A God of Love

One of the saddest things I have read recently came from someone describing himself as an ex-Catholic who said that, in his experience, the Church was made up of perverts and abusers who took delight in condemning the sins of others. He particularly disliked the use of the crucifix, calling it morbid; while his own experience of abuse had left him with a profound distrust of the clergy and everything they say. Is it any wonder that his image of God — for he still believes, in an odd kind of way — is of an angry and hostile God who cares nothing for his creation? What would today’s solemnity of Christ the King mean to him?

I cannot answer that question, for obvious reasons, but I think it is one we must all address. What does today’s feast mean to us? Conventionally, the solemnity of Christ the King, with its clear, eschatological significance, is about the restoration of all things under Christ, King of the Universe. It is about lordship and service, divine love and sacrifice; but as soon as we use those terms, we are using religious language remote from the everyday experience of most people. Yet loving and being loved are not, usually, remote from our experience, thank God, nor is the idea of making sacrifices (pl) for others — ask any parent. It is the way in which we use those words in a religious context that confuses or injects a note of misunderstanding or unreality. Indeed, the very notion of kingship, biblical though it is, is alien to many whose ideas about it are drawn principally from history or from what they see of today’s European monarchies.

As always, I think the preface for today’s celebration gives us not only the theology of this feast in a nutshell but also some themes we can dwell on with profit. From the beginning, it strikes a note of rejoicing, referring to Christ our Saviour being anointed with the oil of gladness. We know that he went joyfully to the cross and surrendered his life for us, freely and gladly. It is the final vision, however, the promise of the kingdom, that holds out most hope:

an eternal and universal kingdom:
a kingdom of truth and life,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.

I do not know what my new-found friend would make of that. I suspect that beneath all the pain and suffering he has undergone, he still clings with part of his being to the hope that such a vision may be realised. It is a vision God is humble enough to ask our co-operation in achieving. As the old saints never tired of repeating, ‘Without him, we cannot; without us, he will not.’ The God of love invites; he does not force.


The Liturgical Year’s End

This Sunday we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King and enter upon the last few days of the liturgical year. Already some are celebrating Christmas when we haven’t even begun Advent, while dark mutterings about ‘commercialism’ and so on can be heard in certain quarters. I think myself that the main problem is that we are reluctant to live in the present. We are always either looking back or looking forward. The past allows us certainty; the future, endless possibility. The present, alas, offers only reality, and humankind cannot bear very much of that. Moreover, Christmas without any preparation is an enticing prospect. We can ignore or skip much that is demanding so that we end up with no giving of the Law; no bondage in Egypt; no trekking through the desert; no covenants made and broken, then renewed again; no prophets, no exile, no Maccabean wars; just plunging straight into the Incarnation and happy ever after. Only, we know it doesn’t work like that. We cannot have Christmas without Advent recalling us to our senses and reminding us of the long history of the Jewish people’s search for God and our own place in it, at the very end, the wild olive grafted onto the ancient stock.

There was a time when I thought of the solemnity of Christ the King as an unwarrantable intrusion into this process. I almost despised it as a modern feast that spoke more of the political preoccupations of the earlier twentieth century than of anything more ‘spiritual’. But then I began to see how shallow my thinking was. To proclaim the lordship of Christ over everything that exists when dictators stalked the land; to assert the truth and beauty of following the gospel when many were seeking salvation in material things/totalitarian regimes, whether of left or right: that was not small or weak or contemptible. It was to assert not only the power of God to transform our human situation but also his freedom to do so in a way and at a time of his choosing. It was a message of hope in dark times; a re-statement of Christian faith and love in a world that has never really embraced it in all its fullness. We have always wanted Christmas without Advent, Easter without Lent; but it cannot be.

At Christmas we shall indeed celebrate the Incarnation: God’s way of definitively entering human history and redeeming it, but we are not there yet. These last days of the liturgical year are very precious. They put before us the record of human sin and ingratitude and warn us of the sufferings we heap upon ourselves if we are reckless or indifferent. We know, in our heart of hearts, how badly things go wrong when we do not allow God full scope in our lives, but how reluctant we are to admit it! This Sunday gives us the opportunity to reflect, live in the present and begin preparing for Advent. In other words, an opportunity to let God take back control.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Solemnity of Christ the King 2013

Last year and the year before I wrote briefly about the Solemnity of Christ the King, on each occasion choosing slightly tangential aspects of the feast because I had said more than enough about its history and theology and felt I had nothing left to say. The beauty of the liturgy, however, is that it is always new, always fresh. This morning I was struck by the thought that the kingship of Christ is eternally youthful.

In art, and in our mind’s eye, God the Father is often portrayed as a grandfather-figure with long white beard, but Christ the Lord is always young, always in his prime. We tend to associate rulership of any kind with middle/old age but this feast challenges that. Again, the Rule of St Benedict comes to my aid. In chapter three, On Summoning the Brethren for Counsel, Benedict is at pains to point out the need for the abbot to listen carefully even to the most junior monks, for they often have insights not given to their elders. It can be hard for the older monks, but our common enterprise means we must lay aside our prejudices and attend to the voice of the Spirit. As with the monastery, so with the Church. However grey-headed we may appear outwardly, inwardly the Church is always youthful for the simple reason that Christ is Lord.

Today, when we pray for the reign of God to come among us, for the restoration of all things in Christ, we are not praying for something static, for a kind of archeological reconstruction of something old and lost, we are praying for something vibrantly new, a kind of cosmic re-tuning. We are praying for Christ to come among us in all his power and glory, knowing that in Him we too will be made new.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Solemnity of Christ the King 2012

There is something of a mismatch between the language used for this feast and the cultural understanding of most of the people celebrating it, but that does not mean that the feast itself is of less importance. Indeed, it is often the feasts that we struggle to understand which yield the richest meanings. In previous years I have written about the origins of the feast, the theology of the idea of restoration of all things in Christ, medieval poetry on the kingship of Christ, and so on and so forth. This morning a phrase from the Rule of St Benedict came to mind which, for me, sheds more light on the celebration than any other.

Benedict talks of our taking up the ‘strong and glorious weapons of obedience’ in order to fight for ‘the true king, Christ our Lord.’  The true king. I wonder how many of us can say this morning that Christ is the true king of our heart; the one we will follow wherever he leads; for whom we will dare anything, even the loss of our own life? How many of us can say that we will lay aside our own ideas and preferences in order to join with others in serving this king?

If the language of this feast is an obstacle to you, why not spend a few minutes praying and reflecting on what you understand by the Church and your own membership of it? And if you are not a member of the Church, but a sympathetic bystander, perhaps you could think for a few moments of what it might mean to be such.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Christ the King

The last Sunday of the liturgical year is marked by the comparatively modern feast of Christ the King. It began as a response to the challenges of the 1920s (perceived by Pius XI to be nationalism and secularism) but was developed under Paul VI as an expression of the Church’s eschatological hope (he changed the title to Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, and gave the feast a new date and status, that of a solemnity). We who celebrate the feast today can surely find reason to pray for the Lordship of Christ to extend through the whole of creation. As so often, the Preface gives us the theology of the feast in a little. Christ’s kingship is that of the eternal high priest, redeemer of the human race, and his kingdom one in which justice, love and peace flourish. Could there be a more hopeful end to the year?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail