Last Sunday after Pentecost Morning Prayer Nov. 22, 2020 by Suzanne G. Bowles, Ph.D.
Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday of the Christian year. Next week, the 1st Sunday of Advent, begins a new liturgical year. Today is also known as Christ the King Sunday, though never mentioned as such in our Prayer Book. Christ the King Sunday is actually a fairly recent innovation. It was originally a Roman Catholic holiday, but it dates back to only 1925 when it was instituted by Pope Pius XI. Its full name is The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. It was originally observed on the last Sunday in October as a lead-in to All Saints Day. In 1970 Pope Paul VI moved it to the last Sunday of the church year to give it a more prominent place.
With the issuing of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer it came into the Episcopal Church. Some other Protestant denominations, mainly those who followed the liturgical year, also adopted it.
From the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 to (in the American church) 1979 the last Sunday before Advent was colloquially known as Stir-Up Sunday because of the Collect of the Day. It read “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord. The wills of thy faithful people, that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.” The phrase Stir-Up began to take on another meaning since that Sunday roughly coincided with the medieval tradition of starting the Christmas pudding which required a lot of stirring and had to be begun well in advance of Christmas. It took about a month to properly marinate all the ingredients in alcohol. So the collect was seen as a useful reminder. “It’s almost Advent. We need to start the Christmas pudding!” The Christmas pudding never really took off in America, at least not after the colonial period, but it still remains a very big deal in England, and their official prayer book hasn’t changed since the 1662 version. (Only Parliament can change it.) Stir-Up Sunday is still observed in England.
But what about Christ the King? In thinking about this, I find it most helpful to consider Christ’s kingship in conjunction with his two other titles which are grouped together – that is, Prophet, Priest, and King. Jesus is all three of those.
Now Jesus has many titles in the Bible but these three are often called his offices. These offices were not new. They all existed in the OT, but they were never held by the same person. They were three separate functions. The prophet’s role was to bring a message directly from God to the people. There were a number of prophets in the OT. Many have books named after them, e.g. Isaiah and Jeremiah. It was not an easy job and some were reluctant to undertake it (think of Jonah). The last of the OT prophets we do not meet until we got to the New Testament, Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, who himself says that once Jesus is here John’s job is essentially done.
The priests’ job was very specific. They ran the liturgy, controlled Temple worship, and, most importantly, offered animal sacrifices for the sins of the people once a year on the Day of Atonement. Everyone understood that the sacrifices were symbolic. The animal can’t atone for the sins of human beings, but offering the sacrifice symbolized the repentance of the people. The first priest was Moses’ brother Aaron. Another was John the Baptist’s father Zechariah.
The king, of course, was the ruler, the governor. His job was to govern the people of national Israel. Their role had religious implications (different from how the Bible viewed Gentile rulers), but their role was to rule and also to protect their subjects. We meet a lot of them in the OT, some good, some bad. David was the most important and he is mentioned in today’s lesson from Ezekiel.
But Jesus is unique in that he fulfills all three offices at once No one in the OT does that. They were three separate categories. But Jesus unites them in his person. He not only brings a message from God. He is God. Remember the opening of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God…” He himself is the message.
As a priest he brings an end to the Jewish priesthood. He offers the sacrifice, not of animals, but of himself, once for all. He is the sacrifice.
As to kingship, he is the final and only king. He did not even attempt to rule an earthly kingdom. Indeed, some of his followers were disappointed that he didn’t and turned against him. But he rules from heaven. The whole universe is his, not just worldly kingdoms. Even though we still live in this world as his followers we acknowledge that kingship and struggle through our own sins to obey him. But Jesus is not a dictator. He deserves our obedience, but he doesn’t compel it. Obedience, after all, can be given grudgingly. More than obedience, he wants our love because he first loved us.
As we head into Advent and the Christmas season we know it is going to be very different this year. Some of us may be anxious, fearful, disappointed, or upset. But, remember, he is our king – also our Prophet and our Priest – and he is ruler. As the Collect tells us, “we will be freed from sin and brought together under his most gracious rule.” Amen.