A “sequence” is a Latin hymn, usually in prose, to be sung with the “Alleluia” before the reading of the Gospel. This translation was published in my Advent and Christmas collection Run, Shepherds, Run (Morehouse, 2005), pp. 39-40 and appears here in a slightly revised form. The original Latin text may be found in The Oxford Book of Medieval Latin Verse (Clarendon Press, 1959) pp. 133-34.
Archives for November 2015
Bill Countryman Good Shepherd Berkeley
LAST SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST, “CHRIST THE KING”
November 22, 2015
Proper B: 2 Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37
There’s something a little odd about celebrating a “Feast of Christ the King” in an American church We had a revolution, after all, and got rid of this king business a couple of centuries ago. And, having no kings or queens of our own, we find that the language doesn’t mean anything too exact for us. We therefore tend either to romanticize the institution of monarchy or to demonize it.
Many of us here at Good Shepherd, at least in our recent history, have been among the demonizers. In fact, we worked at ridding our worship of such language because it suggested a kind of hierarchical—indeed patriarchal—vision of society that we opposed.
At the same time, one has to admit that several of the most open and democratic societies on earth are in fact monarchies. Think of Sweden, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom. They’re constitutional monarchies, to be sure, just as we are a constitutional democracy—and thank God for that, as the majority of the moment can be as tyrannical as any monarch.
And, truth to tell, we have a strong monarchical element in our own constitution. Our monarch is called a “president” and serves only for a limited time—but has considerably more power and authority than, say, the Queen of the United Kingdom or the King of Sweden.
So, the language of kingship isn’t native to us in the US. And yet, we certainly have some instincts about it. Right now, in the midst of our seemingly endless presidential race, we find ourselves looking for someone who has a clear enough vision and a strong enough determination to lead the nation through challenging times—just what people of a thousand years ago were concerned about when a new monarch came to the throne.
A king or queen isn’t just a person who gives orders. A queen or king is the person who represents the whole people in a way that a parliament or congress is too diffuse and conflicted to do. When Elizabeth II came to the throne after the grueling days of World War II, it gave the British a tremendous shot in the arm, a new kind of courage. It fostered a sense of hope for the future and a real cultural renaissance. People hoped for the beginning of a new “Elizabethan Era,” and they got it. We’re still listening to the music, reading the poetry, going to the plays of that era. In some sense, monarchy may be something we human beings can’t really do without.
So when we talk about Jesus as king, we’re talking about much more than politics We’re talking about Jesus as the embodiment of the kind of human community that we long for. A passage in our first reading today summed it up:
One who rules over the people justly,
ruling in the fear of God,
is like the light of morning,
like the sun rising on a cloudless morning,
gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.
No historical monarch has ever lived up to that billing, even David, to whom these lines are credited. But that doesn’t take away their truth. A good king, a good president, a good governor, a good leader of any kind is given the power, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning after life-giving rain, to bring hope and new life.
This ideal is what makes politics a Christian vocation. It’s what makes voting and other aspects of citizenship a Christian vocation. Government isn’t just about the self-interest of a nation or the self-interest of individuals. It’s about moving toward the kind of world in which all people can thrive.
The lack of good rulers and leaders in so many parts of the world today is a big part of what lies behind the present horrors of the Islamic State. Bad government produces anger. Anger that is left to feed on itself and fester becomes hatred. Hatred deceives itself into thinking that if I can destroy what I hate, a new and better world will automatically take its place. But no, hatred can’t make a good king. In the long run, it leaves us with nothing but a barren desert all around us.
The good king is the opposite, is one who creates shalom—peace, well-being. The good king is “like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.”
When we say that Christ is king, we are proclaiming him as this kind of leader and looking forward to what God has always had in mind for us: that we should live together in shalom. We know that, here and now, we have only moments of it. We know that even the best passages of human history have done no more than approximate it. But we also know that this kind of world—and only this kind of world—will allow us to become truly and fully human, will allow us to fulfill the gifts and graces with which God has blessed each of us.
One may say that such a world is a dream, and that would be true. But this dream is what makes truly human life possible in this less than perfect world. This is the hope that calls us onward, the goal toward which we make such contributions as we can, the consummation that will make sense eventually of our best aspirations and our most generous actions.
And Jesus is the king who has already lived this life in full and lives it still. And therefore he shows us how to live here and now, in an age that falls short, so that we can help prepare for a more truly humane world. This is the dream that St. Benedict saw and created islands of prayer and learning that carried the hope through the Dark Ages. And it is the dream that Martin Luther King, Jr., saw and led the great movement of our own time toward a better world. By the hopes and sacrifices of our forebears, we have come this far toward the realm where Jesus will be truly seen to rule. By our own hopes and sacrifices, our successors may yet inherit something better.
May Christ indeed come as king, then, in our own lives and, step by step in the life of the larger world. May our transformation contribute to the transformation of the larger world. These are our prayers in this Feast of Christ the King.
Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
George Emblom is working on a tune for this hymn.
Those of us who live in one of the world’s tourism areas commonly observe that we don’t visit the local attractions because, after all, they’re always there and we can do it some other day. Out-of-town visitors provide the principal impetus for us to break out of our rut and see more of where we live. A visit from brother Dan and his wife Ginger gave us just that opportunity this past week and provided us with the excuse for a vacation at home.
It’s not easy to narrow down the attractions of the Bay Area to six days, particularly if you don’t want to exhaust a group of people who are all over 60. So we got a list from them of their desiderata and put in a few of our own. Things started off on a Saturday afternoon with a car tour of Oakland, where we live, including Lake Merritt, of course, and one of our own favorites, Middle Harbor Park. This is a shoreline park with a great view of San Francisco wedged into the Port of Oakland. The port itself, with its huge cranes for handling container ships (said to be the inspiration for the giant walkers in Star Wars) looms at either end; but the park stretches far enough along the shore to have its own sense of open air and holiday within sight of the working world.
Jon treated our guests to a Sunday morning car tour of San Francisco, including a drive down the twisty part of Lombard Street. They also visited Bernard Maybeck’s great Palace of Fine Arts, Alamo Square with its “painted lady” Victorian houses, and the Presidio with its view of the Golden Gate. The afternoon we devoted to a walking tour of our neighborhood, which has several excellent restaurants and interesting shops.
On Monday, we braved the (welcome) showers to visit the two big San Francisco cathedrals that form such a contrast to each other. Both are impressive, but Grace is Episcopal and Gothic while St. Mary’s is Roman Catholic and ‘sixties modern. The architectural contrast is about more than simply design. The Gothic style is interested in detail and diversity, in out-of-the way nooks and crannies, in things that cannot quite be seen but only glimpsed and half-imagined. The modern style of the sixties is much more unitary. There is relatively little of individual interest, but rather a single centralized space dominated by its concrete canopy. Both style make an impression. My own taste votes for the quirkiness of the Gothic, at least for a sacred building. A late lunch at the Cliff House rounded out the morning. The sun had come out. There were a few surfers down below on Ocean Beach. And the food was good—in fact, a great deal better than one has any right to expect at such a spectacular location.
Tuesday was focused on Muir Woods, a place almost as impossible to describe as it is to photograph. There is hardly any way to convey the height of the ancient trees in a forest of coast redwoods. The place is damp and cool and relatively quiet, even with so many visitors. And there is no place else on earth quite like these forests, though the karri trees of Western Australia have a majesty that comes close.
Wednesday was Alcatraz day. The trip there requires advance planning, since tickets sell out quickly. A ferry takes you to the island, where you can then wander pretty much at will till the last ferry leaves for San Francisco in the late afternoon. The walk uphill to the penitentiary proper is good exercise. On the way, you pass the ruins of earlier incarnations of the place, beginning with its role as fortress defending the Golden Gate in the 1850s and prison for Confederate sympathizers in the 1860s.
Neither Jon nor I had been to Alcatraz before. I had read about the rehabilitation of the gardens, and they were indeed rewarding. Even in the quiet garden time of November, they were still interesting and attractive with their variety of succulents. And the views from the island are incomparable. Even the prison itself proved more interesting than we expected, given that neither of us is an aficionado of “true crime.”
Thursday, we all went to Napa, where my sister Wanda has a small vineyard called “Miller’s Pond” in the Coombsville AVA. The day included a drive to St. Helena and lunch at the wonderful Farmstead restaurant, where much of the food is grown onsite. We tasted wine at one winery on the way back from lunch while Dan, who prefers beer, waited patiently until that particular bit of the trip was done with. Then a visit to Whole Foods for the ingredients of a light supper at Wanda’s farm.
At that point Ginger announced that she had been able to check off everything on the list of what she had most wanted to see, which gave us Friday as a day devoted mostliy to rest and recovery—with lunch at Zachary’s Pizza, a Rockridge mainstay.
It was a vacation for us, I think, as much as for Dan and Ginger. It’s even taken us a couple of days to “re-enter” our routines, much as if we had been somewhere far away for that time.