Christ the King

Christ the King – Church of St Philip the Apostle, Sydenham UK.

Last Sunday was the feast of Christ the King. Here is Mother Anne-Marie’s sermon.

John 18.33-37

The Church in which I became a Christian some forty years ago was dominated by a wonderful cross depicting Christ as King. It has only been many years later that I have realised that that very image played apart in my conversion.

I had originally gone to this church very reluctantly on an Easter Sunday, simply because my mother and aunt were staying with me for the holiday weekend and wanted to go to church. We had chosen this particular church because my auntie – some of you will remember my Auntie Trix as she worshipped with us here for several years – my Auntie Trix had seen a photo of the vicar at this particular church on a leaflet that had come through the door advertising all the local church services for Easter. The leaflet included a photograph of each minister – what a way to advertise! Anyway, my auntie Trix said “let’s go there, that vicar looks sexy!”

The service that Easter Sunday morning took me by surprise. It wasn’t as dull as I remembered church being, the hymns were joyful and the sermon entertaining. It wasn’t a happy clappy sort of church – no it was definitely at the high end of the Church of England spectrum. But is was full and it was joyful, and at the end of the service we all went out in the park to let off gas filled balloons and shout “Christ is Risen” – and what impressed me is that the congregation shouted that acclamation with gusto.

Now it wasn’t an instant conversion. And it was many months until I went back again to that church – and this time it was Christmas,and you’ve guessed it, my mum and auntie were staying with me again.

This time we went into the hall for coffee and a very persuasive woman made me promise to come back the following week. I agreed but had no intention of doing so. But you know what, I did go back and I was there Sunday by Sunday from then on, not sure why, not quite sure what I believed but rapidly becoming involved in a loving and joyful community. And each Sunday my eye was caught by this glorious cross which hung in the centre of the church.

I didn’t know how much the image meant to me until three years later when plans were made to knock down the church and build a new church and centre. By then I had been through, in that church, a moving and emotional conversion experience and I was now an active member of the church including being a member of the PCC. I was therefore involved in all the planning of the new church and I together with many others, felt certain of one thing, this cross should not only be transferred to the new church, but should be its centrepiece – the architect must take that on board and work round it.

Now you may be beginning to wonder why I am telling you all this. Well today is the feast of Christ the King. It is a feast I always associate with that church where I became a Christian. Becoming a Christian for me was first and foremost an emotional response. It met some deep needs. It spoke to me of community, of belonging, of sharing not just joy, but pain – of being real. It was much later in my journey when I studied this faith I had embraced, that I recognised its intellectual rationality as well. At this stage in my life the Christian faith spoke to me on an emotional level – and there is nothing wrong with that – my conversion had been deeply spiritual, and yes,I think, almost a mystical experience – far more real than any intellectual learning.

In the months leading up to that experience the image of Christ as King on the cross had spoken to me deep within, unconsciously Sunday by Sunday. It is an ancient image. I’ve brought one with me today (lift up cross)

You may not all be able to see it very well, but I will describe it. Usually known by its Latin name – Christus Rex – Christ the King. This particular cross is medieval and French. It is similar to the one that hung in St Philip’s church. It’s a juxtaposition of two images – of the cross, an instrument of pain and torture, and of a crowned king, here in royal robes, but sometimes in priestly robes, his arms outstretched in victory. He is however, of course, still nailed. (Put down cross)

The early Christians did not use the cross as a symbol at all. They did not dwell on the cross, because they lived on the other side of Easter Day and concentrated on a risen Christ. The Cross, without any figure on it – an empty cross, did begin to appear in church decorations as a symbol of triumph around the fifth century, but the traditional crucifix with a realistic tortured figure on it was an introduction of the Franciscans in the 12th and 13th Centuries. The Christus Rex is an earlier image (lift up the cross), far from realistic and still a symbol of triumph as is the empty cross. But this has just the hint of suffering – there are nails and the head is turned to one side. Somehow the whole of our lives, as well as the life of Jesus, is reflected here. Here is a resplendent, triumphant King – the Jesus who rode into Jerusalem with the crowds shouting “Hosanna to the Son and David, blessed is the King of Israel.”Here are our moments of great happiness – being in love, achieving a string of grade A’s in GSCE’s, flying in a balloon over the Grand Canyon, or standing still in a wood on a sunlit day. But here also is the Jesus who stood on trial for his life before Pilate, knowing the cross of agony awaited him. Here also is our pain, the time when our marriage breaks up, the time we wait at the bedside of our sick child, the time we are made redundant, the time we are diagnosed with cancer. There is often in an image so much than can be said in words. (Put down cross)

This Feast of Christ the King was only introduced officially into the Church of England nearly twenty years ago with the introduction of Common Worship when it became a mandatory feast. Many C of E churches had kept it unofficially prior to that, including that one where I became a Christian. The feast was only introduced into the Roman Catholic Church in 1925 when it was kept on the last Sunday of October, but in 1970 the Roman Catholic Church transferred it to the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent. When Pope Pius XI first instituted the feast he called for a celebration of the all-embracing authority of Christ which shall lead mankind to seek the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ. These words and the institution of the Feast in 1925  may well have been a reaction to the horrors of the First World War.

The feast caught on rapidly in both in Catholic and reformed churches, especially after its transfer to the last Sunday in the Church’s year – the Sunday before Advent Sunday. Transferring it to the last Sunday of the church’s year, places it at the end of the period when we have had All Saints Day, All Soul’s Day and Remembrance Sunday. In the Northern Hemisphere November is a dying month, it resounds with ancient pagan rituals of bonfires and spirits beyond the grave. Placed where it is the feast becomes a triumphant shout that Christ reigns over all in the heavens, that the spirit of evil cannot touch us, and that supremely Jesus has conquered death. What a way to end the Christian Year, not in a whimper as previously, but in a triumphant shout of joy at a wonderful New Year’s Eve party for the church.

But it is also a feast with a challenge. On New Year’s Eve as we party we also get reflective and we think about our past life and make resolutions about new beginnings. This feast is a celebration at the end of the Church Year, but amidst its joy it encourages reflection on how Jesus did not get to be King of the Heavens without first meeting the challenge of the Cross. In our Gospel this morning Jesus stands in judgement before Pilate and they discuss his kingship in the shadow of what is to come – the Cross. We are challenged this morning to pass judgement on our own lives in the light of the Kingship of Christ – are we really one of his subjects, assenting to his authority in every aspect of life.

The Kingship of Christ is all-embracing as Pope Pius XI said. And as Christians we are challenged to ask what his all-embracing authority means in our lives. It means we are to live by God’s rules and God’s values. We cannot celebrate his victory, his Kingship, without assenting to his authority.The feast of Christ the King challenges us to an all-embracing faith. The cross of Christ the King is about wholeness – it speaks to us of triumph and joy, (lift up Cross) of suffering and challenge.  It asks us to bring the whole of our lives to God. The tribute he asks us to lay at his feet is the whole of our lives. (put down cross). Are we prepared to do that? Prepared to be seven day a week Christians, to bring him into every aspect of our lives and to allow him to form our values in line with his Kingdom in our relationships, our work, our pleasure, our darker corners. Do we ascent to his authority? This is a feast where we can celebrate our faith and really praise our God, but amidst the praise is a challenge to bring every aspect of our lives under the kingship of Christ. Amen