Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Proper 29B (Christ the King)

I go to Holy Trinity in Crystal Springs every fourth Sunday. That means my next visit will be the Sunday after Christmas!

2 Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132:1-19; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

Little Charlie’s birthday was this week. Nine years old. But didn’t he fit in my arms just yesterday? Didn’t the tender top of his head just have that sweet baby smell? How can time have gone by so very quickly and yet have been so very full?

Birthday week itself is always busy, always full, with cupcakes to back, invitations to send, and gifts to wrap. I was at the store one evening, searching through shelf after shelf of Star Wars figures, Yu-gi-oh cards, and Speed Racer cars, things little boys love. I thought there might be more around the corner of a display, but as I turned into the aisle I was surrounded suddenly by pink. Shelf after shelf of babies and Barbies and dolls of all shapes and sizes. There were miniature clothes and hairbrushes, horses and dollhouses, fairy wings, magic wands and crowns. There was everything a little princess could ever want or need. Fingering the sparkling plastic glass slippers and pink toy pearls, I was a little girl again. How can time have gone by so very quickly and yet have been so full?

This morning we are celebrating the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of our liturgical year before we start all over again, back at the beginning. Today we see Christ enthroned in all his majesty as King of kings and Lord of lords, and we celebrate his glorious and eternal reign over heaven and earth, drawing all of us together under his most gracious rule.

Most of the church’s yearly celebrations have centuries, even millennia of tradition and history behind them. Many mark events in the life of Christ himself. His birthday. The day of his death. And the day of his wondrous resurrection. We look back on these events, we tell their stories over and over again, and we marvel at the meaning they carry for us still, shaping our own stories, calling us back to an ancient once upon a time and forward into a future that promises, somehow, a happily ever after.

The Feast of Christ the King dates all the way back...to 1925. In the wake of a war unlike any the world had ever known, God seemed to be losing ground to the work of tyrants and the powers of nationalism and secularism. The Vatican instituted Christ the King in an effort to reclaim the absolute authority of Jesus Christ. At first it was celebrated nearer to All Saints’ Day, for it is Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth to whom the saints pledge their loyalty and from whom they draw their strength. In 1969, the feast was moved to the last Sunday of the liturgical year as a sort of climax, the vision of Christ to which the rest of the year points.

In the coming week, though, the great wheel of our liturgical year will make a mighty turn, bringing us around again to Advent, when we look forward to welcoming Christ the Lord the newborn King, tiny and helpless, enthroned not in majesty but in a manger, seated not in heaven but upon his mother’s lap. We look forward to Christmas, counting down the days to one of the greatest feasts of the year. Or are we looking back to Christmas, peeling back the years to that glorious night, that starlit stable where began the reign of heaven on earth?

The liturgical year of the church is very different than the calendar year, or the academic year, or the budget year. Those calendars are measured in blocks stacked up as columns and set in rigid rows, and time moves forward with precision and purpose. It is how we know when to arrive at school or at work, when to pay our taxes, when to celebrate a birthday.

In Little Charlie’s Sunday School classroom, though, the calendar of the liturgical year is in the shape of a wheel, a circle, wrapped round with the colors and seasons we celebrate. It is mostly green, of course, for that long season after Pentecost, the season that comes to an end today, so that the Feast of Christ the King is bordered on one side by green and on the other by purple, the color of Advent.

We will call next Sunday the first day of the new liturgical year, but of course it is the nature of a circle to have no beginning and no end. So it is with the calendar by which we tell the stories of our faith, always looking forward in hope, always looking back in wonder at the ways in which God has been revealed in the days and months and years of history. And so it is also with the reign of Christ the King, who does not rule over this day alone but who is Alpha and Omega, who is and who was and who is to come.

As we move forward to the celebration of Christmas, as we move back toward the manger that once stood in the little town of Bethlehem, the reign of Jingle Bells and toy store shelves will assert itself, and we will worry that there are too few rows and columns on the calendar between each day and the Big Day, December 25th. Have you finished your Christmas shopping yet? Time will go by quickly, and the days will be full...

But the liturgical calendar, even as Advent comes around, at first points us far beyond the Big Day to the Biggest Day of all, the last day, when Jesus will come again in power and great glory, when we will see him seated on that throne surrounded by saints and angels and ourselves. Then we will be pointed back to John the Baptist who is pointing forward at one who will come to level the mountains and valleys, to make the crooked places straight and the rough places plain and smooth, as the surface of a circle. Finally, in one of the readings appointed for Christmas Day, the gospel of John will point us back to the beginning of the story. Not Bethlehem, but the very beginning before there was anywhere or anything or anyone at all. In the beginning, John writes, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Without him was not anything made that was made. And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, full of grace and truth.

Christ the glorious king. Christ the newborn king. Perhaps it is that the great wheel of the liturgical year stands still, and it is we who move around it, sometimes forward, sometimes backward. It matters not. Christ is King at every point from beginning to end and back to the beginning again. His kingdom, his reign, was not from this world because it began before this world came to be. He chose, however, to make this world his dwelling place, reigning among and in us as Love, as Compassion, as Forgiveness, as Mercy, as Truth.

All year long we’ve seen our King in the stories that we’ve heard. We’ve seen him call sinners and outcasts friends and disciples. We’ve seen him heal hurts that no one else would dare touch. We’ve seen him bundled in the straw of a stable, on the dusty on the streets of the city, riding on the back of a donkey, standing trial in the palace of Pilate, hanging on the wood of the cross.

All year long...time went by so quickly, and yet it was so full. Where did we see our King in the days and weeks and months of our own lives, our own stories? Was he, perhaps, in the compassion of a friend? The kindness of a stranger? Was he in the comfort offered to a grieving family, the creativity of a couple burdened by the economic downturn, the conviction of someone arguing a just cause?

Where will we see Christ our King in the year ahead? Not, I suspect, among the glass slippers and pearls and crowns and power plays of the world’s kings, whether real royalty or things like fear and regret and anxiety and ambition that hold dominion over us day to day. The reign of Christ, suggests one preacher, is wherever people love and care for one another and for the weak and vulnerable. It is whenever the hungry are fed, the homeless are sheltered, the neglected are cared for, and injustice is overturned. We will see the reign of Christ wherever and whenever people embody Jesus‘ way of acting and relating.

O come, O come Emmanuel, God-with-us, come round again and reign forever in our hearts. Amen.

Artwork: "Rosabunde Center," by Richard Adams; "Namaste Mandala," by the Reverend Catherine Quehl-Engel; "You Power of Wisdom," by Susan Tilt; Photograph of labyrinth at Gray Center; "The Mother," by Lysanne McGaffey; Photograph of shed door at Veronica's House.

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