Today is the last great feast of the liturgical year.
At the Annunciation, the angel tells Mary that her son will be given the throne of his father David. At the Epiphany, we see him seated on his mother’s lap receiving the homage of wise men. Then, when he begins to preach, Jesus sits down on the hill, with his immediate disciples around him like courtiers and beyond them the wider group of the crowd. There Jesus, as it were, promulgates his manifesto: the beatitudes – the royal way to happiness.
On Palm Sunday, he enters Jerusalem seated on a donkey: it’s a royal progress.
On Good Friday, there he is enthroned on the Cross, under Pontius Pilate’s sign – This is the King of the Jews.
At the Ascension, he ascends between cheering angels to this throne at the right of the Father. “We see Jesus, says the Letter to the Hebrews, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death” (Heb 2:9).
The Gospel story is, in one way, a series of enthronements. The one whose mission was to proclaim God’s kingdom does so as a king. And today, this comes to a kind of climax. We’re shown him appointed, declared, enthroned by the Father as King of the Universe. Everything is created through him and for him and he holds all things in being. He’s the beginning and the goal and the point of convergence – for stars and galaxies, for neutrons, protons and electrons, for plants and animals, for ourselves and for the angels.
Vatican II summed it up beautifully: “God’s Word, by whom all things were made, was Himself made flesh so that as perfect human being He might save all human beings and sum up all things in Himself. The Lord is the goal of human history, the focal point of the longings of history and of civilization, the centre of the human race, the joy of every heart and the answer to all its yearnings. He it is Whom the Father raised from the dead, lifted on high and stationed at His right hand, making Him judge of the living and the dead. Enlivened and united in His Spirit, we journey toward the consummation of human history, one which fully accords with the counsel of God’s love: “To re-establish all things in Christ, both those in the heavens and those on the earth” (Eph. 11:10). The Lord Himself speaks: “Behold I come quickly! And my reward is with me, to render to each one according to his works. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:12-13) [GS45].
Surely this evokes a response. It did already in the Old Testament Psalms of divine kingship (Pss 96ff). A communal, choral, symphonic response: “With trumpets and the sound of the horn / acclaim the King, the Lord…Let the rivers clap their hands / and the hills ring out their joy” (Ps 97: 6,8). A very personal response as well, the simple, original act of faith: Jesus is Lord! Jesus is the Christ, the King, the Lord, the Son of God. This is the core affirmation of the New Testament and of the faith that comes to us from the apostles. This was the faith expressed by the wise men in Bethlehem falling on the ground before the Child; by Simon Peter saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”; by Mary Magdalene, turning to the Lord and crying “Rabbuni” when she meets him risen in the garden, or by Thomas touching his wounds and saying, “My Lord and my God”. “Jesus is Lord” is what the early Christians professed at their baptism. “Christ is King” is what the early Christian martyrs said by their lives. They were willing to obey the Emperor in civil matters, but not to worship him. Many Christians of recent times have said “Christ is King” when the State or the Party turned totalitarian and tried to claim the whole of human life and freedom. How many, at the cost of their lives, have stood by that profession of faith when Islamists have been forcing them to utter their own! There’s a famous Christian hymn, the Royal Praises: Christus vincit, Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ is Emperor. It’s often sung when the Blessed Sacrament is enthroned on a monstrance. It has been set to music, all the way from plainchant to James Macmillan. Today then, the liturgical year at its end, the Father sets up his Son as King in Sion, shows us him, gives us him, and moved by the Holy Spirit, we respond like St Paul: “Jesus is Lord”
And this is freedom. Today’s Collect prays for all creation to be set free. By faith, we’re already set free. Free from and free to. Free from all false or exaggerated claims to power and free to follow Christ and do good in the world. A couple of Sundays ago, we heard of the loyal Jews, in the time of the Maccabees, being forced to eat pig’s flesh. An unpleasant, but powerful image. As Christians, don’t we feel that there are so many disagreeable things, if not yet legally imposed on us, almost forced down our throats? So loudly advocated, so promoted, so unquestioned: contraception, abortion, same sex marriage, gender ideology, other things too. Such pressures. For ourselves, we don’t want to impose our faith or morals on anyone, but we do ask for the freedom to disagree, the freedom not to be punished for being who we are, the freedom to propose and practise something else.
“Jesus is Lord”: it’s a profession of faith for us to sing; it’s our freedom. And, most of all, it’s mercy – as the good thief discovered at Calvary. He proclaimed Jesus’ kingship. He asked to be remembered and he was. He experienced what that kingship means: divine mercy. This King will welcome anyone. He forgives. He offers a future. He puts us “with him”. He shares his kingship with us. He can make even us a song and free and merciful. Praise him!