Christ the King (Homily, B)

Jesus said, ‘my kingdom is not of this world’

A joke, to give a slightly philosophical definition, occurs at the juxtaposition of incongruous elements – we laugh when the well-dressed business man slips on the banana or when grown ups behave like children, we laugh at the incongruity of life’s situations. At the heart of Christianity is a meeting of the most incongruous elements, in the centre of our faith there is a sacred joke. God, the one we confess as almighty, becomes a human – divinity and humanity meet, so that we can see in Jesus both God and humanity. As Chesterton goes on, for two thousand years Christians have laughed at this joke – we never tire of it!

Here, at the end of the liturgical cycle of the year, the Church reminds us of Christ the King – the whole cycle of the year builds up to the joke, this punchline of the sacred jest – this man, who lay in the manger too weak to raise his own head, who gives himself every moment seeking out the poor and the lost and healing the sick before pouring out his entire life on the cross in love for a sinful world, forgiving with love even those who crucified him – this man is God, this man is king of the universe. If you asked a child to draw a king the image would, I imagine, be of a man in a golden crown, revered by his subjects, lord of armies in majestic robes… but our King, our glorious, beautiful, holy jest of a King, is a man crucified and abandoned, condemned by society and the religious elite, betrayed by all but his Mother and closest friend. We gaze this morning at Christ on the cross and say ‘there is our king’ – it’s a joke, a juxtaposition of the incongruous, power and weakness held in an absurd relationship.

The earliest depiction of the Cross of Christ is amazing, we believe it’s from a training centre for young gladiators in Rome. It shows a crucified figure with the head of an ass, with a small man kneeling down in prayer – the caption reads: ‘the Christian worships his god.’ Unfortunately, this was probably aimed at some poor young gladiator, but it does capture the alex3strange incongruity of our religion – a crucified criminal is proclaimed king at the climax of the liturgical year and this is the joke we are all called to share in today.

Think of that amazing reading we heard from Revelation a moment ago: Christ who has made us a kingdom to his Father; Christ worthy of glory and dominion; Christ who will come with the clouds of heaven; Christ the Alpha and the Omega, the Almighty, the all powerful source and summit of all reality. And then think of the Creed we will recite in just a moment’s time, Christ: ‘God from God and light from light’, the one who is in himself God and King. Yet we, as Christians, can keep all that in mind and shift our attention to a landfill site outside Jerusalem in 30AD, because that’s what Golgotha was, and remember the scene – a young man, about 30, nailed to an instrument of torture – in the agony of death he is jeered by soldiers who specialise in brutal executions – almost everyone who paraded with him through Jerusalem two days earlier are gone. Naked, nailed to the tree, mocked and pointed at, laughed at and abused, they jeer at him, ‘he saved others, let him save himself’. We can survey this bloody, brutal scene and say this is the one the Creed is talking about  – he is Lord of Lords and King of Kings, he is the source an end of all reality, God from God and light from light. What a strange religion we share this morning? This is the joke of Christianity! And it is this incongruous juxtaposition which is the drama and the poetry and the beauty and the wonder of the Feast of Christ the King.

But, to declare this Jesus as King is to admit that our notion of kingship is entirely and grievously wrong. What we take to be kingship – authority, power, dominion – have nothing to do with the real thing, we are almost entirely mistaken. The power ISIS believe they wield in the attacks in Paris or in the torture of the people of Syria and Iraq is not true power, it is a sinful facsimile of the power of the Almighty one. In our world, if you have military strength you can subdue and dominate other nations, or personally, if you are wealthy you can protect yourself from the changes and chances of the world; if you have cultural influence, you can save yourself from being forgotten and protect yourself from embarrassment. But the true King does not seek to save himself, he forgets himself for us – he never aggrandises his own ego, he gives it up in love – he empties himself of all visible signs of kingship and godly power in order to empty himself and ‘take the form of a servant’. He, the Alpha and the Omega, the power which creates the entire universe is the power of self-emptying love. This is not what the world tells us – this is not military might or wealth or status. If you want power, proclaims the Christian faith, stop trying to fill up your own life in a self-protective way but reach out and protect someone else – if you want power, if you want to live in the power which created the universe, you need only do the smallest, simplest act of love and forget yourself.

Christ_Crucified_from_betsyporter.com_This is a joke to most people. To point at that naked man, jeered at by the authorities and call him king is a joke to the world. But calling Christ King is only a joke in the context of our sinful world – it’s only a joke because we’ve fallen so far away from God’s dreams for us. In terms of the transformed world, in terms of that deeper magic, this is not a joke but the reality of God in his Triune being – everything else in our faith, all the volumes of theology and endless sermons, my entire tripos, is a commentary on this deep reality, this truth of immeasurable significance.

Unfortunately, I’m aware that this might all seem like nice abstractions from an idealistic Welsh ordinand – yes, that’s all very nice and everything, but power does come with money and influence and strength to say otherwise is just to fool yourself. But these are not the pretty musings of an undergrad theologian, love has truly conquered in history and it will conquer again. We’ve seen it – think of Luther King and the Civil Right’s movement, who transformed whole societies, uprooted centuries old institutions and systems through the power of love; think of those families who have been held together despite everything by their love; think of every refugee who has escaped the brutality of their old life to bring their family to the shores of Europe by love, and think of those less glamorous times where love has triumphed, in a trickle of distilled water and the murmured invocation of the Trinity over a neonatal intensive care cot, or in a smear of oil that anoints forehead and hands as life ebbs away.

Love is the dynamite and power of the Church…

Love, my friends, is the dynamite and the power of the Church – the Church’s power is found in self-forgetting, self-sacrificing love, because that is the power of our King. In this Eucharist, as James offers afresh the sacrifice which brought about our salvation, Christ once more pours out his love into the distinctly ordinary elements of bread and wine, the food of the poor in Christ’s time, his body, his soul, his humanity and divinity, his kingly power comes into our midst in the most humble food and drink, yet we are changed by receiving these gifts – love triumphs in us, as it one day will in all the world.

Christ the King – a joke in this sinful world yet, for us who know him, this feast day is the deepest truth in God’s true world of grace and love, that world which breaks out in us and among us and will one day overcome the world.

Christ the Poetic King (Waldo Williams)

Waldo’s Poem, on which this post is based, is available here.

This week, the Church keeps the feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe as it is properly known. The Feast was institute by the Pontiff in 1925, in response to growing nationalism in Europe and to freshly emphasise Christ’s soveChristtheKing-672x372reign Lordship in the wake of the brutality of the First World War. For us today, the feast is given new significance in the light of the brutal attacks in Paris only last week, the violence of ISIS which has decimated much of Syria and Iraq, and the countless souls who have fled their homes in search of safety and a better life. The death of the innocent, at the whim of those who would use them to further their political aims, takes us straight to the very heart of the Christian
Faith. It takes us to the suffering of Christ on the cross for us. Two thousand years ago, after careful consideration by Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, along with the High Priest, it was deemed expedient that Jesus should die. And so he was nailed naked to that famous tree, abused and mocked by soldiers, whilst his friends, in their fear, deserted him. A week ago in Paris and daily in many parts of the world, terrorists and barbaric regimes reach the same conclusion, it would serve their interests for the innocent to die and we are left to weep, just as Our Lady Mary did two thousand years ago, as she stood at the cross and wept as she watched her own son suffer and die.

In our search for understanding, it is the words of Waldo Williams, writing about the time this feast day was inaugurated, to which I turn our attention now. Waldo was the most extraordinary Welsh poet of the 20th century, he stood in the long tradition of bardd gwlad, folk poets, and was a devout Quaker and passionate pacifist, whose poem Mewn Dau Gae (In Two Fields) has had a very profound affect on my faith and understanding of Christ’s kingship. I have printed off a few copies of the poem for you as you leave, it is a short, rich poem and I can scarcely do it justice in a single homily.

But now: imagination
shakes off the night. Someone is shouting
(who?), Stand up and walk. Dance. Look.
Here is the world entire. And in the middle
of all the words, who is hiding? Like this
is how it was. There on the shores of light
between these fields, under these clouds.

The poem begins in a field, workers engaged in a common purpose, yet basked in a light which mystically surrounds and enfolds them. Waldo’s poem is, in many ways, a rapture on the mystical ancient Welsh idea of awen. Awen a word which can only be poorly translated as ‘imagination’, for, in the Welsh poetic tradition, awen is the inspiration of the poet and the primordial energy of thought and language, that shared thing which inspires us and binds us together. The poem concerns itself with farmers working in the field but they are elevated by being basked in mysterious light, the power and energy of awen which binds them so closely – awen is the voice at the heart of the universe and it captures them now.

Somewhere between them,
through them, around them, there is a new voice
rising and spilling from its hiding place
to hold them, a new voice

The awen, the primordial energy, rises from our common purpose, our common working, in  Mewn Dau Gae, this is the hard farm work of the men, but awen is an energy which acts on us all and it calls us, as it does to these farmers, to recognise the fundamental truths of the universe and to recognise our fundamental and inseparable unity. This awen is the very power of unity, capable of drawing all things together and overcoming the lesser things which separate us. Awen is, for Waldo, the Spirit of Christ the King, who creates and saves us. These are the two fields of Waldo’s poem – one, the earthly sphere and the other the heavenly – but the light of awen binds and unites them. For Waldo, the world of heaven is not a distinct, far-off reality but is spilling into earth, blurring the lines and, by the awen, the Word of God, lifting us to taste the first fruits of its dawning. The glory of heaven, where peace and unity will reign, is overflowing into human community, into that field ‘full of folk’ as Waldo puts it, and the result is transformative.

Then the poet asks:
So who was it stood
there in the middle of this shameless glory, who
stood holding it all? Of every witness witness,
the memory of every memory, the life
of every life?

And the pilgrim clouds and the rustlings reeds give answer to the question, the King is life of every life and memory of every memory, the King is the awen. The  primordial nature of the whole universe is nothing less than a poetic utterance from the mouth of God himself, the same God and King who longs for the victory of unity over fragmentation, longs for the fulfilment of creation when the King comes again in shameless glory to make real the unity of heaven and earth.

Waldo’s understanding of Christ as a poet and the universe as his poem leads him to understand creation as the masterpiece of that cosmic poet from whom all being and beauty flow. This understanding of Christ’s poetic kingship led Waldo to become a passionate pacifist, even being imprisoned for refusing to pay income tax during the Korean war. He was a peacemaker but an aggressive peacemaker, who never withdrew from conflict but believed that the peaceful imperative was worth fighting for, but never with guns and violence but with words and protest. He was passionate only for the peace and flourishing of all people – he joined Christ the poet-king in seeking to wrestle with those powers of fragmentation in the world – a man passionate for peace, willing to wage peace with all the energy which we are so happy to waste waging war.

who with a quiet word
calms the red storms of self, till all
the labours of the whole wide world
fold up into this silence.

Waldo knows that the creative force of Christ the King and the work of his saints is to sweep away everything which divides and fragments because what is primary is what connects us one to the other, the awen comes first, the Word of God which is the speech which underlies our very being. To unite is to complete the work of creation, unity is true power and it is Christ’s work in the world. We can think of St. Paul’s famous words that in Christ there is no male or female, no slave or free, no Jew or Greek but the a prior, fuller, richer unity.

When I was a child, it was my favourite game to embarrass my mother by shouting ‘I’m not with her, I’m not with her!’ whenever she tried to hustle me somewhere I didn’t want to go, she would go bright red and people would look at us suspiciously. Mission accomplished, as far as I was concerned. But, Waldo, and I think he’s right, believed it is more than a childhood game but a near-universal tendency to say ‘they’re not with me’ or ‘I’m not with him’. We see it in our own day, in those who would banish Muslims from our island or close our borders to those who come to our shores in desperate need of help – to cry, ‘they don’t belong with us’ is such an easy, human thing to do. Yet Christians, Waldo believed, have a moral duty to fight against this universal tendency. For Christians, the only faithful response to those who are ‘other’ from us is to say, ‘you belong with us and we belong with you’. And this means, especially for us as Christians, a particular belief that we belong alongside the marginalised, the poor and the oppressed.

In the final and most beautiful stanza of Waldo’s poem, Jesus is described as the ‘the exiled king’ and it this image which reflects so beautifully the kingship of Christ in Waldo’s vision. Christ, the Word of God, is the awen – he is the energy which unites us and the one who creates us and longs for us to realise the perfection of his image within us. In Christ, the exiled king, God is emphatically one with us, he is literally born as one of us, he is willing to die as one of us, in order to show us that our true place of belonging is with him for all eternity. Christ does away with all the visible signs of kingship and godly power in order to ‘take the form of a servant’, to become one with us in our lowliness, in order that we might become on with him and one with one another. If all humanity is one in Christ, then we all belong together because we belong in him.

As I knelt in prayer for two hours last Saturday morning for the people affected by the Paris attacks, with many members of our Chapel community coming and going and the news reports still pounding in my ears, I grew increasingly aware that I was in the presence of the ‘exiled king’, who became one of us and hung helpless on a Roman cross. The people of Paris, and those whose lives were irreversibly scarred by those events were in the midst of deepest, blackest, Good Friday when the world seems utterly fragmented, where nothing makes sense and the unity of the mythical awen seems so far away – yet we assert that Good Friday is not the end of the story and, as the death toll rose and our hearts sank, there were glimpses of light and hope. There were glimpses of hope in the people who protected the Mosques of Paris as Muslims prayed, preventing any violent backlash against the Islamic community; hope in the Christians who gathered at the shrine of Our Lady of Paris to ask the Blessed Mother, who watched helplessly the suffering of her Son, to pray for them; hope in the people across the would who were reminded of our common humanity, and I felt a renewed longing for peace.

All these people, including us who gathered on Saturday morning, reasserted, in the very face of death and destruction, that Good Friday is not the end of the story – that the awen will one day sweep away the discordant fragments of our broken world and our unity under Christ will be revealed. His kingship will be made manifest and all other power will be subjected to Christ’s rule of love. This feast day, as on every Sunday and across the world, we are gathering both to weep and to hope – to weep for our brokenness and to hope that the exiled king will return and the poem of creation will be completed. And it is our hope and our prayer, watered by tears, which ascend to the very throne of the Crucified King and his kingdom draws near.

for it will come, dawn of his longed-for coming,
and what a dawn to long for. He will arrive, the outlaw,
the huntsman, the lost heir making good his claim
to no-man’s land, the exiled king
is coming home one day; the rushes sweep aside
to let him through.

– Amen – 

S. Joseph: Patron of the Ordinary

Despite our nations frequent cries that we are not a religious country, ask 99% of school children who Joseph is and they willjesus-and-st-joseph tell you, Jesus’ dad. Joseph is up there with Our Lady and the shepherds as the immediately recognisable characters of the Gospel – yet his appearance in the Gospel is brief to say the least. The Church has recognised this reality and named Joseph the patron saint of ordinary people, the patron saint of you and I. The normal people, the carpenters, the ones who rarely feature in the big news stories…  the simple Christians, those that don’t make headlines or suffer martyrdom – yet we gather together and do extraordinary things: we remember these great heroes of our faith; we celebrate sacraments ordained 2000 years ago, which look forward to the end and fulfilment of the world; and we try and live good lives in the name of a man who we’ve never met and know quite little about. And this is the wonderful thing about our faith, and about Joseph who we celebrate today – he shows us what God can do with the raw materials of our ordinary humanity.

The Christian life is a little like an orchestra – we have all given up playing our own discordant tunes and have come together to be conducted by Christ, our strength and our song. When you watch an orchestra, there are people that immediately stand out more than others – the conductor and his elaborate gestures, the violins and their central position, but, in the main, we struggle to pick out every instrument – and that’s the way it should be! Each individual effort is taken up into the beauty of the whole. For St. Joseph, his solo ended after the first few years of Christ’s life, but we can be certain he continued to do Christ’s work, and continues to play his part in that eternal orchestra.

So we pray that God will ever more take from us our fallen will, and give each one of us grace to take up our instrument and join the orchestra, whose conductor is the redeemer of the world and whose song is love unknown! Let us learn to recognise the distinctive gift and calling which God has given every single one of us, and learn to live and work to the praise and glory of God.

St. Joseph protector of Christ, pray for us.

St. Joseph most obedient and faithful father, pray for us.

St Joseph patron of the ordinary, pray for us.

Homily: The Assumption of Mary

‘Gaze on Mary’
Preached in St. Mary the Virgin, Mold

Silvestro_de_Gherarducci_-_Assumption_of_the_Virgin_-_WGA08690
Silvestro de Gherarducci – Assumption of the Virgin (c.1350)

In nomine…

It took me quite a while to come to terms with Mary. I couldn’t understand the point of fostering a relationship with Jesus’ mother, I wasn’t even sure you could foster such a relationship! Of course, I loved Mary, her ‘yes’ to God had inspired my own vocation; her quiet pondering fascinated me; and her pain at the foot of the Cross moved me… but, I thought, this was as far as it could ever go. But then, one Sunday morning, gazing up at this very statue of Our Lady, I felt so certain of Mary’s maternal love for me, I felt so powerfully in her gaze, that I was forced to rethink my relationship with the Mother of God – I’d like to share with you this morning, the results of my pondering as best I can.

Mary “is an echo of God” – St. Louise-Marie

The most common way I hear people attempt to discourage and belittle Marian devotion is to say that it distracts from the worship of Jesus… they say that she takes away from her Son! I’ve realised that the people who say this are only ever those who have never spent any time with the Mother of God. In the words of St. Louise-Marie, Mary “is an echo of God” she speaks and repeats only God, “if you say ‘Mary’ she says ‘God’”. In a sense, Mary and her Son are like the moon and the sun – everything about Mary draws our attention to Christ, her splendour and blessedness are the gifts of her Son, just as the moon only shines because it reflects the Sun’s light. The sun is the superior light, because without it the moon would never shine. For those of you, like me, who like to watch the night sky – you’ll know that you can stare up all night at the moon, while the sun’s intensity is overwhelming. So it is with our Lord, he is so wonderful, mysterious, beautiful and glorious that sometimes his presence is so awesome and powerful that we feel we must withdraw because of our unworthiness and his holiness. Not so with Mary… with the Lord’s Mother, we can gaze on her as we gaze on the moon, seeing in her the reflected light of her Son and learning to love God in the same obedient and beautiful way which Mary teaches.

It is because of this that the early Church Fathers believed Mary to be foreshadowed in the burning bush – she shines with the presence and power of God but is not consumed by that power. We learn from her that the closer we are to God, the more truly we are ourselves – God elevates and enlightens me and you, he makes us fully alive, which is being fully ourselves, God never forces us to be anything we’re not. Within Mary, in the most tangible and literal way, Christ was alive – yet she is not overwhelmed or suppressed by Christ’s dwelling in her, she is made luminous and glorious, she is made the Mary she was meant to be.

This is why, in the midst of her pregnancy, when she has been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and is now the dwelling place of God, she is able to cry ‘my soul magnifies the Lord’ – her soul is made glorious because Christ dwells within her.

Our Lady became transparent to God’s love in that moment when she accepted the Angel’s call – known as the moment of her fiat. The moment she says, ‘fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum’, ‘let it be to me according to you word’. At that moment Mary becomes pregnant with God’s own life. In a related way, all of us, the Church of Christ, when we accept God’s Word, God’s life takes root in us. Here, Mary teaches us an important lesson, the new life Jesus promised comes only with radical trust in God. It is at the limits of our strength, the limits of what we can do as humans, that is where God acts – it’s when we open ourselves to God that the divine life breaks in and God’s life is born in us.

Here then is the challenge which our pondering of Mary’s life puts to us – we are called to follow the example of the Blessed Mother. Elizabeth says of Mary, ‘blessed is she who believes’ – this is the reason for Mary’s glorification, because she believed! We then must have faith like Mary! Our Lady shows us that there is space in our human nature to bear the reality of God – we can be vessels of God’s light and life to the world. St. Gregory and Bishop Lindsay are fond of calling Mary “the container who contained the Uncontainable!” – but we too are containers which can contain the fullness of God… at this altar Christ gives the fullness of his being to us, at Baptism we are born again with the fullness of God’s Holy Spirit. You and me are containers of the uncontainable God – temples of the Holy Spirit – and Mary teaches us what it means to respond to this reality with faith and hope and love.

Then we come to our reading on this solemn feast – Jesus, on the Cross, uses his dying moments to give us, his beloved disciples, his Mother – to entrust us into her care and to unite us as one family in him. The angel called her ‘full of grace’ in the beginning of the story, but now we realise that this grace she has is for you and for me – Mary does not jealousy store up grace and blessings for herself, she is our Mother and she ministers grace to us throughout our life and at the hour of our death. Mary then is the summation and overflow of all that is best in our redeemed humanity – to draw near to Mary in prayer only leaves us better, leaves us nearer to her eternal Son who made our human nature his own in Mary’s womb. Our Lady’s heart at this solemn moment on the Cross was widened to include all of us who receive life from his Cross, she is fully transparent to the tender and maternal love of God. Another quote of St. Gregory says that Mary, that container who contains the uncontainable, “is the treasury and overseer of the riches of the Godhead”.

So, in Mary we see what we can be and we find the sure support we need to be true disciples of Jesus Christ. And, on this Feast of the Assumption, the day the Church celebrates that Mary has been taken up into heaven to live forever with her Son, we see the destiny of our human nature. We will be like Christ, with Mary, in glory, crowned with grace – this is the final destination of the pilgrim people of God and the assumption is proof that Jesus is faithful to his promise that he prepares a dwelling place for the human family in his Father’s house.

So, my dear friends and fellow children of Mary, gaze on Our Lady as you gaze the moon – see in her the pattern of grace which God longs each of us to follow and find in her a faithful friend in your journey of discipleship.

Amen.