Sermon on 23rd November
Christ the King (Year A) 2014 Lancaster Priory Preached by Revd Jill Novell on 23.11.14
Today is the feast of Christ the King. These ‘Sundays before Advent,’ as they are called, are dressed in rich liturgical red – (red denoting kingship and the blood of martyrs); and the Bible readings and music at this time have been inviting us to reflect on themes of the kingdom, the reign of Christ, in earth and in heaven, in life and in death, in our history and in the future, in ourselves and in others…
What sort of king? What sort of kingdom?
As most of you know, about 2 years ago, I was under the surgeon’s knife to remove about 30cm of cancerous bowel. Before the operation you have to sign various documents of assent – one of which is to permit the hospital to use the excised section of bowel for medical purposes if they so wish. I’ve no idea if they kept or destroyed my piece of intestine!
About a week ago, though, I was taken aback to come up close and personal with a piece of intestine of one of our monarchs, James 11 – tenderly preserved in secure casing for quite another purpose: as a relic for devotion for his Christian subjects, notably for Catholics. This, along with other unusual and priceless artefacts, is kept at Stonyhurst College, not far from here. It’s Britain’s oldest independent Jesuit college; and a member of our choir (Jo) had invited some of us to look around.
James 11 was our last Roman Catholic monarch before fleeing to France during the so-called Glorious Revolution. A person’s intestines or bowels had long been thought to be the seat of compassion or mercy, just as, today, we might refer to the heart as the source of love and affection, so the king had left bits of his guts as a gracious gift to his faithful subjects. Seeing James 11’s intestine transported us to another world, no less our own, where ideas of kingship, divinity, authority, the peoples’ rights and their relationship with their king, were being played out in often deadly forms. Stonyhurst College was born from persecution. So, preserved in a silver case, we also saw the right eyeball of a gentle Jesuit priest from Worcestershire, Edward Oldcorne, who was hunted to ground in 1606 soon after the Gunpowder plot . He was condemned by the State to be disembowelled while still alive and then, it is said, parboiled; someone who loved him managed to fish out his eyeball and kept it.
On the whole we don’t do human relics, do we? For Protestants, the practice of venerating the dead was firmly suppressed at the Reformation, so that it’s no longer part of the mainstream mindset, unless you’re a Catholic. But as the Curator of Stonyhurst (Jan Graffius) reminded us, the function of relics is not about superstition but is very straightforward: as she said: ‘they are simply there to help the faithful deepen their faithful contact with someone who was a servant of God.’ Relics are a vivid and tactile reminder that our faith is a living, incarnate faith, a faith worked out through the materials of flesh and blood, sometimes even unto death; Christ our King chose to become branded with the marks of our fallen humanity – he is inescapably a crucified king.
Moreover, while we Protestants may scoff, the most prized possession at Stonyhurst is a thorn believed to have been part of Jesus’ Crown of Thorns, passed down from Helena of Constantinople through the French kings down to Mary Queen of Scots. Christ the king – lord of history. Even today, monarchy and faith continue to be intimately interwoven with British identity. Today, though, while our present monarch remains Head of the Church, defender of the faith, most consider that our rulers are given their authority from the will of the people they serve and not by divine right. On her 80th birthday, Rowan Williams (former Archbishop of Canterbury), described our present Queen’s remarkable balancing act both of faithful service to her people and, first and foremost, her faithful service to God. He spoke of how she has become for us a focus of unity, stability, symbol and tradition..giving power a human face, making possible the steady presence of a single personal focus….at the symbolic centre of our political life is ‘a person visibly standing before God and God’s judgement in humility and hope…she shows a recognition of Christ as king, the monarch whose credentials are to be found in his human vulnerability and in his utter dependence upon God his father.’
Jesus, the crucified saviour, the servant king, focus of unity. Today’s scripture readings particularly commend the image of the good shepherd who seeks out, protects and cares for each one of us; and expects us to do the same in our dealings one with another. The shepherd was the antithesis of a king, the lowliest of men who would lie down and sleep with his sheep, at the gate of the pen, ready to ward off predators; he would go ahead of the sheep to lead them to fresh pasture. Jesus says we too are to seek the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, strengthen the weak: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
Because God’s desire is that kingdom should be about fullness of life for ALL – God longs for us to know ‘the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints’. Signs of the kingdom abound in the very ordinary interactions of daily life. Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom – both in word and action –touched every part of existence. (If you remember) the kingdom is found in precious pearls, lost coins, the birds of the air, sharing bread, the pouring of perfume, washing one another’s feet, in mustard seeds, in the poverty of widows, in the ways in which humans can be healed, in taking time to stop and chat beside wells, in watching women mixing yeast, in showing affection towards children. The kingdom of God is the extraordinary breaking forth amidst the ordinariness of life. It is partly now and not yet. Ordinary life is where Jesus may become enthroned in our lives – the divine agency which can undo our selfishness and injustice, so that as we turn towards the needs of the poor and needy, we find ourselves walking once more in the direction of God’s kingdom.
The most recent relic at Stonyhurst is a fragment of the bloodied alb worn by Oscar Romero when he was murdered celebrating Mass in 1980 during the civil war in El Salvador. He had been preaching that Christ’s authority is higher than than any state’s; he was gunned down for speaking out against the government, in his solidarity towards the poor. A poem written about him soon afterwards (by Jose Maria Valverde) compares him with Thomas a Becket but more closely compares him to Christ.
(I finish with this):
Dark centuries ago,
It is told, a bishop died
By order of a king
Spattering the chalice with his blood
To defend the freedom of the church
From the secular might.
Well enough, surely.
But Since when has it been told
That a bishop fell at the altar
Not for freedom of the church,
But simply because He took sides with the poor – Because he was the mouth of their thirst for justice Crying to heaven? When has such a thing been told? Perhaps not since the beginning,
When Someone died
The death of a subversive
And a slave.