Sermon preached on Christ the King (20 November 2016) by the Revd Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor
The Precentor considers of the dark theology of the end of time which is associated with this final scene in the drama of the Christian year.
Today is the beginning of the last week of the Christian year. It used to be little more than the Sunday Next Before Advent and was characterised more by its famous Prayer Book collect, “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people”, than by any sense of the completion or end of a drama.
Once upon a time, people were more concerned that, because of the words of the collect, this was the Sunday on which the members of a household took turns to stir up the Christmas pudding, making a wish while doing so. Hence, its other name — “Stir-up Sunday”.
And, of course, such trifles or — perhaps I should say — such puddings are much more fun than any consideration of the dark theology of the end of time which is associated with this final scene in the drama of the Christian year.
Did you know, for example, that the pudding should be stirred from east to west in honour of the journey of the Wise Men?
Did you know that your pudding should contain thirteen ingredients in honour of Christ and his twelve disciples?
But, today, in addition to the culinary associations of this Sunday Next Before Advent, at the end of the Christian year, we find ourselves commemorating Christ the King. And there is nothing gratuitous about this feast day: it is not simply fitted in here to use up space; nor is there anything incongruous about it: it sits well with this last scene in the drama which is itself a prelude to the great season of Advent.
The Christian year is the story of Jesus of Nazareth and, as such, it is the story of our redemption.
The story culminated for Jesus on the hill of Calvary on Good Friday; the same story began for us on the third day when he rose again from the dead. Martha, a Jew, the sister of Lazarus, told Jesus that she knew that her brother would rise again “in the resurrection on the last day”.
We as Christians know the resurrection of Christ as an event in history. But so much do we know it as an event in history, that I sometimes think we forget that “rising again” is something which we ourselves shall experience “in the resurrection on the last day” — or perhaps it is a thought which we prefer to avoid.
Our contemporary belief in our immortality makes us wary of the Advent themes of Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. And yet, like it or not, those are the themes of Advent — even more than the business of “getting ready” for nativity stories and carols. The point is that Advent is a preparation for birth and death.
As the magi put it in T S Eliot’s much-quoted poem, The Journey of the Magi, “this Birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death”.
The poet doesn’t give much away at this point, except to leave us with an uneasy sense that something happened in the stable at Bethlehem which pictures of spineless virgins and cotton wool angels don’t quite get right.
The magi go back to their places, their kingdoms, but, as they say, “no longer at ease” there “in the old dispensation”. The sight of the birth of the babe at Bethlehem has caused something to change irrevocably so much so that their final comment in the poem is that they should be glad of another death.
In other words, this Birth, which they said was “like Death”, revealed something to them which was much more than a babe lying in a manger: otherwise, if you think of it, what was all the fuss about?
And my sense is that Eliot’s magi see through the babe lying in a manger to the great — but, if we’re honest about it, terrifying — image of Christ the King. And I say “terrifying” because, whether we like it or not, it is an image of death: hence, the “hard and bitter agony” of which the magi speak.
And it is an image of death inasmuch as it is an image of the kingdom of heaven: the world beyond this one in which Christ has been installed as a universal king and in which we ourselves will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.
This is the image which finally reveals to Pilate why his questions to Jesus about kingship were so misguided. Christ’s kingship is not kingship as the world understands the term. It is not about Christ’s sovereignty but it is about revealing God whose kingdom is the truth.
We begin to see why it is that the Christian tradition has given us this very particular feast day of Christ the King not only right at the end of the cycle of the Christian year but also, because it is a cycle, just before the beginning of the Christian year. It acts as a useful reminder — perhaps “warning” would be a better word — that Advent is about Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell.
It seems rotten of me to start my sermon by talking about Christmas pudding and then to go on to talk about death but we can’t blink the fact that the birth of Jesus Christ is so much more than talk about “peace on earth and mercy mild”.
Indeed, I sometimes think that the reason Advent music is so much richer than Christmas music is because artists, including writers and composers, are inspired much more when passion hurts than when it merely anaesthetises.
The Christian faith has been seriously disabled by a dolly mixture approach to the story of Jesus of Nazareth and the story of our redemption. Of course, we shan’t trouble the young children with the dark side of Advent but once, with St Paul, we have put away childish things, it is our duty to look deeper into the cradle and look for what it was that Eliot’s magi saw: something which turns our lives upside down and makes us no longer at ease here in the old dispensation; makes us dissatisfied with the status quo, angry at an unjust world, impatient for change; makes us, in other words, glad to be subjects of a kingdom which lies under God’s rule rather than Satan’s.
Next Sunday, in our Advent Procession here at St Paul’s, the Cathedral Choir will move slowly but confidently from west to east in the darkness with the great themes of Advent sounding through the building: answering echoes of the journey of the magi returning to their kingdoms.
Perhaps we shall feel ever so slightly uneasy that night: but our feelings will be those of mature Christians facing up to the reality of death, through the knowledge of the resurrection, and in the hope of the kingdom of heaven.
Then we may have Christmas carols — with a clear conscience — not to mention Christmas pudding . . .