Today, the feast of Christ the King, represents New Year’s Eve for the church.
Next week comes Advent Sunday when we begin to tell the story of our faith all
over again. Next year our readings will come more from the gospel of Matthew, after a
year of emphasis on the writings of Luke – but the cycle of the stories and the shape of their telling remains the same. We are so nearly ready to look forward to the nativity and to the
coming of Christ at the end of time…but today our readings present us with the end of his
earthly story, events we last thought about at Passiontide. Altogether, it seems a strange
time and a strange way to celebrate his kingship…so just how did this feast come about?
I’m afraid it's not good news! It was established only in 1922, as part of a political
deal struck between Pope Pius XI, and Benito Mussolini. Neither of these men had much
time for democracy, and indeed Mussolini granted the church wide-ranging favours in
exchange for political silence. The Feast of Christ the King was part of a package to
reinforce the authority of both church and state.... So today we're celebrating something
that arose from a dodgy deal between a fascist politician and a powerful church. Hmnn.
However, the origins of the feast effectively point up the kind of irony which exists
when we use human concepts of Kingship and power to describe Jesus at all. As you
might expect, it's kingship with a twist...we are invited to celebrate the reign of Christ, but
we look at the gospel and see not a coronation procession but a ride to the scaffold...
Today Jesus holds centre stage,in complete vulnerability, for it is hard to imagine anyone
with less power than a man fixed to a cross with nails through hands and feet.
There are a lot of people talking about kings and kingship in this story of the death of
Christ, but most of them are speaking only in mockery.
Above his head the sign reads “This is the King of the Jews”, sentence and proclamation
The irony is intentional.
There’s no kingly glory here, no jewels or gold, just a squalid painful death.
Some king, some leader...with not a follower to his name.
Leaders are called to be strong, commanding...worlds away from the helpless man who
has no option but to listen to the taunts of the soldiers, their raucous invitation
“If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself”
We know, with the benefit of 2000 years of Christian teaching, that saving himself is not
part of Jesus' agenda.....though salvation is indeed being won as the crowds gawp and
We talked about this at Thursday's housegroup – worried that we would almost certainly
be deserters...choosing safety over friendship, even with Jesus. How could they know,
how could WE know, who it was who hung there?
On the whole, we might prefer to gloss over the crucifixion.
Even our epistle could tempt us to do so, with its lyrical celebration of Christ's divinity
“He is the image of the invisible God...in him all things in heaven and on earth were
created...in him all things hold together...”
Here we are celebrating the cosmic Christ...the one whose rule is obvious, non
negotiable...It seems incredible, as we listen to Paul, that anyone anywhere could fail to
submit to his rule...It is transcendent...written into the fabric of creation from the very
beginning.......but the route to reconciliation is hard won...
“By making peace through the blood of his cross”.
A costly kingdom founded on paradox...peace through violence...new life through a
terrible, bloody death.
Do we truly want to be part of it?
There's huge pressure to join the crowd – there always is! And here common sense as
well as self preservation might well encourage us to do so...It certainly persuades one of
the two who hang beside Jesus.
I guess the thieves feel they have nothing left to lose...so the first criminal takes some
small vicious pleasure in joining in with his own executioners as they deride the man who
hangs beside him. Perhaps he has been a lifelong bully..perhaps he has always tried to
ally himself with the powerful, if the opportunity presents itself.
Certainly he can see nothing to be gained by supporting Jesus.
In extremis, though, there can be a clarity of vision...Inessentials are stripped away as our
time runs its course – and there is space to see things as they really are. As the saying
goes, there are no atheists in fox holes, - and not that many on crosses.
Thus the second criminal recognises and articulates something wonderfully true.
Despite all the ironic mockery, despite the weakness and humiliation, the man beside him
is indeed a king, so he turns to him in supplication
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”
There is no co-ercian.
There never has been.
Jesus hasn’t used his power to dominate and manipulate during his ministry, and he isn’t
going to start now. His way has been one which set people free, giving them their own
status and dignity. He has formed them into a new community where they are each
responsible for each other, commanded to love, not to lord it over one another.
This is the king who kneels to wash his servants' feet before they feast...the king who
chooses not a war horse but a workaday donkey to carry him into his citadel, the king who
constantly gives away power in order to empower others.
It is the kingdom and its values that matter to Jesus - not his status as the king...
His rule is founded on peace, justice and transformation...on making the broken
whole...and so it is peace and wholeness that he promises to the repentant thief.
“Today you will be with me in Paradise”
There on that hillside, the drama of salvation is played out...the three crosses representing
the daily choice that confronts us all.
Love stronger than death holds Jesus there...the man in the middle, with a dying sinner on
either side, trying to decide what his message, what his kingdom, means for them.
We have to decide as well.
That wonderful hymn Be thou my vision based on St Patrick's Breastplate includes the
prayer that reflects our epistle
Be thou and thou only the first in my heart.
Paul has led us there with his poetic reminder that Christ is first in all things, but this prayer
is the one for me today.
Maybe its yours as well
Be thou and thou only the first in my heart.
Can you ask for God's grace to pray this and mean it?
We can only celebrate today if our answer to that is a resounding “Yes”...expressed not just with our mouths but with lives truly subject to the rules of his Kingdom.
May we all crown him King of our lives, the first in our hearts, now and always.