Christ the King

Nov 20, 2016

The Feast of the Reign of Christ. Christ the King: this is the final moment of the Christian year: everything, the birth and the death and the resurrection, the ministry of healing and teaching and the outpouring to the Spirit; the birth of the church; everything leads up to this day. Crown him with many crowns! we sing. Jesus reigning over all creation. Redeem the time; our own lives redeemed. This is the end toward which the year and our whole life as Christians moves.

It is an end we badly need. The news has been full this week of footage from Aleppo. The whole East section of the city is nothing but rubble, and yesterday the last hospital in the city was bombed. Where now to care for the wounded?

The city is being destroyed by rebels and the leaders of the nations. Is it Russia or Syria who is bombing? No one seems to know. The city is being destroyed and the people are scattered. How many million refugees now from Syria alone?

Jeremiah knew about this time.

“Woe to the shepherds,” he cries as Babylon looms on Israel’s horizon. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, says the Lord” (Jer 23:1). Jeremiah was talking about the siege of Jerusalem and its eventual destruction. The great city of David was, like Aleppo, reduced to rubble, and the temple, the place of God’s presence among the nations, the beacon of God’s presence among the nations, was burned, and the people were carried away from their homes into a long exile.

A voice is heard in Ramah, Jeremiah says;

Weeping and loud lamentation.

Rachel weeping for her children

And she will not be comforted,

For they are no more. (Jer 31:15)

 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, says the Lord.

There is a fracturing that runs deep in the history of the world, nation rising against nation and people divided against themselves; children lost and the noblest works of human hands—Solomon’s great temple in 587 BC; ancient Palmyra just a year or so ago—destroyed. In our own time Aleppo, and in our own place, here in Toronto, in our own diocese, the fracturing of the Anglican church.

Jeremiah finds the problem in the failure of the shepherds, because their task is precisely to shepherd: to keep the people close to their God. But in Jeremiah’s time the shepherds are running scared, and they turn to the pagan nations around them, trusting in the power of the secular state rather than in the power of the unseen God. Behind the destruction and the scattering there is a failure to walk with God, and the failure is often quite concrete. The leaders are politicians rather than people of prayer.

And this too, like the fracturing that haunts the world, is a temptation that runs deep. The two are connected. If we are beleaguered and threatened, if our churches are bleeding people, let us turn, we say, to the nation around us. Let us seek our strength in its wisdom; let us follow the mind of a majority that does not know God, and find in their ways our salvation.

Woe to the shepherds, Jeremiah says, who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture.

This way lies only disintegration. It is not here that we will find our help.

Our help, as the psalmist knows, is in God, the Lord of heaven and earth. It is not in the world that does not know God. We are here in the midst of the world for the sake of the world, to stand in its midst as a beacon, a people lit and shining and healed by prayer.

We are the people who proclaim Christ’s reign. Yet we act as if Christ’s reign is not true, as if it were not the culmination of everything we do in the worship of the church, the end toward which all our worship leads.

When we ask, “Where is God in this,” in this fracturing that haunts our world and our church, it is a good idea to remember that we choose often to act as if there were no God.

This day, this Feast of Christ the King, stands here at the culmination of the Christian year to call us back. Remember that it is God who is our shepherd. Remember that we are first of all people of prayer. We are the people who turn to God first of all, and last.

Christ the King is our wake-up call, and it is one we badly need.

But it is also—because after all this is God we are talking about, God who is not only judge but also always shepherd—this day is also our sign of hope.

For Christ rises over the world as King on this day, and his throne has the shape of the cross. Luke sees the hope this day offers, and he offers it to us with characteristic grace.

And when they came to the place called the Skull they crucified him there with two criminals—two wrongdoers, the Greek says—one on his right hand and one on his left (Luke 23:33).

This, the inscription read over his head, This is the King of the Jews.

To the bystanders, to the leaders of the people and the Roman soldiers, it is a joke. Here is the King of the Jews, dying between two criminals on a cross. Some king.

But for Jesus, this is the whole point.

It is on the cross that he is with us. It is the criminals, the wrong-doers, those who have wandered far from God; it is the wrongdoers he cares about. It is precisely when we are at the place of the skull that God is with us.

And when by our turning away from him we bring on ourselves our own destruction, then he is with us to save.

This is what God’s power looks like. It looks like faithfulness, the faithfulness that endures, the love that pours itself out – even to death – for the people who are dying. God is the shepherd who does not destroy and scatter, but gives his very life to save.

Do you not fear God? The second criminal says. We are paying the just penalty for what we have done, but his man has done nothing wrong.

This man has done nothing wrong, and he is standing with us, he is suffering with us, in the place of the cost of the wrong we have done. In the place of our scattering. In the place of our dying. He is suffering with us to save.

This is the love that gives itself, not just to be there with us in the place of disintegration, but to restore. To bring us back. It is not solidarity we are talking about, but salvation. It is Christ the King with whom we have to do.

Jesus, remember me, the wrongdoer says, when you come into your kingdom.

And Jesus, dying there beside him, says, Today. Today you will be with me in Paradise.

For today is the day the kingdom dawns. This is the day of Christ’s reign, this day when he dies between two thieves on a cross. This is the place of his reign, here between the thieves at the place of the Skull.

O love, how deep, how broad, how high.

Luke knows that Christ is king. And he knows that his throne is a cross, because this is where God is with us. To the world it is foolishness. But to us who are being saved, Christ the power and the wisdom of God.

Christ the king. The sun and the moon rise under his lifted arms, his arms lifted on the cross. He holds the whole world in his hands, and the serpent is crushed under his crucified feet: Christ the image of the unseen God, first-born of creation, first-born from the dead (Col 1:15, 18). Here is the power, all the saving power of God. Here in Christ crucified, dying between two thieves on the cross.

So in this time, so in all times of scattering and division, Aleppo’s destruction and the fracturing of the Anglican church, he calls us to turn to him. We come at the end of the Christian year to the Christ: Jesus Christ, rising over time and all things on the cross. Christ with us in our failure and in our great need, Christ holding the sun and the moon in his arms. This day he asks us to be with him.

Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom. Let this be the prayer of our hearts, at the first moment of every day and at the last. Let this be our hope and our guide. Just this: Jesus. Christ our King. Let us turn to him.

Art: Crucifixion of Christ, by Bartolomeo Passerotti.

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St. Augustine of Hippo

Augustine_Lateran

St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (d. 430 AD)

Feast Day August 28

You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.

These words of Augustine’s come back to me more and more, a kind of refrain that stands before and behind and in the midst of all the strivings of life, reorienting our hearts, pointing them home.

Augustine knew about restlessness, the striving heart. His Confessions – often called the first modern work for its acute awareness of the inner life – opens with these words, and tracks a life that has been, as Augustine looks back on it, from earliest childhood a search: his for God, (though he did not know it; though indeed he often acted directly in contradiction to it), and God’s for him. He was, as his translator Pine-Coffin says, “a great sinner who became a great saint”—that is, Augustine might say, he was a man like any of us, who found and was found by the grace of God.

His Confessions are just that: the confession of his own capacity to resist God, to resist the good that touches the world with beauty in spite of all human blindness to it. Yet they are confession in another sense too, the confession of God’s grace, a song of praise to the one who seeks us always, to draw us in.

Augustine was born in 354 AD in North Africa (Thagaste, now in Algeria) to a pagan father and a mother, Monica, of deep and patient Christian faith. He loved his mother tenderly and she him, and he has no doubt that the long slow dawn of his adult faith owed a great deal to her faith, her love and her prayer.

“I was a great sinner for so small a boy,” he says (rather winsomely) of his childhood. “I did not care for lessons”; he would rather be outside playing—or later at the games or at the theatre or pursuing the latest girl. Beatings, because he did not know his lessons well enough, were “my one great bugbear” and inspired an early devotion (though evidently not more study!): “I used to prattle away to you (O Lord) and though I was small, my devotion was great when I begged you not to let me be beaten at school” (Confessions 1.9). He was jealous when his friends beat him at games; he loved Latin and hated Greek (and grammar in general) and lived, to his later dismay, in a fog of 16-year-old lust.  He sounds in fact like any other boy: and that is in part his point. “Was the master who beat me very different from me?” he asks. “If he were worsted by a colleague in some petty argument, he would be convulsed with anger and envy, much more so than I was when a playmate beat me at a game of ball.” We were punished for our games, Augustine says, “by men who played games themselves”: grown-up games called business (1.9). Though they were right to insist on the discipline of learning, they were entirely blind as to the point of it all.

We are all estranged, Augustine argues, from our soul’s true good; even when we see what is good we use it to the wrong end, and our efforts to find satisfaction in the pleasures of life without the God who is the source of all true pleasure leave us empty. “Idleness poses as the love of peace: yet what certain peace is there besides the Lord? Extravagance masquerades as fullness and abundance: but you are the full, unfailing store of never-dying sweetness” (2.6).

It is the incident of the pear-tree—he and his friends climbing the neighbour’s wall and raiding his ripe pears one night—that sums up for Augustine the estrangement of the human heart. A pear is beautiful, and good to eat; but it was not for its beauty or his own hunger that Augustine wanted it. The boys fed the pears to the pigs. He stole, he says, for no reason at all, simply because it was forbidden. “Could I enjoy doing wrong for no other reason than that it was wrong?” (2.6)

Augustine paints a powerful picture of a world gone awry, beautiful and blind. Yet his very next word is joy. “How can I thank God?” he says—for I can recall these things now without fear. “You melted away my sins like ice…You have forgiven me all” (2.7). Over against our recalcitrance, even the plain choice for evil, stands the grace of God; sorrow and joy meeting together, our confession always also praise.

Augustine still had years to go in his walk away from the heart that enjoys what is wrong to the heart that joys in God, years of scorn for the Bible (so much less impressive than Cicero’s polished prose and the beauty of Virgil), scorn for a philosophy that allowed both a good and omnipotent God and the presence of evil; years spent in Carthage and Rome among the rhetoricians, polishing his tongue with (Augustine says) no thought for his soul; years spent as a Manichean.

220px-Fra_angelico_-_conversion_de_saint_augustin

There were years to go before the moment when, weeping in the garden for his failure of faith he heard a child’s voice calling as if in play, “Tolle, lege”; pick it up and read it. And he picked up the Bible and read, and found in it finally the Word that would enable him to give himself to God; the Word that would be his fascination and his joy for the rest of a long life.

There were years still to go…yet Augustine’s life, as he retells it, is from the very beginning a dialogue with the God to whom he would not turn. From the beginning God sought him; God, in whom abides all that there is, teaching him through all that there is, even by the beatings his teachers doled out, even through his own recalcitrant heart, calling him to Himself.

Confession is a thing compounded of tears and of joy, the knowledge of our persistent distraction from God; the knowledge of God’s persistent love. To confess is also to sing.

You have made us for yourself, and you do not cease to stretch out your arms, in sorrow and in love, until we shall come in.

Most of all the Confessions is a song of praise, wonder at the beauty Augustine has found in spite of himself.

You are great, O Lord, and greatly to be praised (Ps. 145.3): these are the book’s first words and the great discovery of Augustine’s life. It is not games or thrones or sex or possessions or the thrill of the forbidden fruit; it is not this for which we are made. We are made to sing God’s praise, for love of the God who loves us, and seeks us, and does not let us go.

Sing and walk, and walk and sing, and sing and walk; these are also Augustine’s words. Life is finally a love-song to our God, and we are given the grace to sing it.

Collect for the Feast of St. Augustine:

Lord God, the light of the minds that know you, the life of the souls that love you, and the strength of the hearts that serve you: Help us, following the example of your servant Augustine of Hippo, so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Art:

Augustine (earliest known representation): 6th century fresco, Lateran, Rome

Conversion of Saint Augustine: Fra Angelico