Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
Today in the calendar of the church we celebrate the solemn feast known as Christ the King. Normally positioned on the last Sunday after Pentecost before the start of the season of Advent, we pray these words: Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule. This prayer seems appropriate seeing that our popular culture reflects a renewed interest in all things ‘royal.’ Not only have we watched with fascination two royal weddings in recent years (the most recent of which our own presiding bishop Michael Curry gained notoriety as a preacher on the world stage), but shows like ‘Downton Abbey,’ ‘The Crown,’ and the newly released Netflix production ‘The King,’ based loosely on William Shakespeare’s Henriad, have captured our imaginations as to what aristocracy and royalty look like. If you have not seen “The King,” I will not spoil it for you, but I dare say it will not disappoint, containing drama, adventure, action (including a portrayal of the famous Battle of Agincourt), as well as an eyebrow-raising twist at the very end that will leave you wondering what might happen next in the life of this young king who endeavors to save the realm from the chaos he inherited from his recently deceased, war-hungry father Henry the Fourth.
Images of royalty reflect, I think, the high ideal of order, unity, and goodness that we all desire and hope for in our lives, especially amidst so much that is chaotic, scattered, and untrue in our world. This monastery church certainly draws on the human imagination of what the heavenly realm might look like. The Revelation to John from the canon of scripture contains probably the most vivid descriptions of heaven and where we connect to what is referenced in our Collect: They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.’ [i] The Rose Window at the back of the church, what stained glass artisan Dr. Charles Connick called “a playground for the afternoon sun,” represents a vision of God’s heavenly realm. The central medallion shows the Blessed Virgin Mary being crowned as the Queen of Heaven by her son, Christ the King;[ii] and I will come back to that.
The Restoration of the Religious Life in the Anglican Communion:
The Profession of Marian Rebecca Hughes
“I was enrolled one of Christ’s Virgins, espoused to him and made his handmaid and may he of his infinite mercy grant that I may ever strive to please him and to keep from the world though still in it.”[i]
A twenty-four year old Englishwoman named Marian Rebecca Hughes wrote these words in her diary in the year 1841. On Trinity Sunday of that year, she stepped boldly but quietly into uncharted territory for a nineteenth-century Anglican: she vowed to remain unmarried in devotion to Christ and in service to the church. From John Henry Newman and Edward Bouverie Pusey, pioneering priests and theologians of what we now call the Oxford Movement, she had learned that such consecrated women had played a vital role in the early church. From her growing knowledge of the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy in Ireland and of the social work of Lutheran deaconesses, she drew inspiration to live a life of service. Her vows were received by Pusey in a private home, but this private ceremony also included a humble, public act. Marian went immediately to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford, where she knelt at the altar rail beside Lucy, Dr. Pusey’s daughter. Lucy, aged 12, was that day receiving her first communion. Both Newman and the young Ms. Pusey were fully aware of Marian’s consecration; they were, in a sense, co-conspirators. Upon receiving communion and completing the final prayers of consecration, Marian had become the first person to take up the vocation of vowed religious life in the Church of England since the dissolution of the monasteries at the Reformation. It is difficult from our historical distance to fully appreciate how counter-cultural this decision was. While she was amply resourced by highly sympathetic male clergy, Marian was a young Victorian woman in an age that still had no cultural reference points for the life she aspired to live. For the next nine years, she gathered information about Roman Catholic women’s religious life in France and cared for her aging parents. It was not until 1850 that she would take up life in a community of Anglican sisters, the newly founded Society of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. By the time Mother Marian died in 1912, in the ninety-fifth year of her age and the seventy-first year of her religious profession, she had witnessed the firm foundation of Anglican religious life for women and men – including the founding of our Society in 1866.
Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8
I suspect like most good Episcopalians, apocalyptic literature and signs of the end of the world make me a little anxious. To be honest, the other morning when I began exploring the texts for today’s sermon, I just wanted to crawl back into bed. Ever since I was a kid growing up in the Baptist church, I have always been fearful of what “The Rapture” would be like and if I would be one of the unlucky ones to be left behind on the earth as it met its doom.[i] Rather, I prefer a good uplifting message. As a good Anglo-Catholic, I love the passages in Revelation chapter five about the glorious worship in heaven by the elders and angels that number myriads and myriads singing: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing! Amen!’[ii] But all the stuff about wars, beasts, whores, plagues, famine, death, dragons, and creatures that I imagine resemble the Nazgul from Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, you can keep that. For me it is what nightmares are made of. So what are we to make of our lections this morning?
In our gospel lesson from Mark, in a section from the thirteenth chapter known as “the little apocalypse,” we observe a disciple of Jesus marveling at the magnificence of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Considering the architectural feats that surround us in our modern age, this disciples’ astonishment might be lost on us. But it is important to note that the second Temple, completed by Herod the Great, was constructed on a scale comparable with the great Pyramids of Egypt. Part of Herod’s legacy was the massive building projects he undertook during his reign: the port at Caesarea Maritima, the fortress at Masada, the Herodium, and the second Temple.[iii] How the large stones that made up the supporting walls of the Temple were placed atop each other without the help of machinery we would use today, is an architectural wonder! “Look teacher,”the disciple says, “what large stones and what large buildings!” When Jesus responds: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down,” his disciples are stupefied. How could that be possible? Certainly, nothing could bring down this monstrosity. Perhaps we can relate to this when we remember that fateful September day in 2001, when we witnessed the twin towers of the World Trade Center topple to the ground. Who could have predicted that, and who would have ever believed that prediction?
There is a kind of gentleness that is intuitive to us, or is called forth naturally from us, in certain situations. You may recall the first time you held a baby: the way your body responded to one tinier and less durable than yours with a gentle, protecting strength. Or the first time you threaded a kneedle, or placed something under a microscope, or gave someone a kiss. I remember my first childhood pet, a chameleon with skin that changed colors and eyes that swiveled in all directions. Though I gave him the rather ungentle name Thunder, I knew instinctively how gentle I needed to be as his tiny toes and delicate tail gripped my outstretched fingers. Although my heart raced, my breath became slower, my attention focused, and my senses became attuned,for the first time, to the fragile life of another.
Throughout Lent and Easter tide this year, I’ve been praying with literature devoted to the Five Wounds of Christ. The meditative remembrance of Christ’s Passion was a profoundly meaningful practice in the spiritual lives of Medieval Christians, especially in England, and by the fourteenth century the visions and writings of saints steeped in such meditation concentrated with special intensity on the Five Wounds inflicted upon Christ’s Body: the nail holes in his right and left wrists, both of his feet, and the spear-wound in his side. These holy men and women saw the wounds of Jesus not as repugnant scars but as precious insignia testifying to the depths of God’s Love,as floodgates of Christ’s healing lifeblood, and as portals into the mysteries of Heaven. The seeds of such imagery are found in the Resurrection appearances in the gospels of Luke and John. When Jesus appears in the upper room, the disciple’s natural response is shock and fear, confusion and disbelief. Amid this rush of complex emotions, these distinctive marks clarify their vision and melt their hearts as they recognize the impossible: this is their Teacher, Friend, and Lord, crucified-and-risen.
The crowds only grow, desperate to hear Jesus and to experience his help and healing. The crowds only grow. And what does Jesus do? It’s quite revealing. He withdraws. It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last that he withdraws. Jesus would minister mightily, and then he would withdraw to deserted places – note the plural: deserted places – and he would pray. The cry is not the call. The cry for help is not one-in-the-same with our call to respond. It certainly was not for Jesus. There was always more to do. Jesus here is showing his truly-human side, without infinite resources, and he practices a kind of “life rhythm” clearly knowing when he must withdraw to pray.