A scene of Christ in Majesty at the Last Judgment in a fresco in the Orthodox Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Sunday next [Sunday 26 November 2017] is the Sunday before Advent, which is now marked in the Church Calendar as the Kingship of Christ. The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) and the Church of Ireland Directory are: Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1: 15-23; and Matthew 25: 31-46.
These readings can be found here.
Sunday next is also being marked in the Dioceses of Limerick, Killaloe, Ardfert and Clonfert as Mission Sunday.
Whichever reading you decide to emphasise next Sunday, in your sermon, your intercessions, or your choice of hymns you may seek to make connections with each of the readings. You may decide, for example, to preach on the Gospel reading. But it may be one of the other readings that has caught the imagination of the people you need to reach.
Making connections helps to bring people on the journey with us. So, these notes include ideas for the readings for the Sunday before Advent, including the Gospel reading, as well as themed hymns, the Collect and Post-Communion Prayer, suggested hymns, and images that may be downloaded to use on parish bulletins and in service sheets.
In addition, there are extra resources to help plan around the theme of Mission Sunday, with an introduction to this year’s theme, the appropriate Collect and Post-Communion Prayer, suggested hymns
Already the Christmas decorations, including trees and lights, are up in the streets and the shops. The Shopping Centres would have us believe that Christmas has already arrived as shop owners and traders try to breathe a festive air into our lives.
Unlike some friends in England who have already got their first Christmas card, I have yet to receive my first Christmas card. But already An Post and the Royal Mail have posted warnings on their websites about the latest dates for posting for Christmas – and some of those dates for surface mail have already passed!
Plans for carol services and Christmas services are well advanced in most parishes. We all look forward to Christmas … it is holiday time, it is family time, it is a time for gifts and presents, for meeting and greeting, for family meals.
In every Church, we shall see more people coming through the doors than at any other time of the year. People love the carols, the tradition, the goodwill and the good feelings we get from even just thinking about Santa Claus and the elves, the tree and the lights, the crib and the Baby Jesus.
Even the most secular of revellers will admit, without much compulsion, that Christ is at the heart of Christmas, and that waiting for Christ, anticipating Christ, should be at the heart of the Advent season, which begins on Sunday 30 November.
Preparing for Christ’s coming
The Gospel reading on Sunday morning may seem to be a little out of sequence for some. We are preparing for Christmas, they may think, not for Easter. But we forget that so easily. On all the radio chat shows, people are already talking about this being the Christmas Season … before Advent has even started.
But Advent is the season of preparation for Christmas, and in the weeks beforehand we even prepare for Advent itself, with Lectionary readings telling us about the Coming of Christ.
We have made Christmas a far-too comfortable story. It was never meant to be, but we have made it comfortable with our Christmas card images of the sweet little baby Jesus, being visited by kings and surrounded by adoring, cute little animals. The reality, of course, is that Christmas was never meant to be a comfortable story like that.
Christmas is a story about poverty and about people who are homeless and rejected and who can find no place to stay.
It is a messy story about a child born surrounded by the filth of animals and the dirt of squalor.
It is a story of shepherds who are involved in dangerous work, staying up all night, out in the winter cold, watching out for wolves and sheep stealers.
It is a story of trickery, deceit and the corruption of political power that eventually leads to a cruel dictator stooping to murder, even the murder of innocent children, to secure his own grip on power.
But these sorts of images do not sell Christmas Cards or help to get the boss drunk under the mistletoe at the office party.
That is why in the weeks before Advent we have readings reminding us about what the coming of Christ into the world means, what the Kingdom of God is like, and how we should prepare for the coming of Christ and the coming of the Kingdom of God.
The Feast of Christ the King
Looking out from the Church of Christ the King onto Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
On Sunday [26 November 2017], we are marking the Kingship of Christ. There are few Anglican churches dedicated to Christ the King, but they include the Church of Christ the King in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, London, now used by Forward in Faith.
The Feast of Christ the King is a recent innovation in the Church calendar. It was first suggested at the end of 1925 when Pope Pius XI published an encyclical, Quas Primas, in which he castigated secularism in Europe and declared that the secular powers ought to recognise Christ as King and that the Church needed to recapture this teaching.
At the time, the entire idea of kingship was quickly losing credibility in western societies, not so much to democracy but to burgeoning fascism – Mussolini was in power in Italy since 1922, and a wave of fascism was about to sweep across central Europe.
The mere mention of kingship and monarchy today may evoke images of either the extravagance of Louis XVI in Versailles, or the anachronism of pretenders in Ruritanian headdress, sashes and medals claiming thrones and privilege in Eastern Europe.
But since 1925, the celebration of Christ the King or the Kingship of Christ has become part of the calendar of the wider Western Church. It took on an ecumenical dimension from 1983 on with its introduction to Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and others through the Revised Common Lectionary.
Wherever one goes through Lisbon, it is impossible not look across the River Tagus to the south and see the large statue of Christ the King, standing 75 metres high and erected in 1951 in Alamada above the southern banks of the river estuary.
This statue was inspired by the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro after the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon visited the more famous statue in Brazil, a former Portuguese colony. The project was inaugurated in 1959, when Portugal was still under the dictatorial rule of Salazar. Although the idea for the statue was first put forward in 1934, it was later said the giant cement statue was erected to give thanks that Portugal stayed out of World War II.
The end of the Church Year
Putting the Christmas trees up too early or hanging up the lights and frosting the windows ahead of Advent do not help to encourage a true Christmas spirit because they help us forget what Advent is all about.
Christ comes not just as a cute cuddly babe wrapped up in the manger and under the floodlights of a front window in a large department store in a shopping centre or city centre.
Marking the Sunday before Advent by crowning Christ as King helps us to focus on Advent from the following Sunday, and Advent is supposed to be a time and a season of preparing for the coming of Christ.
Kingship may not be a good role model in this part of the island or for people living in modern democratic societies where the heads of state are elected. Nor are the models of kingship in history or in contemporary society so good. It is worth considering three examples:
● We are familiar with a model of monarchy that paradoxically appears to be benign on the one hand and appears aloof and remote on the other hand, at the very apex of a class system defined by birth, title and inherited privilege.
● In other northern European countries, the model of monarchy is portrayed in the media by figureheads who are slightly daft do-gooders, riding around on bicycles in parks and by canals in ways that threaten to rob kingship of majesty, dignity and grace.
● Or, take deposed emperors from the 20th century: Halie Selassie, who died in 1975, sat back in luxury as his people starved to death; Emperor Bokassa, who died in 1996, was a tyrant accused of eating his people and having them butchered at whim.
Is it any wonder that some modern translations of the Psalms avoid the word king and talk about God as our governor?
In the lectionary readings for Year A, we have arrived at the last Sunday of readings in Saint Matthew’s Gospel about Christ’s days in Jerusalem immediately after Palm Sunday, although the actual account of Palm Sunday in Matthew 21: 1-22 was passed over in recent Sundays.
The Sunday before Advent now gives us time to pause and reflect on the why, over the past few months, we have been following Christ on his journey to Jerusalem. For it is there that he will be revealed in glory as the Son of Man and the King.
Dividing the sheep and the goats
The Gospel reading for the Feast of Christ the King tells the story of Christ coming in glory as the Son of Man (verse 31), as the king (verses 34 and 40), and as Lord (verses 37 and 44).
This parable is unique to Saint Matthew and has no parallel in the other Gospels. It brings to a close the whole of the discourse that began in Chapter 23.
This is a stark and challenging parable that forces us to ask what the coming of Christ, the second coming, will be like, and what Christ has to say to us about the way we live and the way we should be living in the world today.
The division of people into sheep and goats is well known. We all constantly love to divide people into two groups, the insiders and the outsiders, us and them, friends and foes, Manchester United supporters and ABU fans. We do it all the time, and sheep and goats are a good short-hand term for what we do.
Sheep and goats behave differently, but in Palestine they were fed together. In Palestine in Christ’s time, and even to this very day, throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, sheep and goats are often difficult to tell apart until they have been separated. And when it came to insiders and outsiders, the goats were definitely the insiders and the sheep the outsiders.
Goats are lively animals and very curious. They are happy living either in herds with other goats or by themselves, while sheep are more docile, easily led, and always stay in groups.
Sheep are greedier than goats – they are more likely to overeat than goats if they have access to more food than they need. Sheep are destructive grazers, while goats are browsers. This means sheep eat grass and other plants all the way down to the ground, while goats, on the other hand, despite popular misconceptions, simply nibble here and there, sampling a variety of bushes and leaves, chewing on a lot of things without actually eating them.
Goats are among the best climbers in the world: they almost never fall or slip, while sheep, on the other hand, are much less sure-footed and can easily fall and get stuck upside down.
We all know the parable of the lost sheep, but the parable of the lost goat just would not have had the same resonance, would it?
Sheep, on the one hand, can and will stay out all night, and are more resilient in bad weather, which is why the shepherds on that first Christmas were out on the hillsides looking after their flocks.
Goats, on the other hand, need warmth at night, so might even have been in the stable alongside the ox and the ass.
So: sheep are outsiders, goats are insiders. And what happens to the insiders and the outsiders in this parable would be a shocking end to the story for those who heard it for the first time in the Eastern Mediterranean.
This is a parable or story that is so stark and so challenging that it has inspired many of the great works of art.
Doom walls were often painted in English mediaeval churches, on the inside, Western or back wall, and it is a traditional image that is still popular in some Greek churches.
The earliest portrayal of the Last Judgment in art is a sixth century mosaic in Ravenna that shows a seated Christ flanked by two large Byzantine-style angels, all three seated in a way that prefigures Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Visitation of Abraham, or the Old Testament Trinity. To his right are three perky-looking sheep and balanced on his left are three more sober-looking goats.
Giovanni da Modena’s fresco of the Last Judgment in Bologna was inspired by Dante’s description of heaven and hell. Fra Angelico’s Last Judgment (ca 1425) is now in the Museum of San Marco in Florence. Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican (1534-1541), caused controversy because of its muscular, beardless Christ. And it is, perhaps, because of the poetry of Sante and the work of Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, and other great artists that we often see this story of the Last Judgment as a story about individual judgment and individual condemnation, rather than the judgment of the nations that we read about in this Gospel reading.
Christ the King … Graham Sutherland’s tapestry in Coventry Cathedral
The story opens with Christ coming again in glory, sitting on his throne of glory (verse 31), and the nations gathered before him (verse 32). They are not atomised, isolated individuals who are gathered before the throne of Christ: they are the nations – all the nations – that are assembled and asked these very searching questions.
These are questions that are directly related to the conditions that surrounded that first Christmas; questions that directly challenge us as to whether we have taken on board the values of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5: 3-11; Luke 6: 20-31); questions that ask whether we really accept the values Christ proclaimed at the very start of his ministry when he spoke in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4: 16-19).
We should be aware of the poetry that is part of this passage too. In verses 35-36, when the king calls in those on his right hand, he emphasises four times that when they ministered to the needy they ministered to him, and he does this by emphasising ‘I’ and ‘me’ rather than the verbs: the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ are emphasised, rather than the verb, in the words μοι and με. This poetic emphasis is missed if our translations are laid out in narrative rather than poetic form.
Similarly, in verses 37-39, in the questions put to king, the emphasis in on ministering to the king, on the ‘you,’ rather than the action: note the –μεν ending in the key words in the questions, another poetic structure in this passage.
The poetry is part of the drama, but how do we get this across to congregations when it is being read as the Sunday Gospel reading?
Meanwhile, the questions posed here are questions put to us not just as individuals and as Christians. They are also questions that are put to the nations, to all of the nations (πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, pánta ta ethne), each and every one of them. The word ἔθνος (ethnos) is used in the Bible to refer to a tribe, nation, people or group, and especially to foreign nations that were not Jewish.
And that is where Christ comes into the world, both at Christmas and at the second coming, with the Kingdom of God. At his birth, the old man in the Temple, Simeon, welcomes him as the light for revelation to the nations, φῶς εἰς ἀποκάλυψιν ἐθνῶν (phos eis apokálypsin ethnon), ‘a light for revelation to the nations’ (Luke 2: 32).
Which nations on earth, at this very moment, would like to be judged by how enlightened they are, to be compared with the Kingdom of God when it comes to how each nation treats and looks after those the enthroned Christ identifies with himself: those who are hungry; those who are thirsty; those who are strangers and find no welcome on our shores; those who are naked, bare of anything to call their own in this world, or whose naked bodies are exploited for profit and pleasure; those who are sick, and left waiting on hospital trolleys or on endless lists for health care because they cannot afford it; those who are imprisoned because they spoke out, or because they are from the wrong political or ethnic group, or because they did not have the right papers when they arrived at Dublin Airport as refugees seeking asylum?
When did we ever see Christ in pain on hospital a trolley or being mistreated at the passport control kiosks in the arrivals area at the airport?
But – as long it was done in the name of our nation, we did it to Christ himself.
In his Second Coming, Christ tells us the kind of conduct, of morality, towards others that is expected of us as Christians, but also tells us of the consequences of not caring for others.
A recent illustration
Whatever your view was of the protests in Paternoster Square in front of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, six years ago, they were a reminder to the Church of the centrality and importance of these questions.
Writing in the Church Times at the time (Friday 4 November 2011), Canon Giles Fraser – who resigned as Canon Chancellor of Saint Paul’s because of the cathedral’s response to these protests – said: ‘For too long the Church has been obsessed with its own internal workings and with silly arguments about sex. Now is the time for a new debate and a new emphasis. For if we are not fully involved with complex discussions about the relationship between financial justice and the way our financial institutions work, then we might as well give up on being a proper Church and admit that we are the spiritual arm of the heritage industry.’
As the Gospel reading we are looking at makes a direct connection with the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, it is interesting that Canon Fraser began that comment piece with a reflection on Saint Luke’s account of the Beatitudes.
Describing how the lectionary can be a cruel mistress, he recalled that the Evensong readings set for what was his last sermon in Saint Paul’s included: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God … But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation’ (Luke 6: 20, 25).
He argued that the ‘whole point of having a lectionary is that it obliges the preacher not to avoid the hard bits of the Bible. Were the readings up to me, I would have chosen something much safer. But that is the whole point of having a lectionary: it stops you retreating into safety. There are some things that just must stay on the agenda, however uncomfortable.’
This Gospel reading challenges us in a way that is uncomfortable, but with things that must stay on our agenda as Christians and on the agenda of the Church.
We are challenged in the epistle reading for this Sunday to ask ourselves:
What are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints (Ephesians 1: 18)?
What is the immeasurable greatness of his great power (verse 19)?
The genius of power is revealed in those who have it and can use it but only do so sparingly. Christ’s choice is not to gratify those who want a worldly king, whether he is benign or barmy. Instead, he displays supreme majesty in his priorities for those who are counted out when it comes to other kingdoms.
Christ rejects all the dysfunctional models of majesty and kingship. He is not coming again as a king who is haughty and aloof, daft and barmy, or despotic and tyrannical. Instead he shows a model of kingship that emphasises what majesty and graciousness should mean for us today – giving priority in the kingdom to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner (verses 35-36).
As we prepare for Christmas we should be preparing to enjoy time with our families and friends, time for a good winter’s holiday. But we should also remember the reason we have Christmas, the reason Christ came into the world, and the reason he is coming again.
We can look forward to seeing the Christ child in the crib and to singing about him in the carols. But let us also look forward to seeing him in glory. So let us be prepared to see him in the hungry, the thirsty, the unwelcome stranger, those who are naked and vulnerable, those who have no provisions for health care, those who are prisoners, those who have no visitors and those who are lonely and marginalised.
whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven
that he might rule over all things as Lord and King:
Keep the Church in the unity of the Spirit
and in the bond of peace,
and bring the whole created order to worship at his feet,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Stir up, O Lord,
the wills of your faithful people;
that plenteously bearing the fruit of good works
they may by you be plenteously rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
These are among the hymns suggested in Sing to the Word> (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling:
Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24:
644: Faithful Shepherd, feed me
670: Jerusalem the golden
442: Praise the Lord, rise up rejoicing
598: Take this moment, sign and space
20: The King of love my shepherd is
683: All people that on earth do dwell
334: I will enter his gates with thanksgiving in my heart
701 Jubilate, eve’ybody
Ephesians 1: 15-23:
250: All hail the power of Jesus’ name
643: Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart
326: Blessèd city, heavenly Salem
(Christ is made the sure foundation, omit verse 1.
296: Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire
693: Glory in the highest to the God of heaven
324: God, whose almighty word
266: Hail the day that sees him rise
267: Hail the risen Lord, ascending
300: Holy Spirit, truth divine
99: Jesus, the name high over all
588: Light of the minds that know him
275: Look, ye saints, the sight is glorious
281: Rejoice, the Lord is King!
491: We have a gospel to proclaim
476: Ye watchers and ye holy ones
Matthew 25: 31-46
517: Brother, sister, let me serve you
86: Christ is the King! O friends, rejoice
39: For the fruits of his creation
89: God is love – his the care
520: God is love, and where true love is, God himself is there
91: He is Lord, he is Lord
523: Help us to help each other, Lord
495: Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love
427: Let all mortal flesh keep silence
281: Rejoice, the Lord is King!
527: Son of God, eternal Saviour
314: There’s a spirit in the air
114: Thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown
499: When I needed a neighbour, were you there
531: Where love and loving kindness dwell
In the United Dioceses of Limerick, Killaloe, Ardfert and Clonfert, the Diocesan Council for Mission has sent resources to all parishes in the hope that Sunday 26 November 2017 is also marked in parishes as Mission Sunday. These resources include a poster, an A4 leaflet outlining the Mission Sunday Project 2017, and envelopes for a designated collection.
This project involves working with the Diocese of Swaziland in southern Africa, continuing links with Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya who visited this diocese in 2013. With the help of parishes in the diocese, the council hopes to fund water harvesting and storage such as a 5,000-litre water tank supplied to the Learning Tree Pre-School in the Fonteyn Community in Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland. It harvests whatever rain falls on the roof of the school to give 41 learners and five staff members access to clean water for drinking and sanitation.
In due course, the council will be asking schools and/or youth clubs in the diocese for their support by adopting a particular school in need of water storage facilities in Swaziland, and to encourage individual contact with headteachers and pupils.
who called your Church to witness
that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself:
Help us to proclaim the good news of your love,
that all who hear it may be drawn to you;
through him who was lifted up on the cross,
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Eternal Giver of love and power,
your Son Jesus Christ has sent us into all the world
to preach the gospel of his kingdom.
Confirm us in this mission,
and help us to live the good news we proclaim;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
A Prayer for Mission in the Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty God, who by thy Son Jesus Christ didst give commandment to the apostles, that they should go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature; Grant to us, whom thou hast called into thy Church, a ready will to obey thy Word, and fill us with a hearty desire to make thy way known upon earth, thy saving health among all nations. Look with compassion on all that have not known thee, and upon the multitudes that are scattered abroad as sheep having no shepherd. O heavenly Father, Lord of the harvest, have respect, we beseech thee, to our prayers, and send forth labourers into thine harvest. Fit and prepare them by thy grace for the work of their ministry; give them the spirit of power, and of love, and of a sound mind; strengthen them to endure hardness; and grant that thy Holy Spirit may prosper their work, and that by their life and doctrine they may set forth thy glory, and set forward the salvation of all people; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the Church Hymnal, Section 6 is suitable for theme of the Church’s Witness and Mission. In particular, there are hymns related to Proclaiming the Faith (478-493) and Social Justice (494-500). Some of thee hymns in this section are among those recommended for the First Sunday before Advent:
491: We have a gospel to proclaim
495: Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love
499: When I needed a neighbour, were you there
Links to USP:
This project is in co-operation with the Anglican mission agency, USPG, United Society Partners in the Gospel, the oldest Anglican mission agency. USPG can be found here.