On Sunday we came to the last Sunday of the church’s year. It goes out with a bang, celebrating Christ as King. The evening brought a quieter more reflective time when we could think about just what sort of king Jesus is.
Using some of the liturgy from Liturgies for High Days by Dorothy McRae-McMahon, we thought about a different kind of royalty, one bereft of privilege and wealth, whose power lies in truth, faithfulness and grace for all people. We also remembered Jesus’ faithfulness to his calling, entering into the pain of our lives and yet able to leap free of all its bondages.
Our reading for the evening was one of those ones that lends itself naturally into a meditative retelling. Here is my version of Luke 23:32-43:
The journey through the streets had been tortuous, the crowd pressing in on either side. The sounds of jeering and weeping had mingled together to form a cacophony that heralded their progress. Now they had left the city gate and slowly climbed the skull-shaped hill called Golgotha. Three condemned men, each bearing the burden of a death sentence, brought out to this seemingly god-forsaken place to be nailed to a cross and hoisted high so that all might see that justice had been done.
Few people had made the effort to ascend the incline; there was a perfectly good view from the shaded city walls, and they were even more grateful for that distance as the midday sun rose to its zenith, its heat intensifying the stench of decay that hung in the sultry air over the place.
Jesus’ thoughts, however, were not for his own physical discomfort but that God might show mercy to those who had condemned him, and he cried aloud, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not realise what they are doing’. Some of those who heard these words felt a pang of guilt sweep over them and turned away, ashamed.
Are there times when we too turn away in shame?…
But beneath the crosses the guards, who had seen it all before, bickered over who should have his redundant clothing before drawing straws; the winner triumphant that he had obtained such a seamless tunic so cheaply. Whilst the representatives of the Jewish leaders, perhaps sensing the remorseful sentiments of the woman who had gathered there, tried to add justification of their part in the proceedings by scoffing at Jesus, pointing out that this man who claimed to be the chosen Messiah of God seemed incapable of saving himself despite his claim to have saved others. Hearing this, the soldiers joined in, offering a toast to the ‘King of the Jews’ with a sponge soaked in sour wine. Even so, they could see no glorious death of a king in battle, no pomp and ceremony, and soon grew tired of mocking this inaptly titled monarch.
When might our desire for ritual and symbols blind us from the simple truth?…
One of the criminals, hearing these things, turned and spoke in derisory tones to the man who hung beside him in silent sufferance, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ His thoughts were, that if this was the hope of Israel then surely he could save not only himself from this punishment but them also, however unlikely that was… and it was a slim hope that he would not die today.
However, the other rebuked him harshly; pointing out that self-preservation was not necessarily the main reason to call on God in these circumstances, particularly when they were both there for being condemned justly for their actions. It was clear to him that Jesus was a victim of a miscarriage of justice; what’s more he had recognised the holiness of this innocent man. Perhaps, he told the other, they should fear God’s ultimate punishment more.
Where does it leave us if we only call on God in times of crisis?
Turning to Jesus, an honest and heartfelt plea came to his lips, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ As the figure at his side turned to look at him with a full gaze, he saw not a broken and bloodied man but a saviour in all his resplendent majesty who spoke immeasurable words of reassurance, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
Back to the service then, as we sang ‘Jesus remember me, when you come into your kingdom’ as a prayerful chant and thought about our ‘king’ who calls us to have a more generous love for the world; to bravely dream of the future where we might be a new hope for better things to come and to remain steadfast in our faith in the possibility of Christ’s reign of love.
Hail to Christ, the King,
ruler who lays down the power to destroy,
leader who treads through the costly journey
and into the shadow places of life,
that we might find the rising of life before us:
Hail to Christ, the King,
born to be first witness to God’s truth,
whose might lies in mercy,
whose throne is placed in the midst of humble people.
Hail to Christ, the King
Some material has been reproduced from Liturgies for High Days, Dorothy McRae-McMahon ©SPCK. The meditation is my own.
The purple stole used in the service as a focal point was created by Deborah Ireland. See here for more information about her work