Friday, November 22, 2013

A Lord for Our Times

The Reign of Christ
24 November 2013

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC
         During my first year of doctoral studies at the University of Notre Dame, Paul Bradshaw, then, as now, one of the prominent historians of liturgy, came to give a guest lecture at the University.  At the time I did not know that he was being considered for a teaching position and that the public lecture was part of the interview process.  I would come to know him better in the years to come as one of my professors and a member of my doctoral committee.

         Dr Bradshaw’s lecture was on the use and misuse of early Christian texts in contemporary Christian liturgy.  You need to know that the liturgical movement which gave rise to The Book of Alternative Services was fuelled, in part, by a rediscovery of early Christian liturgical texts.  These texts were understood to be a link with our earliest Christian ancestors and valuable in re-creating the same spirit in us that empowered these first generations.  One such texts is the so-called Phos Hilaron or ‘Evening Hymn’:

O Gracious Light, pure brightness of the ever-living Father in heaven, O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed.  Now as we come to setting of the sun and our eyes behold the vesper light, we sing your praises, O God:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices, O Son of God, Life-giver, and to be glorified through all the worlds.

I remember when I first heard this hymn in seminary at evening prayer.  I have always been intrigued by the line, ‘and to be glorified through all the worlds.’  It has inspired my imagination of a universe alive with the praise of God.

         It was Dr Bradshaw’s lecture that inspired me to change my thesis topic from a study of contemporary baptismal rites to a study of contemporary Anglican ordination rites.  This inspiration came when Dr Bradshaw pointed out that the American Episcopal prayer for the ordination of a bishop, taken from an ancient text, asked that God send a portion ‘of [God’s] princely power’ upon the one being ordained.  ‘What does it mean,’ asked Dr Bradshaw, ‘for Anglicans living in a democratic republic to ask that their bishops be given “princely power”?  Certainly, this is not what they want.”  I remember pondering this point for some time.  When the time came for me to write my thesis, I found it interesting that when Canadians, who live in a constitutional monarchy, borrowed texts from the United States for the ordination rites, one of the texts that we did not borrow was the American prayer for the ordination of a bishop.  Rather we chose an English prayer with no reference to princely power.  Ironic, don’t you think:  the republicans choose ‘princely power’, the monarchists avoid it.

         So, here we are today, celebrating the feast of the ‘Reign of Christ’, using language and imagery of royalty to describe our teacher, our friend, our rabbi.  Here we are today, celebrating a feast day established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 to counteract the power of rising Italian nationalism and calls for further reduction in the power of the Pope in Italy.  At a time when many in our country are calling for the abolition of the Senate, a Canadian version of the House of Lords, and a few are even calling for an end to our relationship with the Crown, we are singing hymns and using prayers that cast Jesus as universal king.

         I find myself returning to Dr Bradshaw’s lecture of so many years ago.  The language of kingship no longer trips easily from our lips, especially the lips of younger Canadians.  Are we in danger of misusing older imagery and thus missing the point of what it means to call Jesus ‘Lord’?  I don’t think so.

         Every time we open the New Testament we are confronted with a story about a teacher, a friend, a prophet whose every action, whose every story, whose every teaching challenges our notions of what it means to exercise power.  Although he is surrounded by people and institutions who are prepared to coerce obedience by force, Jesus always chooses persuasion by word and example.  Although he is surrounded by crowds who are longing for the destruction of the Roman occupation and the overthrow of the petty monarchs who rule, Jesus dares to proclaim a message of forgiveness and reconciliation, a message of passive and peaceful disobedience that later inspired Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

         As he hangs on the cross and is taunted by onlookers and by one of those crucified with him, Jesus does not even respond with words threatening revenge in some future time.  Rather, he speaks words of forgiveness, even despair, and, to the so-called ‘penitent’ thief, words of comfort and promise.  What kind of ‘king’ is this?  What kind of ‘master of the universe’ is this?  Certainly it is not one we recognize from our history books nor from our own experience of those who desire power.

         But, my friends, it is this counter-cultural image of leadership that we so desperately need in our country and our world today.  We do not need to look too far to find leaders who are more interested in partisan advantage than in the common good of the people they serve.  We do not need to look too far to find prominent examples of people who use their popularity or their economic power to build up their own self-images rather than benefit those whose adoration or toil has given them prominence.

         To call Jesus ‘Lord’ is to confess that there is another form of leadership, leadership by self-giving.  The self-giving we see in Jesus does not diminish the one who gives; it reaches out like waves of heat from a fire to warm all who gather around it.  It is leadership that dares to say that the needs of the most vulnerable are more important than the prestige of the privileged.

         I have no illusions about how difficult this kind of leadership is.  G. K. Chesterton, the famous author, once said, “It is not that Christianity has been tried and find wanting; it’s that Christianity has never really been tried.”  Every one of us who bears the sign of the cross on her or his forehead knows that each day, despite our best intentions, we fail to embody the self-giving love that God has shown us in Jesus and that God fills us with by the Holy Spirit. 

        But then there are those glorious moments, like ‘Take a Bite out of Winter’, when we know, we really know, that Christ reigns, that Jesus is our Lord and that all other forms of leadership are pale illusions next to the glory of God.  There are moments when we see someone we know and love rise up from loneliness or despair because of the compassion of another parishioner or perhaps even a total stranger.  And then we know, truly know, that our God is alive and is working among us.

         It no longer matters why the church has a feast called ‘The Reign of Christ’ nor does it matter that we use language taken from ancient models of leadership.  What matters is that we are brought face to face with a God who looks upon us through the eyes of Jesus.  And in this experience, in this faith, we are renewed and recommit ourselves to making the reign of Christ real to all whom we know and among whom we live.  We recommit ourselves to the reign of Christ, the compassionate one, the truthful one, the generous one, in our own lives.  And may it be so.  Amen.

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