Saturday, November 21, 2015

Christ the King

Christ the King 2015


This is the last Sunday of the Church Year. Once we called it ‘Stir Up Sunday’ (after the collect the church used for thousands of years) but for some decades we have instead observed this Sunday as the Feast of Christ the King, ending the year proclaiming the rule of Christ.

Even the most steadfast believer, the most devout, the most optimistic, must be struck by the horrible discrepancy between a liturgy that proclaims the rule of Christ and what one has encountered in the morning papers or the TV news.  In the wake of violence in the Middle East, terrorism in Beirut, Paris, Nigeria and Mali – to speak of the ‘Rule of Christ’ might seem naïve at best or, at worst, an instance of disingenuous, cynical, religious propaganda.

Our understanding, our language, our imaginative capacity limits us.  Pilate presses Jesus with questions and Jesus instead highlights the inadequacy of Pilate’s thinking: he simply says “You say that I am a King …” Instead we need to attend to the grammar of faith, which is driven by the religious imagination.  I have two images in mind that may illustrate what I mean.  One is the Paschal Candle and the other is Holman Hunt’s painting ‘The Light of the World’.

Each year, at the Easter Vigil, the Paschal candle is carved with the numerals of the year and with the symbols of the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, the Alpha and the Omega.  As a representation of time it is an oxymoron, an enigma: the specific moment of time marked by the year is enfolded by the emblems for the start of time and the end of time.  This is the grammar of the religious imagination, it is a grammar that consumes itself.

The painting known as ‘The Light of the World’ (1851-53) by Holman Hunt is one of the best-known devotional paintings; it is an allegorical illustration of the text in Revelation 3:20 "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me".   It show a richly robed Christ, crowned with a crown of thorns and bearing a lantern, knocking at an overgrown, and obviously long-unopened door, to which there appears to be no handle other than what may be on the inside.  The door is of course the closed mind or the closed heart.  The painting presents the enigma of the religious imagination: on the one hand we see Christ, the light of the world; on the other hand is the closed door of the shut mind.  The painting, its juxtaposition of the door and Christ, confronts us with the enigma of our refusal to see or respond to Christ.

The gospel presents us with a similar juxtaposition.  We are drawn into a dramatic encounter as Pilate talks to Jesus – it is not just two different personalities that we see but different worlds, and different dimensions confront each other.  It would be fascinating to try and script this for a play.  Pilate’s world: of court politics, ways and means, the slippery pole of power, of duties and taxes; Pilate’s world cannot begin to comprehend who Jesus is.  We get the impression that he realises there is more to this Jesus than he can understand; we catch a sense of his curiosity and of the tragedy of someone caught up in the machinery of their own political world.  He cannot understand Jesus.

‘Are you a King?’

The question is of course absurd.  His words probe infinity and rebound to him: “You say that I am a king.”  One might as well have asked “Are you a plumber?” There is no word for what God is.

In this moment we recognise our kinship with Pilate: he is very much like anyone of us.  His mental and spiritual capacity is severely limited – and he cannot even remotely conceive the mystery of the truth about the one who stands opposite him.

In its way, Pilate’s question is our question, and it is unanswerable – we have no language or comprehension to make sense of an answer.

And yet, despite our limitations, despite our finitude, despite even the darkness that we may fear in the world, on this Sunday we proclaim that Christ rules. 

From that haunted question in Pilate’s court, and the story that runs from there to the cross, the empty tomb and echoes still to touch our own lives … on this day we proclaim Christ rules.

From our finite moment in time we contemplate the immeasurable reach of eternity; we offer the bread and wine, and we proclaim Christ, our Alpha and Omega! 

In this finite moment we attend to the one who is the ‘Light of the world’ and continues still to knock at the door of our closed minds and rebellious hearts, always seeking our response.  

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