A few years ago we celebrated 350 years of the “Hallelujah Chorus” by singing it at the end of the service. Preparations for this took some time at the Barn, and led in many ways to the current manifestation of the “extended choir” which pops up every now and again on special occasions. The St Luke’s Choir just stood up and sang it….. wonderfully…
Anyway, being part of that learning was tremendous. There is huge power in the piece, created by great harmonies and soaring lines for all the voices, but there is a bit in the middle which came as a surprise. I don’t know why, maybe false memory surrounds such famous music – you think you know it, but when you come to sing it, there are bits that you don’t. All the hallelujahs are only to be expected, as well as one or two lines about King of kings and the Lord omnipotent, but the section in the middle to which I refer is sung in unison:
The kingdom of this world
The kingdom of our Lord,
And of His Christ
And of His Christ
And then everyone breaks off into four-part harmony again. Why?
Handel was a good Protestant. Despite his stays in Italy, learning the ropes of Italian opera, he never wavered from his Protestantism, and while in London, faithfully attended his local parish church (St George’s Hanover Square), a fact of which the parish is still proud, and is one of the first things you see on their website….. For Handel, the omnipotence of God was a given, so could be sung about in the same way as any other expression of praise. However, the transformation of this world from the human order to the divine order is extraordinary, and is based upon the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and to underline that point, the kingship of Christ, Handel has the choir sing about it in unison, so that no one can be in any doubt that Christ is king of all.
That is where we are today. We have moved through the seasons, high and low, we have experienced the joys of Christmas and Easter and the deprivations of Advent and Lent. We have slogged our way through every chapter of the Gospel of Mark, and now, as we approach a new liturgical year, we are reminded once again that Christ is king of the universe. You may well protest that there isn’t much evidence of that, given the unholy mess that the world is in, but as an article of faith, it is worth repeating: Christ is king of the universe.
But we are good democrats, you may add, we have no need of a king. Yes, but we are good democrats who live in a constitutional monarchy, we have made our peace with kingship and queenship and continue to hold it up as a measure of stability and idealized leadership, whether we want it there or not. The King of Sweden may well ride around on a bicycle, the King of the Netherlands may well be a commercial airline pilot, but when push comes to shove, they are top dogs, to whom obedience is due and whose image appears on stamps and whose signature is required for laws to be enacted.
And the good people of France, who chopped the head off their own king (several centuries after we did) remain fascinated by monarchy the world over, and know exactly what it stands for while trumpeting their republican credentials and mimicking it in their presidential system. We all know what “king” or “queen” means, and so we therefore know what “Christ the King” means.
Or do we? And that is where the problem lies with today’s theme. We all have our idea of kingship, of what it entails, of what it looks like, of what it means for us in terms of behaviour and belonging, but can any of that be applied to Christ? We have a queen who famously doesn’t carry cash, who shouldn’t be spoken to until she has spoken to us, to whom we must bow or curtsey on meeting and possibly from whose presence we should walk backwards. Apart from the not carrying cash – remember that Jesus, when he needed to pay the Roman tax, had to have someone else produce a coin for him to make his point – do any of those other things apply to Christ? We have a queen who rides around in nice cars or gold carriages, in front of whom the roads are cleared by police and military personnel. In Christ, we have a king who rides a donkey, in front of whom crowds strip branches from the bordering trees to make his triumphal way. We have a queen who lives in several castles and palaces, and has several thrones on which to sit. In Christ, we have a king who had no home to call his own, and who is arrayed in purple by mocking soldiers, once they have finished torturing him, and who is enthroned on a cross of wood. I could go on, but you get my drift.
When we say that Christ is King, we are describing something completely different from any model of monarchy or human leadership that has ever existed in this world. This is a kingship of love and self-giving. This is a kingship of holiness and grace, of massive forgiveness and reconciliation. This is a kingship that empties itself of everything to restore to us the fullness of his grace. This is a kingship that embraces lepers, heals Gentiles, forgives those who drive in the nails into his wrists and feet, who draws the denier back to himself with love and generosity, who calls us to feast with him in bread and wine, who welcomes us into his presence at all times as we pray and as we worship.
And this is the king who sends us out to live in exactly that same way, the way of self-emptying and self-sacrifice, the way of love and compassion, the way of inclusion and of generosity. We are supposed to be the ones by whom the world understands the kingship of Christ. By looking at us, everyone around us should see the kingship of Christ worked out in what we say and what we do. And that is terrifying, and challenging, and amazing, that this king should entrust to us such a mission. But that is what today is all about – living Christ the King’s life in everything we say and do – individually and collectively.
May Christ, by his loving, gentle rule, enable us to demonstrate what love truly is, together and individually, today and always.