The Rev. Joseph Farnes
All Saints Episcopal Church
The Reign of Christ, Year A
November 26, 2023
On National Public Radio a few days ago, there was a story about some churches and clergy that were lengthening the season of Advent from four Sundays to seven, following a medieval tradition. In fact, our friends over at St Stephen’s did that a few years ago – seven weeks of Advent.
Back in the late classical age leading into the early medieval ages in Northern Europe and Britain, Advent looked a little different. It began just shortly after St Martin’s Day on November 11, and it was often called “St Martin’s Lent.” There was fasting on weekdays until January 6, with exceptions only for Sundays and major feast days. The rhythm of feasting was always preceded by fasting, and fasting was followed by feasting.
For us moderns, we might not connect to such a penitential, fasting Advent. I might be a lone voice on it, but I do think Advent has a penitential feeling, even if it is not as central as it is in Lent. It slows us down, invites us to deeper prayer and contemplation to prepare for the celebration that is Christmas.
So what’s behind this resurgence of a long Advent? The logic is this: with the bustling, commercialized, nostalgia-fied holiday season, it’s downright impossible to settle into the spirit of Advent. We push back as best as we can against it, but Advent’s an awfully short season. It is here for a few weeks and then poof, it’s gone in a puff of holiday smoke. Advent is an invitation to slow down, to reflection, to prayerfully contemplate the first advent of Christ that we call Christmas, the Nativity, and to prayerfully await the second advent of Christ when he sets all things right, makes all thing well, and all things will be made well.
Advent tries its best in the less-than-four-full weeks it gives us. And so, some congregations and clergy push it back three more weeks to let the season settle around us before the frenzied pace of commercialized Christmas floods our inboxes and our eyeballs with advertisements.
In a way, our Sunday readings have been slowly inviting us to Advent all along. The readings for the past few weeks have been inviting us to be alert, to recognize that the ways of God and the ways of the world do have some important distinctions.
And today’s observance, the Feast of Christ the King, or, perhaps more accurately, “The Reign of Christ” highlights those distinctions.
For us, the word “king” conjures up a man on a majestic throne. If you had watched the coronation of King Charles III over the summer, you saw the ritual and regalia associated with a monarch. Swords, scepters, crowns, a jeweled orb, anointing, long robes, and the crown placed upon the king’s head by the Archbishop of Canterbury. I haven’t seen the film “Napoleon,” but I imagine there’s a dramatic scene where Napoleon crowns himself Emperor of France, subtly proclaiming his authority over the church. Or, if you want to look at another coronation, you can watch online the 2019 coronation of Emperor Naruhito of Japan with the elaborate ritual around the three sacred treasures of Japan as Shinto priests and officials present them before the Emperor.
For us Episcopalians, we love ritual and tradition. We might like elaborate tradition, we might like simple tradition, but we love that connection to our forebears, and we love the little things that proclaim majesty and glory. So watching those enthronement and coronations does bring a note of connection to the past, to the wider community gathered to witness the event.
But we also recall that the French monarchy was later abolished again, and the King of the United Kingdom and the Emperor of Japan are both figureheads with very little, if any political authority these days. They are not the same imperial, imperious monarchies that they once were, once upon a time.
So is Christ the King a robed man sitting on a lofty throne with little authority? Or is Christ the King a callback to a time when monarchs had absolute authority and could do as they wished, and the nobles and the peasants better know their place in the hierarchy?
We do not proclaim a weak, ineffectual king whose reign has no influence on our lives, nor do we proclaim a strongman who rules with an iron fist. Christ does not play by the rulebook of the world.
Recall Holy Week: Christ’s procession is humble, on a donkey. He has dinner with his friends in some random guy’s guest room, not a palace. He’s arrested in the garden, and is handed over to judgment by hostile voices, and Governor Pilate and King Herod hand him over to death. Jesus Christ, the one we proclaim and adore as King reigns from the cross.
The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory of Christ our King are shown not in might and majesty, but in the depths of his love, a love that endures death to undo death’s hold on us, a love that rises from the grave to resurrect us from the grave of oppression and sin.
That is the Kingdom of Christ, the Reign of Christ. A Kingdom not about the King on a throne with a sword, but a Kingdom of Christ’s love for us, for all of creation. Divinity made full human, fully kin to us. This Kingdom is a Kin-dom.
And thus, Christ our King looks to how we treat our own kin, our fellow human beings. Do we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, care for the sick, welcome the stranger? Whatever we do, we do it to our king.
The logic of the world is to climb up as high as you can get, step on anyone you need to as you climb the ladder of success – you may not be the king, but you might be elected to high office, be a comfortable corporate titan, a celebrity whose counsel and presence is widely sought. Step on those beneath you to ascend the ranks.
But the logic of the kingdom says, “Did you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, care for the sick, welcome the stranger?” It says, “Did you see the sacredness of your neighbor, did you see your kin, did you see your fellow creature, or did you see something less than you? As you see them, so you see Christ.”
We who wish we could see the infant Christ in the humble manger on Christmas, we who want to see Christ in majesty in his return … we are given a comforting challenge: will we see the kingly honor and dignity of Christ in our fellow creatures? We are comforted to know that Christ is close to us always … and we are challenged to see Christ, always.
It takes more than the four weeks of Advent to train our eyes to see Christ. It takes more than even seven weeks. It takes a lifetime to see Christ in others. A daily choice, an hourly choice, an every-single-minute of the day choice to see Christ’s presence around us. So we must choose, so we must try again, so we must keep alert and keep watch, if we want our eyes to behold Christ. It is a living Advent in our lives – not just the season of candles, wreath, and beautiful blue. Are we ready to behold our King: in the manger, in divine glory, in the person beside us, in our enemy, in a stranger, in a beloved creature made by the love of God?