Without much attention from the rest of the world, a new monarch came to power yesterday afternoon. We are not used to that happening very often anymore. Queen Elizabeth II has been on the royal throne for so long, that many of us have known no other monarch as the ultimate figure head of our nation. But she is not the only monarch in the world.
There are royal dynasties in some of the African nations, and there is, of course, an Australian princess in the royal dynasty of Denmark. Following on from his father’s 56 years in power, His Serene Highness Prince Albert of Monaco, came finally to the throne yesterday afternoon, after his father’s death some months before. Monaco, or Monte Carlo as it is also known is one of the smallest Principalities in the world. Albert has not become a King, but he will rule, as others have done before him, as a prince of the realm.
Last night as I read a news article full of the pomp and ceremony of the day, my mind was drawn back to another small kingdom, this time not in Europe but in Southern Africa: the Kingdom of Swaziland, which is ruled absolutely by King Mswati III. He has been the king there for 18 years, and if you have heard about Swaziland before, it is probably because annually the international spotlight focuses on the “Reed Dance” which is performed there. On that occasion, 20,000 young girls dance before the King and he chooses a new wife from amongst them. Which strikes me as a very good deal for him, and not such a good deal for all of them. I need not say that generally speaking his wives are getting younger as he gets older. And as the citizens of his kingdom get poorer, he continues to become richer. Last year, King Mswati spent nearly a million dollars on his 36th birthday party, he has also been trying to buy a personal jet to go alongside his fleet of cars. In fact last year the king spent something around 20 million dollars on his palaces whilst 70 per cent of the people who live in Swaziland are defined as living in absolute poverty. That poverty is made worse by the fact that 39% of adults in Swaziland have already contracted HIV/AIDS – which is the highest proportion of any country in the world.
Sometimes when we think of monarchies, of kings and queens and princes, we find that they are synonymous in our minds with the grabbing and holding of power, and with the kind of injustice which only benefits the elite. That’s not automatically the case, but throughout history it has often been true. Which could potentially be a problem for us today, as we celebrate the Kingship of Christ, because when we use the word “king” to describe Jesus, we are not likening him to some of the kings around us today. Just think for a moment about the words of that wonderful Easter hymn by Graham Kendrick –
“This is our God the servant king,
he calls us now to follow him,
to give our lives as a daily offering,
of worship to the Servant King.”
There may well be a mis-match of images in our minds when we try to think of kingship and servanthood at the same time. Because the kinds of models of Kings and Princes which we experience through earthly monarchs bear little relationship to the Kingship of Christ – the Reign of Christ which we heard about in our Gospel reading a few moments ago. The Kingdom of God, at least according to Matthew, will be inherited by those who feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and give drink to the thirsty, and welcome the stranger, and give love and care to the sick, and visit those on the margins in prisons. The Kingdom of the “Servant King” cannot be easily equated to any experience of monarchy which we have known or heard about. To have status in this kingdom, is to already have given away any aspirations for control over others.
As I was pondering all of this last night, it occurred to me that the origins of this Feast (which we celebrate today) actually help us to remember these priorities, because the Feast of Christ the King is not an old celebration, its a festival which was inaugurated relatively recently by Pope Pius XI in 1925.
Those of you who know your modern European history well, will know that there were three significant movements developing in the 1920s in Europe – all of which caught the attention, and brought concern to the Pope. The first was the rise of Stalin in Russia; the second (much closer to home for him) was the rise to power of Mussolini in Italy, who had come to prominence after the First World War. And that concerned the Pope greatly, because gradually under Mussolini, the laws and regulations in Italy were becoming stricter and tighter, to the point that Mussolini’s true nature as a dictator was becoming clear.
At the same time as these two great movements were emerging in Russia and in Italy, further over in Germany, the Nazi movement – a political and military movement – was also coming to prominence. Hitler began many of his speeches with words from the Bible. He often held an old black tattered Bible in his hand when he spoke at rallies. His language was overtly religious, it appealed to the National Church in Germany which supported him, and it appealed as well to ordinary Germans who saw him as the one who had been called by God to lead their nation out of its post-war troubles. Hitler spoke as one who had the whole weight of history on his shoulders and who was about to bring about monumental change for good. And yet we know how devastating his leadership proved to be.
So for Pope Pius in the 1920s there was an overarching concern that the leaders who were coming to prominence in Europe, regardless of their rhetoric, were not providing healthy models of Christian leadership as found in the life of Christ. They were movements which were essentially fuelled by fear and not by love, and I am going to say something more about that in a few moments time. Keep those ideals of the Kingdom in your mind – we are called to be the inheritors. These six signs of the Kingdom of Jesus – these six ministries to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. Pope Pius held up those ideals against the leaders which he saw around him, and he realised that there needed to be a central feast to promote the Kingdom of Jesus, in opposition to what was going on in the kingdoms of the world. And so the Feast of Christ the King was created by the Roman Catholic Church in 1925 and accepted soon after by other traditions as well, including the Anglican Church, which is why it is in our calendar.
Some of you will know that today is also the last Sunday of the year. Next week we begin our Advent journey of watching and waiting for the coming of Christ – it all starts again. The First Sunday of Advent is the first Sunday of the Christian year. So next Sunday we begin again the cycle which will lead us through the hope of Advent (as we watch and wait for the coming of Christ), the joy of Christmastide, the light of Epiphany, the compassion of Lent, the renewing and resurrecting life of Easter and the fiery wind of Pentecost. Because that is a circular cycle not a linear one, that will lead us back here again some time in November next year. We will journey through the whole of the life of Christ over the next twelve months and return again here to the Festival of Christ the King, which is also called (in some traditions) Fulfilment Sunday.
That theme of fulfilment runs through all of our readings this morning. In the Old Testament reading from Ezekiel we heard a promise, a promise that God, like a shepherd would seek out the lost and bring home the strayed, and bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.
When the first Christians came to re-read the Jewish scriptures in the light of their experience of Christ, they began to believe that passages like that one from Ezekiel were actually speaking about Jesus. Foretelling the reign of Christ which was to come – in anticipation of what would be fulfilled later.
Then in our Epistle reading, from the Letter of Paul to the Church at Ephesus, the focus is on the complete reign of Christ which is yet to come, at the end of the world. We heard that vision of Christ at the right hand side of God the Father, above every name that is named.
That is picture language, but they are powerful pictures, because they remind us of the hope that we have in Christ, that one day all will be well in him. And then in our Gospel reading the servanthood of Christ is brought to the forefront of our minds. And next year, even though the readings will be different, the theme for each of the readings will be the same on this day – the theme of the fulfilment of all that is promised in Christ.
But the image of the Christus Rex – Christ the King – which we have tried to express this morning in the cross in our sanctuary, adorned with priestly robes, and a crown of thorns – is an image which I hope we will carry with us throughout the whole year ahead of us, and not just hold on this annual celebration alone. Because the Reign of Christ is a constant challenge to all other reigns of power, including our own thirst and longing for power over others.
For Pope Pius IX in his context in the 1920s it was Stalin and Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, but in our context – here and now – there will be leaders who try to persuade us that living in fear is actually living in freedom. And the image of Christ the King, the model for all leaders will shine a light which will reveal the truth in such situations.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in his opening address to the General Synod of the Church of England a few days ago, ended his remarks with a meditation from the Australian Cartoonist Michael Leunig, which has deeply challenged me as I have been thinking about it. Leunig says, (and Archbishop Williams quoted him):
There are only two feelings. Love and fear.
There are only two languages. Love and fear.
There are only two activities. Love and fear.
There are only two motives, two procedures, two frameworks, two results. Love and fear.
Love and fear.
And for Pope Pius that was what the Reign of Christ was about, the reign of love in place of the movements of fear which were developing across Europe. And for us that is what the Kingship of Jesus means. We celebrate a kingdom in which love advances and through which fear is banished. And we put aside crowns of gold in favour of crowns of thorns. We put aside images of thrones, and replace them with the bare wood of the cross. The image of Christ the King isn’t just for today, it is for everyday in the new Christian year which will be heralded next week on the First Sunday of Advent. Because the Kingship of Christ challenges how we perceive every kingdom, every power and authority on earth; and it orientates us back to the heart of the life of Jesus – this stark contrast – to live in love or to live in fear.
Today in Matthew’s gospel we hear the mandate for the Kingdom – what we do for others we do for Christ – those six ministries of love and concern for others. And the choice is ours – there are the kingdoms of this world, and there is the Kingdom of God, where Jesus is King. The last Sunday of any year is always a good time to make resolutions for the future, and the decision to live in love and fear is so large that words alone can hardly hold the concepts involved. But through the kingship of Christ, we are reminded that there is a better way.
There are only two feelings. Love and fear: the Kingdom of God is love.
There are only two languages. Love and fear: the kingship of Jesus is love.
There are only two activities. Love and fear: the reign of the Christ is love.
There are only two motives, two procedures, two frameworks, two results.
Love and fear. Love and fear.
In the coming year choose love.