On the last Sunday after Pentecost, the final Sunday of the church year, Episcopalians observe Christ the King Sunday. It’s a relative newcomer to our church calendar, added only in the 1990s when the Episcopal Church began using the Revised Common Lectionary, though it has been part of the Roman Catholic calendar since 1925.
In the church year that this final feast concludes, we have traced the major events in Christ’s life: his birth at Christmas, his baptism at Epiphany, his temptation in the wilderness in Lent, his death and resurrection throughout Holy Week and Easter, his ascension to heaven, and his sending of the Holy Spirit upon the church at Pentecost. Worshiping Christ as our King on this final Sunday of the year is fitting, for it reminds us that all the preceding Sundays and holy days reveal Christ for who he truly is: the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
A common image on church bulletins for this feast day is one that combines a cross and a crown. This image is familiar enough that it’s easy to miss the unexpected juxtaposition of two disparate symbols.
The crown is the symbol we would expect to see associated with king, representing his powerful rule and authority. In the epistle reading from Ephesians chosen for this feast, Paul gives the definitive statement about just how superior and complete Christ’s rule is:
[God has] seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
We would be hard-pressed to give a stronger statement about Christ’s authority as king than the one Paul has given the Ephesians. Christ is ruler not only over the Church; he is ruler over every single authority on earth; and he rules not only over current authorities, but over any authority that will come in the future as well. He rules over all things for all time.
But then we come to the second symbol, perhaps the most unlikely symbol for a king we can imagine. The crown is paired with a cross, a symbol not of power and authority, but of a shameful death. The cross sets Jesus apart from all other rules and authorities, for earthly kings boast in their power and strength, not in their humiliation and suffering. It is the great paradox of Christ’s kingship that he reveals his true nature on the cross. That irony was present even at Christ’s crucifixion, written at Pilate’s orders on the sign over Jesus’ head, mocking him as “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Pilate intended a cruel irony in his inscription, but we see a different irony, that in fact Pilate unintentionally wrote the truth: the man hanging on that cross was in fact the king, not only of Israel but of the entire world.
The early Fathers saw in the Latin translation of Psalm 96:10, Regnavit lingo deus (“God reigned from a tree”), a foreshadowing of this important and ironic truth, that Christ’s revelation as king would come when he hung upon the cross. The sixth-century bishop and hymn writer Venantius Fortunatus referenced this verse in his Passion Hymn, which is included in the Hymnal 1942 as “The royal banners forward go”:
Fulfilled is all that David told
in true prophetic song of old
How God the nations’ King should be
for God is reigning from the tree
Christ’s rule is made known to us not from a royal throne, as with any other king, but from the cross.
A few years the Frist Art Museum here in Nashville hosted a fascinating exhibit of Dominican and Franciscan art between the 13th and 16th centuries. The exhibit included one very unusual icon of Christ on the cross called “Christ Mounting the Cross.” Rather than showing soldiers nailing Christ to the cross by Roman soldiers, or Christ hanging upon the cross in the midst of his suffering, in this painting a ladder leans up against the cross, and Christ is climbing that ladder to assume his place upon the cross.
In this non-literal depiction of Christ’s crucifixion, the artist Pacino di Bonaguida highlights an important truth about Jesus’ death on the cross: he went to the cross willingly. Jesus didn’t end up on the cross because he didn’t play his political cards correctly or because he made the wrong people mad; and he didn’t stay on the cross because he had no other choice. As the king of all, Jesus could have come down from the cross, as the bystanders dared him to do (Matt 27:42); but instead he willingly submitted to death on the cross as part of God’s plan to redeem us. Christ is so truly the king of all, that he is free to take on the role of the suffering servant; his kingship over all things for all time so certain that he could humble himself, even to the point of death on a cross (Phil 2:8).
He is the king not only in moments when he is exalted and hailed as the true Lord of creation. Christ is the king also in his lowly suffering and death, which he underwent for our sake, revealing that he is not only a king with power and authority, but the King of Love, the greatest love of all. Thanks be to God.