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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Christ the King 11/24/2013

Christ the King Sunday seems like it’s a day in search of a ritual.  What I mean by that is it seems like we should do something, something that we would do every year to mark the end of the church year, like things we do at other times.  On Maundy Thursday the altar is always stripped at the end of the service; Easter Vigil always starts with the fire outside; we always sing A Mighty Fortress on Reformation Sunday, we always sing O Come All Ye Faithful at the beginning of the Christmas Eve service and Silent Night by candlelight at the end; We Are Surrounded has become our every year All Saints anthem.  They’re all things that if we didn’t do them, it would seem like something was missing on those days.  

On Christ the King Sunday though, the year just sort of fizzles out; if I didn’t tell you it was the last Sunday of the church year you might not even notice.  Endings are important though and with some we do better.  The end of the calendar year, New Year’s Eve, is a pretty big deal.  Even if you’re not into staying up to party into the wee hours anymore there’s plenty of reflection on the events of the past year; we do pay attention to it.  School years end and there are parties and celebrations and graduation ceremonies that mark an ending.  People retire from their place of employment and one hopes that there is some kind of acknowledgment of the transition. 

Church years though, just kind of end.  We do better with the beginning of a church year; for that there is a ritual, the lighting of the first candle on the Advent wreath and then the subsequent candles as we get closer to Christmas and with that ritual there’s a focus that serves as a reminder that the cycle is starting over.  Today though, there’s nothing like that, nothing that we do to remind us of the end of the cycle.

In the Lutheran Church in Sweden this last Sunday of the church year was and I think still is known as the Sunday of Doom; that’s catchy isn’t it?  I’m not sure that’s how it’s listed on official liturgical calendars but that’s what they call it.  It’s about the end times; the focus used to be on judgment, now it has shifted more to the return of Christ, more like what we’ve had the last couple of weeks prior to today and actually what we’ll get again next week.  A title like Sunday of Doom does kind of get your attention though, however I can’t say if it represents a more effective way to end the church year than Christ the King Sunday does. 

You perhaps remember that Christ the King Sunday is a relatively recent addition to the liturgical calendar.  Pope Pius XI instituted it back in 1925 in an attempt to counter what he saw as increasing nationalism and secularism.  It was intended to be a reminder of where our primary allegiance should lie.  The original date for Christ the King was the last Sunday of October; that’s the day when we Lutherans have always celebrated Reformation Sunday and one wonders if choosing that day was intentional on the part of Pope Pius.  In 1970 though Christ the King was moved to the last Sunday of the church year and that’s when many others besides Catholics made it part of the calendar.  When the LBW, which included a new lectionary, came out in the early 70’s Christ the King Sunday became official in the Lutheran Church.

These days Christ the King is alternatively known as Reign of Christ Sunday at least in part because it was thought that the title of “king” applied to Jesus could be misleading.  According to the gospel accounts it’s a title that he himself didn’t embrace; mostly it was used by others about him in most cases as a way to mock him, to make fun of him, today’s gospel being an example.  Going back to the Old Testament, the people of Israel wanted a king because everyone else had one, but the Lord was hesitant because he knew how kingly power could be abused and as things played out Israel did have more bad kings than good ones.  So in the Bible, the term king has something of a checkered past plus the fact that we don’t have that much experience with kings these days.  Some people got excited when the royal baby was born in England a few months ago, a baby in line to be the future king, but as fascinated as some are by British royalty what they do is primarily ceremonial these days.

None of this however, helps us to get a better handle on Christ the King Sunday as the last Sunday of the church year.  While I’m dispensing useless information though, another thing I came across was the fact that “King” has become quite popular as a first name for boys which is thought to be further evidence that the title of king doesn’t mean much to us.  In 2012, 1423 baby boys in the United States were named King making it the 256th most popular name, way ahead of Warren, for example, coming in at 473.

I’m still not sure what ritual we might come up with for this day, maybe that’s something for the Worship and Music committee to think about, but a starting point for such a discussion might be to go back to Pope Pius XI’s intent when he made this day part of the calendar.  As I said, he was concerned about the increasing influence of nationalism and secularism; what he was trying for was what might be called course correction, getting the church and the world back on track.  He wanted people to remember that with all the worldly things and identities that we find appealing, Christ is our King—allegiance to him comes first before all other allegiances—it’s really a First Commandment thing; Thou shalt have no other gods. 

Jesus Christ reveals the truth to us, truth about ourselves, truth about God, truth that properly orients us in the world and enables us to be the people God would have us be.  It’s the upside down truth of the gospel that’s gets reemphasized on Christ the King Sunday, truth that’s not what we might expect, truth that might not be what we want.  Especially this year; we don’t get Christ as a king dressed in royal robes flexing his power muscles.  Instead we get him on the cross, giving himself for us, extending forgiveness even to his enemies as he does so.   That’s the model when we call Christ our King and it doesn’t fit very well with the ways of the world. 

We need a ritual to remind us of that as the church year ends, something to help us with course correction as a new church year begins because we do stray, we do get off course.  Even having gone through another year of hearing the stories proclaimed and preached, another year of hearing about who Jesus is and what he teaches, we continue to convince ourselves that a course other than the one Jesus modeled for us is OK.

Nationalism and secularism still represent challenges to Christ as King, but for us, materialism and consumerism are perhaps even bigger challenges and in late November with Thanksgiving later this week and Christmas a month away we’re at a “here we go again” point.  If you go to the stores or watch the ads on TV, Christmas as consumer-mass has been going on for weeks already but now we’re about to really dive into it.  It’s kind of ironic that we get a Good Friday gospel text today with Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, coming up this week.  It’s probably safe to say that more people observe Black Friday than Good Friday these days which is kind of a sad commentary and another reason we need the course correction of Christ the King Sunday.

It’s a day that needs a ritual though, so let me know if you have any ideas.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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