Christ the King

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the last day of the Christian Church calendar.

Depending on the tradition of the faith in which you worship, you may or may not observe this particular day. There are a lot of significant days and seasons within the Church year, and almost all denominations observe at least some of them (e.g., Christmas, Good Friday, Easter). If you are Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox, it is likely your worshipping community follows the Christian calendar very closely, including such focal observances as the Feasts of Epiphany, the Annunciation, and Pentecost, to name merely a few. The same is mostly true for more “high church” traditions like Anglicans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and some Methodists, in which it is not out of the norm to participate in special services like Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Trinity Sunday.

While it is less common in “low church” circles like the Baptists, Assemblies of God, and the majority of non-denomination communities to observe many aspects of this ancient Christian liturgy, the last decade or so has seen a resurgence of ancient traditions within modern contexts of church worship. Younger generations, including those that did not grow up within liturgically based systems, are beginning to reintegrate an increasing number of observances and practices once considered outdated or traditionalistic.

What makes Christ the King Sunday a valuable component of the Church calendar for all Christians, regardless of denominational tradition, is not simply the fact that it stands as the culminating observance of the whole year (which will begin anew next Sunday with the first week of Advent). It is what the central theme of this “feast” is concerned with, which is the crowning of Jesus Christ, in a devotional sense, as Messiah and ruler over every aspect of our lives. Having anticipated his incarnation during the season of Advent, celebrated his birth throughout the twelve days of Christmas, recognized within the season of his Epiphany the greatness of his mission, the genius of his teaching, and the glory of his wonders, followed him throughout Lent as he set his face toward Jerusalem, mourned his death on Good Friday, glorified him on Resurrection Sunday, and accepted his call to a revolutionary discipleship at Pentecost, we finally arrive at a moment of “completion” (Phil. 1:6) at the Feast of Christ the King.

While a relatively new observance within the liturgical year (it’s current placement on the calendar was established in 1925), I can think of no better way to culminate the Christian year than by crowning my Lord and Savior as king over every part of my life. As Pope Pius XI wrote upon the establishment of this feast day:

“If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God.”

Or, consider how Frederick Buechner puts this concept of personal Lordship in his memoir, The Sacred Journey, as he recalls the sermon that finally moved him to a point of conversion, delivered by the renowned preacher, George Buttrick:

There came one particular sermon with one particular phrase in it that does not even appear in a transcript of his words… I can only assume that he must have dreamed it up at the last-minute and ad-libbed it and on just such foolish, tenuous, holy threads as that, I suppose, hang the destinies of us all. Jesus Christ refused the crown that Satan offered him in the wilderness, Buttrick said, but he is king nonetheless because again and again he is crowned in the heart of the people who believe in him. And that inward coronation takes place, Buttrick said, “among confession, and tears, and great laughter.” It was the phrase great laughter that did it, did whatever it was that I believe must have been hidden in the doing all the years of my journey up till then. It was not so much that a door opened as that I suddenly found that a door had been open all along which I had only just then stumbled upon.

On Christ the King Sunday, we shed every allegiance that, whether intentionally or not, sets itself up as contrary to the Kingdom of God and its principles. We worship the glory and splendor of the coming King, but we also take a long, sobering look at ourselves and the myriad ways we are so regularly disturbed by, and entangled in, the fleeting, finite affairs of a world that is constantly trying to save itself through its own limited ingenuity.

So, in a day and age when, through both news and social media outlets, we are subjected to the blustering bravado of self-centered, image-obsessed world leaders…

When, in search of a better life, we make the mistake of placing our hope in partisan platforms, legislative moralizing, and the dubious assurances of politicians who are well versed in the dog-whistle buzzwords of various faith-based groups…

When we so frequently trade the timeless spiritual disciplines of formative prayer and Scripture-reading for pop spirituality fads and self-help books that do our study of the Bible for us…

When we stray from the ancient way of humility, compassion, and forgiveness because we buy into a lie that certain people with certain hangups, or particular groups hailing from particularly nasty regions, have in some way crossed a line which allows us to withhold our kindness and leniency…

When we forego the call to bear an honest and persuasive witness to the Way of Jesus and instead give in to the instant satisfaction that comes by way of pithy soundbites and hashtag “prayers”…

Of these things, we repent.

For these things, we ask forgiveness.

From these things, we confess our need for deliverance.

Before the refrains of the Advent hymns and Christmas carols begin anew, we pause today to swear the only allegiance that will endure – to profess faithfulness and obedience to the one true and worthy King. We bow our knees, realizing that this is not only good and right to do, but it is also the very reason we were given knees at all, so they might bend before the perfect authority and unrivaled mercy of the One through whom all things live and move and have their very being.

Dibs on the Doubloons

My father-in-law brought a metal detector to the beach.

I can see him out there, stepping carefully along the shore. The instrument is poised in front of him, and he sweeps it in a conscientious arc just above the sand. He is bent forward slightly, mindful of every tick and warble of the device. He is hopeful in his search, as anyone is who brings a metal detector to the beach. I am reminded of an article I read recently about famous lost treasures from history that have yet to be found. I do not think he is expecting to uncover a chest of gold coins, but perhaps there is something worth uncovering – something more valuable than bottle caps and earring backs.

There is a storm on the ocean. Behind him, I can see white caps scattered all the way to the horizon. The air has cooled and is thick with the smell of rain. The trees sway. The wind flutters my father-in-law’s T-shirt. Still, he goes about the painstaking business of the search as if oblivious to what is approaching.

It is the way with treasure-seekers, I suspect. Whether it’s Indiana Jones crisscrossing the globe in search of the Well of Souls, or just a guy rummaging through an estate sale bookshelf in hopes of finding a forgotten first edition, treasure-seekers are about the business of recovering what has been lost. The search is more important than the circumstances. What lies beneath the sand may indeed prove greater than all the wind and rain a storm can throw your way. These are the things I think as I watch my father-in-law persist in his detecting against a backdrop of atmospheric turmoil.

The search goes on, even when Shia Labeouf wants to tag along.

The search goes on, even when Shia Labeouf wants to tag along.

And one other thought occurs to me as well.

I wonder about our faith, about this thing we call Christianity. I wonder how much has been lost from it over the years, and what elements we should seek to rediscover. What traditions and practices have disappeared, to our misfortune? What sound teachings have we cast aside in favor of convenient sayings and comforting folklore? What ambiguities, to which we once humbly submitted ourselves, have we coldly insisted on defining? I do not presume that we control the system by any means; I simply wonder how our free will and our particular cultural developments have caused us to lose track of certain aspects from which believers once benefitted. Such misplacement must have taken place here and there over so rich and lengthy a history.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were placed in jars and set aside, only to remain hidden for two millennia. But their discovery impacted the fields of archaeology, history, religion and linguistics in innumerable ways, altering assumptions we had accepted for decades and centuries.

In contrast, what this lady did was just plain rotten.

In contrast, what this lady did was just plain rotten.

Are Christians today so arrogant as to assume the grasp we have on our faith now is of greater strength than any other time? Do we honestly believe we know more about God now than those from past eras? We have been born into a culture that is all too impressed with the newest and thinnest and fastest and shiniest products on the market. Sometimes I fear our churches will forever be drawn to the innovative over the ancestral. That we will perpetually select new methodologies in place of ancient disciplines? Must we always chase after now while abandoning then?

Indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. (Proverbs 2:3-5)

It is a rare thing to find anything of value under the sand. But it does happen. Instead of just the earring back, you find the diamond front that goes with it. Maybe not gold doubloons, but sometimes there’s a 2004 Wisconsin quarter with an extra leaf, or, for the exceedingly lucky, a double-died 1969 penny.

You never know what you might find hidden under the sand – those unanticipated disappearances that have only increased in value since the time they were first lost to the world. Such rediscoveries, if we would commit ourselves to look for them, can rejuvenate our faith in extraordinary ways. Even when the storms of the present age gather against us, we are made stronger, and our connection with the saints of past ages is renewed. The cloud of witnesses rejoices, the angels celebrate around the throne, and the great God who made them all smiles in radiant joy.

Jesus himself described the kind of party that takes place when even seemingly insignificant items are found again. In the age of faster download speeds and mile-long waiting lines at the Apple Store, Christians must be warned to not so easily omit the past. If we truly believe in a God who is intimately active from generation to generation – a God who restores, who values monuments and remembrances – then the ways in which we commune with him and worship him and study about him matters. We must preserve a link to those who have gone before even as we anticipate what is still to come.

"Name one other thing that would be a better use of my time right now."

“Name one other thing that would be a better use of my time right now.”

I see my father-in-law walking up the path. His shirt is speckled by the rain, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He has not found anything today, but I know his search hasn’t ended. There are limitless treasures waiting to be uncovered for those hopeful enough to look.