Yr. C. Last Sunday before Advent. Christ the King. (Jeremiah 23 1-6; Luke 23, 33-43)
At one time, in most government buildings, you would find a portrait of the monarch. Usually, they were formal official portraits; but tastes change – at one time Annigoni’s photograph of Queen Elizabeth was a favourite one; now, I suspect, informal portraits are more acceptable, like the ones that were published after the baptism of Prince George recently. It is interesting to look at the picture of the Queen with 3 generations of her descendants, three “kings to be”. You have the wise older man, the young handsome warrior and the tiny vulnerable baby. As we celebrate the reign of our ‘king’ which of those is most like him?
In most churches, unless they have very deep-rooted objections to art, you will find some representation of our King, Jesus Christ. But, as with portraits of secular sovereigns, tastes change over time.
In the earliest Christian art, the sort found in the catacombs in Rome, and mosaics in Syria and the Byzantine empire, Christ was represented as a fair, curly-haired, handsome youth, like the images of the great pagan gods, Jupiter and Apollo. Sometimes Christ was represented teaching or performing a miracle; the crucifixion was shown very rarely, perhaps because it was still in use as a form of execution. A favourite way of portraying Christ, however was as the good shepherd. There is a statue like this that was found in Rome, of Christ bearing a lamb across his shoulder; and in a mosaic in a church in Ravenna, Christ the good shepherd sits on a rock, his empty cross serving for a shepherd’s crook, and a lamb nuzzling his hand.
However, once Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, the representations of Christ began to change. Initially, the young, clean-shaven Christ persisted, but he was now more often dressed in imperial purple or cloth of gold, and was surrounded by a heavenly court of martyrs or angels. Then he became even more like the Emperor, and gradually came to be depicted dressed in white, a halo round his head, and was transformed into the stern, dark-haired, bearded judge so familiar to us from numerous mosaics and icons of Orthodox Churches.
In the Middle Ages in the West, fashions changed again, and Christ was less often shown teaching or healing, or as the triumphant Emperor Messiah. Instead the dominant images came from the beginning and ending of his earthly life; in Roman Catholic churches, the images of Christ you will find most frequently are of the Baby Jesus – or on a crucifix.
In our readings today, we have two pictures of the Messiah King; the Old Testament reading, from Jeremiah, is based on the favourite Old Testament image of the king as the shepherd of God’s people – an image based on fond memories of King David and reflected in the 23rd Psalm. It is an image that was taken up by Jesus, especially in his parables, and is emphasised particularly in John’s Gospel.
The passage first condemns the ‘evil shepherds’ who had charge of God’s people before the exile in Babylon, shepherds who did not attend properly to the needs of the flock and allowed them to be scattered and driven from their pasture. God threatens them with punishment.
In contrast, God promises that he himself will one day become the shepherd of his people; that he will gather them into their own land and will ensure their safety, so that they fear no more. Then the shepherd imagery is abandoned all-together, and through the prophet God promises to raise up a righteous branch of the house of David, a king who will save and reunite both Judah and Israel, and who will be known as ‘The Lord is our righteousness’.
Christians, of course, see this as a picture of the Kingship of Christ – hence the early portrayals of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. But although this picture is of a King who is taken from among his people, but remains one of them – a bit like the Scandinavian monarchs who are found cycling around their capitals without security guards or ceremony – there is already the hint that this is a monarch in disguise, that there is something greater for those who have the eyes to see.
Some commentators on the monarchy regret the fact that nowadays they are photographed looking like ordinary people, and newspapers publish frequent and sometimes scandalous stories about them. They think that an essential attribute of monarchy is to be glamorous and distant, and so to embody the glory and mystery of the Kingdom.
That is the sort of picture of the King that we get in some of the later books in the New Testament. This King is not a man of the people at all, but a heavenly being, outside time and space.
He existed before all things; indeed he was the agent through which everything both visible and invisible was created; and he represents not just the invisible God, but also the force that holds the whole universe together. As a portrait of the monarch, this is one in full regalia and richly decked with jewels. No-one could mistake this person for an ordinary human being. This is the Christ in majesty who is seen so often in Eastern Churches
Our passage from Luke gives us a portrait of a monarch that you would never see displayed in any official building – a monarch who has been captured, tortured and is dying. This is a monarch who is unrecognisable as such, whose has no apparent power, whose realm has been taken from him and who is being treated as a criminal – like Richard III at the end of the Battle of Bosworth.
The political, ecclesiastical and military authorities of the time don’t recognise him as a King – the sign over the cross is meant to be ironical. Yet there is one person who recognises the monarch in disguise, and has faith that his kingdom will be restored to him. In his request, the penitent thief acknowledges the true king, anticipates the judgement of the last days, and affirms the certainty of the coming of the Kingdom.
And this is the portrait of the king that gives us Christians the symbol of our Kingdom – the cross, and is the most used portrait of our King – one that like so much in Christianity, turns upside down the values of the world.
Although the portraits of the king we have heard about in the readings for today are very different, there is a common thread running through them. That is, the use to which the King puts his power. In both readings – Jeremiah and Luke, the royal power is used not for the glory of the monarchy, but to unite, to restore and to reconcile – to restore and reunite the nations, to reconcile fallen humanity to God, to bring forgiveness of sins.
As we approach Advent, and prepare ourselves to welcome our King into our world once again, it would be good to meditate on these portraits of our King – the lowly shepherd, the cosmic Saviour and the crucified Jesus; and as we do so, to ponder whether our faith adequately encompasses all three portraits, and what our allegiance to such a monarch demands of us in return.