22 November 2009

The Kingship of Christ and the majesty of grieving mothers

Christ the King ... a modern American tapestry

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 22 November 2009: The Kingship of Christ (The Sunday before Advent)

11 a.m.: The Cathedral Eucharist, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Daniel 7: 9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1: 4b-8; John 18: 33-37

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

This morning’s Gospel reading may seem to be a little out of sequence for some. We are preparing for Christmas, you may think, not for Easter.

Already many of us have started sending our Christmas cards, and drawing up our lists for presents. Although there may be a sense of foreboding in advance of Christmas this year, nevertheless many are determined to enjoy it and celebrate it.

Despite that foreboding, it seems Christmas comes earlier and earlier each year, and this year has been no exception. I wonder to myself whether this is simply a sign that I am getting older. Is being grumpy about seemingly earlier-and-earlier Christmas trees and decorations and snowmen in the shops just part of the ageing process … like claiming that policemen or gardai appear increasingly to be younger than I am?

And yet, without being grumpy, I know that this year too families will feel inadequate, under the wrong sort of pressures, and express this by saying there are too many Christmas trees around, too many Christmas offers, too much pressure to shop and spend, when they don’t have the money, or the security to spend the money they have.

Putting the Christmas trees up too early, hanging up the lights and frosting the windows may not be helping to encourage a Christmas spirit. And too much of everything at this time means we forget what Advent is supposed to be about.

This Sunday marks the end of the Christian year, the Church year. And we appropriately mark this by crowning Christ as King. This helps us to focus from Sunday next on Advent, which is supposed to be a time and a season of preparation for the coming of Christ.

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

We are also preparing for the coming of Christ as King. And so on this Sunday, the last Sunday of the Christian calendar, the last Sunday of the Church year, we celebrate the Kingship of Christ.

But kingship is not a very good role model for those of us who live in a democratic society where we elect our governments and our heads of state. The models of kingship that we have in history or in contemporary society are not so good. Let me give three examples.

On our neighbouring island, we have a model of monarchy that paradoxically appears to be benign on one hand and on the other appears aloof and remote, at the very apex of a class system defined by birth, title and inherited privilege.

In other northern European countries, we have a model of monarchy that is represented in the media by figureheads portrayed as slightly daft do-gooders, riding around on bicycles in parks and by canals in ways that rob kingship of majesty, dignity and grace.

Or, look at two recently deposed emperors: in the case of Halie Selassie, there was a king who sat back in luxury as his people starved to death; in the Emperor Bokassa, we had a tyrant accused of eating his people and having them butchered at whim.

No wonder some American translations of the Psalms avoid the word king and talk about God as our governor.

But 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.

As he is being tortured and crucified, his tormentors and detractors still try to project these models of kingship onto Christ as they whip him and beat him to humility, as they crown him with thorns and mock him, and finally as he is crucified for all the world to see.

What sort of a king did Pilate expect Christ to be? Indeed, what does majesty and graciousness mean for you today?

The sufferings and compassion of three mothers in recent months have illustrated for me how loving parents can be reflections of divine majesty and grace.

When her son Sebastian was murdered in Bray last August, 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.”

“A well-sculpted eulogy, carved with all the beauty, precision, delicacy and impact of a Pieta being sculpted by a Michelangelo”

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.

Last month, 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.

Then, at the end of last month, we had the tragic killing of an Irish backpacker in Australia, followed by the graceful, majestic, regal response of 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 subsequently 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, because of our failed economy, because of the cuts we are being prepared for in the looming budget … 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.

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Sung Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday 22 November 2009.

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