered severe head injuries and died in hospital in Sydney. He had been drinking in beachside bars and pubs before getting into an argument with someone else outside a kebab shop. Initially, he walked away, but then returned a moment later to continue the argument. He was punched once, stumbled, fell and hit his head on the ground.

His widowed mother, Tressa Walsh, flew out to Sydney immediately. Mrs Walsh was filled with emotion as she appealed for the man who hit her son to give himself up. And then she explained, with grace and majesty: ‘I’d really like to say that as a mother I really feel for this guy who got into a fight with Gearóid.’

She was holding back tears as she said: ‘I am heart-broken for him because we don’t blame him, we don’t want him to serve time in prison. I think he was just very, very unlucky. We don’t want him to torture himself over this. I don’t see this as a murder.’

She said her son was tall … ‘he had a long way to fall.’

In her love for her son, she had compassion and mercy for the man who later handed himself into police in Sydney. And she could see how darkness can lead to light, bad things can be turned around to good, despair can lead to hope, for after she accepted that her son was being taken off life support, she also allowed his vital organs to help six Australians who might otherwise have died to live.

In our world today, refusing to seek revenge is seen as passive acceptance. We confuse seeking the best for ourselves and those we love with being insensitive to and trampling on the hurt and grief of others.

When Christ comes to us this Advent, as the poor suffer because of the recession, as the homeless and those on housing lists are added to our lists on Mission Sunday this year … who will he identify with?

In his glory and his majesty, I expect he will understand those who suffer, those who grieve, those who forgive.

At his birth, he was born in a humble dwelling in Bethlehem, he showed how much he has in common with the poor who will suffer this Christmas.

At his death, he rejected the thrones and palaces of the Pilates and the Herods. As Michelangelo’s Pieta shows us, he had a more dignified throne.

And when he comes again at his Advent, his glory and his majesty is reflected in those who are filled with grief, with compassion, with love and with understanding.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

John 18: 33-37

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34 Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35 Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36 Jesus answered, ‘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.’ 37 Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘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.’

Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world’ (John 18: 36) … Christ before Pilate in Station 1 of the Stations of the Cross in the Chapel at Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, Pilate condemns Jesus to die (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Liturgical Colour: White

The 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.

The Mission Collect:

Almighty God,
who called your Church to witness
that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself:
Help us to proclaim the good news of your love,
that all who hear it may be drawn to you;
through him who was lifted up on the cross,
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The sculpture of the ‘Majesty of Christ’ by Alan Durst in Great Saint Mary’s University Church, Cambridge, draws on imagery in the Book of Revelation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hymns:

276, Majesty, worship his majesty (CD 17);
259, Christ triumphant, ever reigning (CD 16);
468, How shall I sing that majesty (CD 2, Church Hymnal discs)

A prayer for mission in the USPG Prayer Diary today:

Loving God, you long for us to live in peace,
we grieve with you for the violence in our world,
Help us to protect the vulnerable and all who suffer,
offering with love a safe place to all in need.

Christ in Majesty … a fading sculpture in the west porch of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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