A King Who Lights the Way

Holy Trinity Ascension Window

Ascension window by Henry Holiday, The Church of the Holy Trinity, NYC

A sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King, November 22, 2015.  The lectionary readings are Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14, Psalm 93 , Revelation 1:4b-8, and John 18:33-37 .

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The first time I visited Holy Trinity, it was a hot, summer Sunday this past August. It was bright outside, a beautiful day, and so entering this amazing space was a little like stepping into another world. It took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust in order to see the terra cotta, the oak, the marble, and the people. And then, probably like many of you, when you first entered this space, I looked up. All around, there was light—blues, reds, yellows, the Henry Holiday windows working their magic on me.

Though the windows were dazzling, I’ve learned something about looking at stained glass. I used to think that the best days for looking, for taking in the beauty, and even for taking pictures of stained glass would be days like that day in August, when the sun is strong, with light streaming in. But a photographer friend of mine pointed out something different. He explained that the best days for viewing and certainly for taking pictures, are not the brightest days at all, but days that are overcast. It’s much better, he pointed out, when the light outdoors is subtle and indirect. It’s then that the colors show up more evenly. They glow more than they burn. With less light, the window reveals its details, its textures, and its contours.

While it may be a secret of stained glass that we can sometimes see better in the dark than in the light, I think it’s also a key to understanding this day that comes like an exclamation point in the church year, this day called Christ the King.

The feast day of Christ the King is in many ways bathed in light. Bright vestments, special music—strong symbols and loud praise. But within the sounds and colors and words, there are contradictions. Today is a little like Palm Sunday, in that we are saying something “IS,” only to be able better to understand that something “is NOT.”

Christ was not a king, in any normal sense of the word. And yet Christ is King.
He was powerless over mid-level officials and suffered the death of a criminal, and yet, “To him was given dominion and glory and kingship.”
He is a Jewish carpenter from Galilee, and yet he is Alpha and Omega, “who is, and who was, and who is to come.”

The light of day shows us clearly enough what a king or queen looks like, and that’s been the case for eons. During the time our first scripture reading was written, in Daniel’s day, the king was obvious enough: His name was Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of Babylon. Daniel’s audience knew all too well who the king was, because they were victims of this king, as they languished in exile. And so, to God’s beloved, Daniel’s apocalyptic visions look for the coming of a new king, even while commenting upon the evil kings of his day and of those to come. Daniel wasn’t writing for the refugees in Syria or the Christians in Iraq, but he well could have been. Daniel writes down his vision of hope and promise, because it is in the dark that he can see God most clearly. And he shares that “night vision.”

A similar dynamic is found in the Revelation to John. John writes to encourage the faithful who are undergoing trying times. He, too, comments the evil kings of his day (perhaps the emperor Nero or Domitian) using veiled language. He fills his prophecies with flashy images and scary beasts so that the enemies of Christ will be dazzled and distracted from John’s real message. His message can only be seen in the dark, in the confusion, in the reality that is being experienced by the followers of Jesus.

Jesus himself has a way of walking and talking “in the light,” but using shadow and story to hide the light. It’s often as though Jesus stands in the shadow, inviting the faithful to come over, for a closer look. He does that with Pontius Pilate in today’s Gospel reading.

As Pontius Pilate interviews Jesus, Pilate has the worldly power, but Jesus seems to have the rhetorical and spiritual power. Jesus plays with Pilate, offering glimmers of truth, veiled in a cloud of riddle. Pilate’s smart and he intuits that there’s more to Jesus than first appears. “Are you the King of the Jews?” he asks. Jesus steps out of the light for a second and dodges the question. “My kingdom is not from here,” Jesus says. And like a cat chasing after a laser, Pilate falls for the shiny bit but loses the substance. He asks again, “So you are a king?” But here, it’s Pilate who’s in the dark, lost and not really looking for a way out. Perhaps he’s got too much of the sun in his eyes (the Son of God in his eyes!)

Today’s scriptures invite us to adjust our vision. Enjoy the light when it’s here. Bask in it, even. But next week, as we move into the season of Advent, the light shifts. The Advent wreath reminds us of what it is to wait for the light, to long for the light. In the days ahead, we’re invited to be honest about the places in our lives where we’re lost, where there isn’t enough light to see, or understand, or perceive, or discern a way forward, or even to feel God’s presence. But we’re called to move ahead, anyway.

Some of you are familiar with that classic spiritual guide in the Middle Ages entitled The Cloud of Unknowing. In it, the anonymous author asserts that there are times in the spiritual life when one can cling to the goodness, and kindness, the presence, and love of God. But there are other times, when

…[I]in the work of contemplation itself, [the knowledge of God’s presence] must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.

There’s a whole branch of Christians spirituality that stems from this idea of deducing God by saying what God is NOT. By gradually weeding out what God is not, apophatic spirituality moves one closer to God—still a mystery—but a truth who comes to us. Like when we’re small and can’t sleep, God comes to us like a loving parent to hold us close, through the dark, no matter what.

The world outside these walls seems to grow darker with war, with terrorism, with hunger, poverty, and violence. But faith helps us perceive that the light grows, the true light increases, as John the Baptist proclaims, “The light [that] shines in the darkness, [that] the darkness never overcomes. The true light that enlightens” every [single] soul.” THAT light is coming.

The spotlight today is on the King of Kings. But ours is a king whose crown is made of thorns, whose throne is nothing more than the shoulders of his friends, but whose holy realm is open to all who would live (and die) for love’s sake.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a children’s book by Cooper Edens, and it’s become one of my favorites. The little book wasn’t intended to be a lesson in Christian faith, but Edens’ juxtaposition of silliness and solemnity reminds me of the tricks of light played out in today’s scriptures and in the words and spirit of Jesus. The book suggests

If tomorrow morning the sky falls… have clouds for breakfast. . .
If night falls… use stars for streetlights. . .
If the light goes out… wear it around your neck and go dancing. . .
If the sun never shines again… hold fireflies in your hands to keep warm. . .
[And] If you’re afraid of the dark… remember the night rainbow.

In a world that too often seems falsely illumined—fluorescent and glaring— faith sometimes calls us into the shadows. In the dark, we can pause to discern what is true Light, and what is false.

Today, let us bask in the light of Christ: who is light and dark, who is king and pauper, who is Alpha and Omega. And let us follow in his love.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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