We’re having Thanksgiving in church this Sunday. After all, the feast began as an overtly Christian holiday, though non-Christians clearly participated from the start. Anyway, for those of us from the Congregational side of the UCC, that Plymouth Plantation narrative is practically sacred, almost equal to Scripture!
Thanksgiving, the great American holiday, might overshadow the Fourth of July, which celebrates national independence. Certainly freedom is key to the American spirit and identity. But, really, how often has our national freedom been threatened?
Thanksgiving, on the other hand, celebrates the material abundance of North America which is equally definitive of who and how we are as a nation. But it also introduces, albeit in a somewhat fairytale way, the issue of racial justice, the great unfinished challenge of American history. If we were to raise Thanksgiving to more than a family gathering and a feast of gluttony, what greater purposes might it serve?
This Sunday marks another day as well. After all, why should our liturgical calendars be any less crowded than the rest of our lives!?!?
The final Sunday of the church calendar (Advent and the new liturgical year begin on November 30) is Christ the King Sunday. Truth be told, I’ve never quite understood this holy day. Actually, before I got to Old First, I’d just ignore it. After all, on the Congregational side of the church, a few big black hats and square belt buckles, a turkey and some Indian corn, and you’ve got a holy day.
But when I got to Old First, and was working with Julie as the Director of Music, as we’d plan the music for the fall, she’d always ask, “Are we going to do Christ the King?” And half-heartedly, I’d respond, “Sure.” And I’d worry a little about what I was going to say. My principaled trouble was a fear of triumphalism. But really, I just have never understood it enough to say much meaningful about it. I’d always just try and squeak by.
So, this year, hiding behind the Pilgrims like a turkey, I am going to try to make some sense of Christ the King. Maybe by next year, it will have sunk in enough for me to figure out how to do it well as a service.
Christ the King Sunday is a late addition to the liturgical calendar, added in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quas Primas. In the first quarter of the 20th century, the authority of faith, even the existence of God, were increasingly in doubt. Overtly non-Christian dictatorships were appearing across Europe and attracting the loyalty of populations that had been thought of as Christian for almost 1500 years. These dictators were claiming authority over the church.
Just as an earlier Pope had in the 13th century instituted the Feast of Corpus Christi when devotion to the Eucharist was at a low point, the Feast of Christ the King was instituted during an era of waning respect for Christianity and the Church. In all the liturgical renewal movements of the 20th Century (maybe another sign of the church’s losing ground vis a vis secularism?), Christ the King has been adopted well beyond the Catholic Church as the last Sunday of the liturgical year.
So, ok, it’s a liturgical attempt to buttress the church against the rising popularity of secular perspectives that undermine allegiance to and the influence of the church. I like that. Still, claims of Christ’s kingship over ALL (like the symbol for the UCC with its crown on top of the cross over the orb of the world!) makes me a bit nervous. I am a Christian who believes in room for other faiths in a multi-faithed modern world.
So, what about this kingship of Christ? For most Americans, kings are characters in fairy tales. Ok, a few immigrant neighbors may know what it’s like to live under a king. And North Americans ironically sometimes get enthralled by British royalty. But overall, it’s a form of government that’s foreign to us.
But conceptions and opinions about “royalty” were well known by Jesus and his contemporaries. The words we translate as “King” and “Kingdom” can also be translated as “Emperor” or “Sovereign” and “Empire” and “Realm” respectively. Jesus and all the people of Palestine heard them with at the least some reference to the Roman Empire and their occupation. In other words, Jesus and his listeners associated these words with a very real and crushing reign of terror — massive wealth and power attained by conquest, cruelty, domination and exploitation. Lifelong injustice over which people had little or no control or recourse.
And yet Jesus spoke the language of kings. Promised his followers a Kingdom. And Jesus’ detractors ridiculed his claims, most famously inscribing “King of the Jews” over his head at the crucifixion. Because Jesus himself had used those metaphors to describe who he was, what he taught and what he was doing. Without the Kingdom of Heaven, what could Jesus’ Good News be about?
Kings came from the ends of the earth to pay tribute at Jesus’ birth, “Where is He who has been born king of the Jews?” Mary in her Magnificat prophesied her child would “bring down rules from their thrones.” The first words of Jesus’ public ministry proclaimed “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus preaches good news of a Kingdom coming. And enters Jerusalem as a peaceful King engaged in provocative direct action.
In a Lenten sermon two years ago, borrowing from Borg and Crossan’s imagining, I suggested as Jesus entered Jerusalem from the East, according to Zechariah’s ancient prophecy, an envoy of the Roman emperor came marching in from the opposite direction, with a thousand clattering chariots of war, in a show of Roman power and control. A week later, Jesus is in the Roman governor’s palace accused of three political crimes: opposing the Empire, opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar, and calling himself “Christ and King.” Pilate asks directly, “Are you King of the Jews.” Jesus responds, “You have said so.” A King crowned with thorns. “My Kingdom is not of this world” and “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
As Christians, we believe that Jesus is a King in ways that Caesar, Pharaoh, Herod, Pilate or any of the rulers of our day can never be. Because Jesus is a King in this world who isn’t jealous or trying to supplant God’s sovereignty. In fact, he’s trying to lead us to follow God.
Jesus’ kingship over all the world so that the nations need to bow before him… it’s still sort of foreign to me and hard to grasp. And worrisome.
But for me as a Christian, Jesus as Lord, the one I’m supposed to follow over any other authority in this world and all the temptations of secularism and self-centeredness… that makes sense. And Jesus as God’s answer to our secular and self-centered world… how God offers an alternative to all the estrangement and barrenness of a world of our own making… I’m thankful for that. In this sense, I can understand Christ the King.
See you in church,