It feels a bit strange, doesn’t it, to suddenly have a piece of the Passion story landed on our plate in the middle of November. The temperature is dropping, there’s talk of snow coming in the next few days, Christmas lights and decorations are appearing on houses and in the stores, and next Sunday we begin that great season of Advent. So what is the lectionary doing, bumping us past all of that and directing us straight to Good Friday?
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Well, it is because this is the last Sunday before Advent begins—this is the last Sunday in the passing church year before a new one begins—and it is marked in the calendar as “The Reign of Christ” or the feast of “Christ the King.” It isn’t a particularly old practice; it was introduced in the Roman Catholic church in 1925, and then gradually embraced by most of the other traditions and denominations that follow the liturgical year. In the old Book of Common Prayer it was called rather blandly “the Sunday next before Advent”… which strikes one as a somewhat understated way to mark the end of the old year. But the feast of Christ the King? That ends the year with a bang.
Yet particularly in the year when we’ve been working our way through the Gospel according to Luke, it is an upside down bang, isn’t it? More like the startling backfire of an engine, and in this case the engine is the powerful machine of the Roman Empire. Ah, this Galilean teacher is apparently stirring up trouble, the leaders of his own people are suggesting he’s claimed for himself the throne of King David. He’s no threat, really, but a bit of a public display of what happens to rebels will serve to quash any further trouble. We’ll give him the usual treatment meted out to political upstarts. We’ll crucify him. Oh, and be sure to hang a sign on his cross that reads “This is the King of the Jews.” This is what happens to anyone who makes such foolish claims.
Yet no sooner had that mocking sign been hung, and the great reversal is underway. Jesus speaks two words of reconciliation and forgiveness from the very depths of his agony. Two “criminals” are crucified along with him the gospels tell us, but in all likelihood their crimes were related to sedition and rebellion. Crucifixion was the torturous death generally saved for political criminals, so maybe the words of that one who “kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’” were spoken out of the bitterness of failure and lost dreams. We all thought we could beat this Roman machine… we can’t… you can’t.
The other man, though, somehow hadn’t entirely had his soul broken. “[W]e have been condemned justly,” he says, “for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” We were caught, guilty. Not him. And then those brave words: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Remember me after this horror is over. Remember me. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replies, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”
But even before that extraordinary exchange, another word of forgiveness is spoken. “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’” The soldiers are in the process of torturing him to death, the Jewish leaders who had set the whole thing in motion are watching—mocking—a crowd of people has gathered to witness the whole gruesome spectacle… “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
We often have an inclination to tie forgiveness to repentance. If somebody wrongs us, we wait for the heartfelt apology, the acknowledgment of responsibility, some expression of accountability, and only then do we weigh out the challenge of offering forgiveness. I understand that. I think that is a very human and reasonable way to approach things, and in some sense probably right and just. The person who has offended or hurt can learn and grow and mature from having to face down what they’ve done, while the person who has been hurt feels him or herself saved from being simply a doormat, a victim. I get that.
But here in this story, in the kind of kingship that Jesus embodies, it just doesn’t work that way. Forgive them for this… and they don’t even know what they’re doing. Forgive them in their blind violence and their cruelty. Forgive them in their pretensions of control, in their certainty that they know how the world really works. They don’t have a clue.
What Luke gives us in narrative form, Paul sings to us in poetry. This passage we read from the Epistle to the Colossians—“Christ is the image of the unseen God, the firstborn of all creation”—is an astonishing proclamation of the shape of the kingship of Christ. Though most of our bibles show this passage as being part of Paul’s prose—just a part of his letter—it seems quite likely that Paul was actually citing a canticle or hymn well known to those Christians in Colossae. It stands out from the rest of the letter, and rather “sings” with its own power. Listen to it again:
Christ is the image of the unseen God, the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
things visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—
all things have been created through him and for him.
So who is king? Whose reign is this, if in him even the thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers “have been created through him and for him”?
He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church;
he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come to have first place in everything.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven,
by making peace through the blood of his cross.
All things reconciled. Not by force, political coercion, or displays of power and might, but instead “by making peace through the blood of his cross.” The extraordinary kingship of this Jesus is seen at that moment on the cross, even though most there couldn’t begin to actually see it. And it is signified in his words of forgiveness and reconciliation, uttered from the very jaws of his own death.
For her song “The Christ Hymn” on her Behold, I Make all Things New CD, Alana Levandoski invited four poets to offer their own words on this passage from Colossians. One of those was the Australian poet Joel McKerrow, and I want to read you his words.
And this is he
Who takes all that He is
And bestows it freely
Takes infinite power and bows the knee
Have you ever seen God on the ground?
Palms pressed to the floor
Sweat dripping on the dirt
The cut and stretch of being human
A sacred shelter of presence
Fullness of He, creator of kingdoms and galaxies, principalities
And every moment crafted through time, the divine,
Placed wholly in human flesh,
The infinite squashed down into finite,
Like fitting ten thousand angels on the top of a pin
Like the entire ocean is poured into a pool
Like the wine is running over
Like it’s bursting at the seams
He is bursting at the seams.
That, you see, is how Christ reigns.