Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the feast of Christ the King 2019

The ambiguity of a king who serves.

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian

Sunday, 24th November 2019 at 11.15 AM

Westminster Abbey is not exactly short of imagery surrounding the subject of kingship. How much of this is of use when pondering the Feast of Christ the King is perhaps a more complicated question. The pages of scripture themselves offer little more than ambiguity over the subject; every verse needing a qualification, a juxtaposition with another image to unpack its full meaning. In today’s Gospel, the soldiers mock Christ as “King of the Jews”, whilst both the leaders of the crowd and one of the thieves crucified with him instead use the title “Messiah.” The good thief prays, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus tells him that he will join him “in paradise.” This is the ambiguity of a king who serves, the creator who deigns to become a creature, a leader whose kingdom is not of this world, a monarch who shares his throne with the humble.

The Wilton Diptych, currently preserved in the National Gallery is a remarkable study of kingship painted in the late fourteenth century. The left hand panel depicts the young King Richard II, kneeling in prayer, surrounded by his saintly patrons John the Baptist, Edmund, and Edward the Confessor. Richard built the Abbey nave, and like many of his predecessors had a great love for St Edward in particular. He was eventually buried in the Saint’s shrine, just behind the High Altar. In the Wilton Diptych each of these three saints gestures towards King Richard, ushering him towards the Virgin and Christchild, who stand at the centre of the right-hand panel. The figures of Mary and Jesus are surrounded by angels, wearing the badge of the White Hart, Richard’s heraldic emblem. It is an extraordinary scene of the self-confidence of Royal power, the painter daringly co-opting the heavenly court to the cause of this earthly monarch.

This panel painting has been much-studied over the last few years. It is certainly linked with Westminster Abbey and possibly once sat in the Chapel of Our Lady of Pew, in the North Ambulatory. There is all sorts of symbolic allusion at play in the figures. I just want to highlight one aspect of this. On the left panel, St Edward holds out his ring in between his left index finger and thumb. This is the centrepiece of a famous story about the sainted king, who when approached by a beggar for alms, removed his ring and gave it to the poor man, and later revealed himself to have been St John the Evangelist. Richard II’s proximity to St Edward and to this sign of noble, royal charity, bolstered his kingship, and doubtless his own self-confidence The Abbey kept this ring in its treasury before the dissolution of the monastery in 1540. But there is a parallel on the right panel. The large figure of Mary cradles the Christ-child. She holds his foot between her left index finger and thumb, cradling it with exactly the same gesture as that with which St Edward holds his ring.

Through a recent examination in infrared reflectography, we know that the initial position of St Edward’s hand was subsequently changed to mirror that of the Virgin. The ring and Christ’s foot are held with exactly the same grasp, reflecting one another across the panels. What is going on here? Another of the Abbey’s most prized relics in medieval times was a supposed imprint of Christ’s footprint. The artist is perhaps highlighting two of the most important relics in the Abbey’s collection: the Ring of St Edward, and Christ’s footprint. There is another theory, too, that the juxtaposition of the ring and the foot reminds the viewer that this chubby, fleshy foot will one day be pierced as Christ is nailed to the cross.

So, there is quite a lot going on in what at first glance seems an ordinary piece of artistic Royal propaganda. The ring and the foot, tokens of kingship. If the ring identifies continuity with the famed pious monarchy of Edward, the Christchild’s cradled foot perhaps symbolises how royal power is best established through following in Christ’s footsteps. Richard II, in an attempt to harness every bit of religious and political credibility at his disposal, displays to the onlooker and to the Virgin Mary, St Edward’s ring as a sign of lineage and identity. In return, the Virgin offers him the path of Christ Crucified as the pattern of kingship. How’s that for a juxtaposition of images?

Today’s Gospel reading takes us to the heart of the matter. Christian reflections on leadership cannot avoid Calvary. Christ is the still point of indestructible power at the heart of the chaos in that dark, violent scene. As the new St John Henry Newman put it, “Even in the lowest acts of His self-abasement, still He showed His greatness.”[1] At the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion, he inculcates practices of love, public, political acts which expose the surrounding chaos as powerless. These practices are forgiveness, and reconciliation. “Father, forgive them”, he prays for those who murder him. “Today you will be with me in paradise”, he tells one of the condemned criminals. It is only by patterning our own lives on Christ’s example, by following in his footsteps, if you like, that we will encounter the fruits of his reign. There is a certain amount of self-justification going on in Richard II’s depiction of himself with St Edward and his ring; lineage, right, succession. But Mary holds out the foot of the Christchild, reminding the kneeling, supplicant sovereign that kingship is only to be found in following the way of Christ crucified. There are no shortcuts. The practices which Christ teaches us enthroned from his Cross can be pursued by all Christian disciples everywhere in our private lives as well as in the wider polis. What priority do we give to love? Not as a series of sentiments, but as the social practice which should mark out our communities. How do we forgive? Not through pretending people are righteous angels, but by offering fresh hope even to those whose actions have outraged us. How do we pursue reconciliation? Not only the reconciliation of our own tribe, but beginning in the human heart, diagnosing our own brokenness, and moving to embrace others seeking to share Christ’s reconciling grace with them. This is the Kingdom which Christ inaugurates from his Cross, as the darkness of this world stands condemned. This is the pattern of Christ’s footsteps, in which, through the promises of our baptism, we are encouraged to plant our own.

Next week we will enter the season of Advent, and for the first time in many years, experience an Advent General Election. In our current public debate about leadership, we find ourselves in an atmosphere of suspicion and lack of trust. If we long for the Kingship of Christ to transform our society, we Christians must find ways of holding those who would take public office to account. Following in Christ’s footsteps will mean incarnating and encouraging a series of practices of love, justice, and reconciliation in our political and national lives. Our leaders need encouragement to prioritise such practices, alongside a commitment to public truth-telling and the common good, because they reveal the Kingship of Christ. We can’t just assume that our historic instruments of power will simply go on doing what they’ve always done without a reminder of such priorities. It’s not just about the inheritance, but about the practice.

Individuals, institutions, societies, can follow in Christ’s footsteps. Such discipleship is demanding, it needs daily attention and commitment. Preaching on the Feast of Christ the King in 1978 (a year and a half before he was martyred) St Oscar Romero, quoted St John of the Cross, “In the evening of your life, they will examine you about love.”[2] This is not to ignore the place of faith in the judgement which is to come, St Oscar tells us, “but if faith does not become concrete in practical love and in works, then that faith is dead.” Faith, he says with disarming simplicity, “is not enough.” Let it all begin afresh as we stretch out our hands to receive Christ’s body and blood, the Royal Gifts, given for us, that we may share his Kingdom.

[1] Parochial and Plain Sermons, Sermon 23, Christian Reverence

[2] A Prophetic Bishop Speaks to his People: The Complete Homilies of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero trans. Joseph Owens SJ, Vol 3, p. 399