Saturday, November 19, 2016

Christ the King - between faith and doubt

Christ the King 2016
20 November 2016

This is a Sunday when we need to remember where we are in the church’s story – we are at the end of the liturgical year – and next Sunday we start the story again with Advent Sunday.  So at this end of the story we celebrate with a bold statement of faith – the Feast of Christ the King; celebrating with hope and longing the rule of Christ over all creation.  It is a strange Feast – because it celebrates what we cannot yet quite discern; it inhabits the reality of the now and the not yet, the visible and the invisible, present and future – it is a feast that demands we cross dimensions of time and space.
Icon of Christ the King

We see this most obviously in the readings.  The epistle, Colossians, has a fragment from what we think was an early Christian hymn, proclaiming who Christ is:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, …

A careful reader will notice the artful oxymoron – “the image of the invisible” – of course this shakes us.  It is a conceptual impossibility.    This hymn takes us beyond all we can imagine: it affirms Christ as God and as the source of all that is - from before creation and to beyond the end of time.  The hymn sings us into faith.  That is what hymns do; that is what worship does; that is what liturgy is about – we are drawn into faith; drawn into another dimension of reality.  

This is heady stuff!  This vision of the cosmic Christ beggars our imagination and our capacity to comprehend.

Contrast that vision with the gospel where Luke takes us to observe the brutality of the cross.   At the forefront of this gospel is Christ on the cross enduring the mockery of the soldiers, the ridicule of the Jewish leaders and the hostility of one of those crucified with him.  To read this, to hear it, is to be confronted by the darkness of our world and what we are capable of; our capacity to marginalise and isolate, humiliate and torture, and to kill.  We catch a glimpse of our own blindness and wilfulness; we are placed within a tableau of the darkness and abandonment we inhabit.

So, today the two readings collide: the epistle being the dazzling and mind-bending vision of the cosmic Christ, ruler of the universe; the gospel as the spectacle of suffering and death in a brutal, finite, and temporal world.

Except that this is not quite the whole story. 
Hieronymous Bosch, Christ Carrying the Cross,

I have in mind a painting by Hieronymous Bosch, painted about 1480.  The painting is of Christ carrying the cross – and Bosch painted 3 very different studies on this subject.  The one I have in mind is in the Art History Museum in Vienna.  At the centre is Christ crowded about and bowed under the cross. But this is also a very tall painting with the effect that our eyes are drawn down to the lower right and left corners where we see two other figures – the thieves also about to be crucified with Jesus.  In the right corner we see one of them, kneeling and making confession to a robed friar.

Detail, the penitent thief
In this way Bosch guides our reading of this gospel.  At the place of execution, confronting the terror and pain that will mark his death, this man makes his confession.  This killing ground is his ‘ground zero’: this moment of truth allows no time for illusion or denial. Reality, raw and indescribably brutal, cannot be evaded.   Yet, despite the horror and darkness, it is also as if there is a pinpoint of light.  This is a man who sees through the horror of the cross into the Kingdom.  

Though unnamed in the gospel, we have a name for this man: by tradition the church remembers him as Dismas.  We recall that, dying on the cross, gasping for breath, he asked Jesus to remember him.   We recall Christ’s response, also gasping for breath, he said “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  

Dismas in Paradise

So, Dismas is made Christ’s own forever.

At the end of the Church year, in this untidy week before the start of Advent,  Dismas speaks for us all and for our mortality and frailty; for all of us who swing between wonder and fear, faith and doubt.   “In the chaos of life, in my sins, at my end, King Jesus, remember me.”

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