If I were asked to name the final chorus of Handel’s Messiah, I might answer with the Hallelujah Chorus. But no; that concludes part two of 3three. The final chorus, the grand finale, is “Worthy is the Lamb”, pretty much the same as today’s Entrance Antiphon: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and divinity and wisdom and strength and honour”, and so on. Today’s feast is a choral acclamation, Worthy is the Lamb. It’s a great, Long live the King! with which to conclude the liturgical year.
We are just grateful for Jesus. Beyond all the powers and influences that impact our lives, legitimately and illegitimately, for better or worse, beyond the economy and government and the stock market, beyond viruses and illnesses, we are grateful for Jesus. An early Christian bishop, Polycarp of Smyrna in modern Turkey, was asked to reject Christ and replied magnificently, “for 87 years I have served my King and he has never done me any harm. How can I blaspheme him?” In the wake of the downfall of the Roman Empire, St Benedict calls Christ the “real King”. This feast was instituted in 1925, presciently, just as the cruel “isms” of the 20th c which would wreck so much were getting underway.
There is, of course, a biblical background. The angel told Mary that God would give her son “the throne of his father David and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever.” He was crucified under the wooden placard, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”. When he was raised from the dead, the early Christians remembered the Old Testament Psalm: “The Lord said to my Lord”, i.e. the Father said to the Son, “Sit at my right hand until I place my enemies under your feet.” And to profess allegiance to this king means, not subjection, but freedom. The people of Israel worked as slaves under Pharaoh, gathering straw to make bricks for his pyramids. It wasn’t much of a life. But one Passover night they were called out, across the Red Sea, to meet and worship their true King and become kings in his kingdom: first at the foot of Mt Sinai and then on Mt Sion. “The Lord is king with majesty enrobed.” Today’s Collect alludes to this history. It prays for an end to all slavery, prays for the completion of the process of Passover and Exodus: “grant that the whole creation, set free from slavery, may render your majesty service and ceaselessly proclaim your praise”. This is the horizon of Jesus’ kingship.
The old cathedral of Aberdeen is, of course, St Machar’s. Recently much work has been done on renovating the beautiful wooden ceiling – 500 years old this year. It dates to Catholic times. Its main feature is three lines of shields: on the left the shields of the monarchs of the nations of Europe at that time, led by the Holy Roman Emperor, on the right the shields of the noble houses of Scotland led by King James V, in the centre the shields of the bishops of Scotland led by the Pope. This is how Aberdeen understood itself in 1520: part of a nation, part of a continent, part of the universal Church. But originally there was another dimension too: these three heraldic lines of the nation, of Europe, of the Church run from west to east, and at their making, before later destructions, would all have pointed to the royal figure of Christ atop the roodscreen. So the ceiling was a vision of the Church and society leading us to, focussed upon Christ. That’s also the vision of this feast. It falls at the end of the liturgical year and, metaphorically, points eastwards the traditional direction of Christ’s return. The feasts of Christ from Christmas onwards all have us look back, as they tell the Christ story. The Solemnity of Christ the King, on the other hand, is a feast of what’s to come, a feast of the future. “When the Son of man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, he will take his seat on his throne of glory” and judge – separating men one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats, begins the Gospel. The 2nd reading from St Paul, also talks of the consummation ahead: the coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the judgment, and then the Son’s handing over of the kingdom to the Father “so that God may be all in all”. Today, we turn to the east and feast what is to come.
We are the sheep of this shepherd, we’re the followers of this Master, we are the soldiers of this King. And with our eyes on him and our ears open to his Gospel we, like the shields on the ceiling, are moving towards him, generation after generation, lifetime after lifetime. We don’t put our feet on the symbols of power, but we try to follow the teaching of Jesus, which begins with the eight beatitudes and ends today with six works of mercy (we count 14/15 of them now), stepping stones into the kingdom.
The Pope who instituted this feast, Pius XI, was also known as the Pope of the laity. In those days, they spoke of Catholic Action. And here we are – and I don’t forget our fellow-Christians of other denominations. Here we are in a changed society, in Aberdeen in 2020. But we are still a people, the Christian people. We bear the shield of faith. And we have a right, not just to believe and worship, to take part as Christians in the life of our (pluralist, multipolar) society. We have this right, because our country, our culture is genetically Christian, Christian in its genesis. We have this right because we have something to contribute. We have it because there are now, often quietly, so many good Christians working in the health sector, in education (even outside our own schools), in local government and social work, in business and industry and elsewhere; because the works of mercy are being done (just from this Cathedral in a week 200 people can be given food). Thank you to all who, in a cold cultural climate, are providing the warmth of Christian dedication! We have a right to be part of public life. We’ve received this social mission from our baptism and confirmation.
And under the leadership of Christ, under the guidance of the Gospel, this right is our duty too. The shields on the ceiling of St Machar are all of men – what’s new? – except one: St Margaret, Queen of Scotland. We kept her feast last Monday. The Gospel was the same as today. If we want a role model for our social vocation… She was a refugee. She died in her mid-40s. But, from her love of Christ her King, she transformed Scotland, brought it out of its corner into a wider world, created a new dynasty, mobilised the Church, practised the works of mercy and formed a new and kinder culture, a better world.
Today then let us acknowledge Christ as our king. Let’s follow and fight for him. Let’s be like those shields and carry our world towards him.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 22 November 2020)