Christ the King - Icon of the invisible God

A sermon preached in the United Benefice by Fr Robert Thompson on 24 November 2013

I can still vividly remember as a sixteen year old watching the television on Saturday the 19th March 1988. What I watched that day was the funeral procession of 3 IRA men who had been shot by the SAS, to Roselawn Cemetery in West Belfast. It was a funeral cortege into which two British soldiers blundered, and at which they were caught and executed. But as a teenager contemplating ordination,  my abiding memory of that footage was of the Catholic priest who, with his face smeared in blood, was pictured anointing each of these soldiers with holy oil, administering to each the last rites of the Church.

Father Alec Reid, who died this week, was that Catholic priest. For forty years of his ministry he was based at Clonard Monastery, just off the Falls Road in Belfast. He came to media prominence on that day because of his attempt to save the lives of those two soldiers.  In a recent BBC Northern Ireland  interview Reid recalled seeing the soldiers being taken from their car, partially stripped and forcibly taken to a sports ground. I quote:

"They put the two of them face down on the ground and I got down between the two of them on my face, and I had my arm around this one and I was holding this one by the shoulder. When I was lying between the two soldiers I remember saying to myself, 'This shouldn’t be happening in a civilised society.’”

“Somebody came in and picked me up and said, 'Get up, or I’ll ----ing well shoot you as well,’ and he said, 'Take him away.’ Two of them came on either shoulder and manoeuvred me out.” Reid continued: “I can remember the atmosphere. You could feel it. I knew they were going to be shot. I can remember thinking, 'They are going to shoot these men.’"

After the gun shots Father Reid returned to the soldiers, one of whom was still moving and attempting to talk. He tried to resuscitate him, during which his face was stained with blood. But it was too late and so Reid gave both dying soldiers the last rites. “One of my abiding memories of that day,” Reid remembered “is of a local woman putting a coat over one of the victims and saying, 'he was somebody’s son’.”

During all of the events of that day Father Reid was carrying in his pocket a letter from Gerry Adams the President of Sinn Fein, to John Hume the Leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party. The letter itself had been smeared with blood during all that occurred, so that he had to change the envelope before he delivered it. The letter is a reminder that Reid was also involved in opening up channels of dialogue and discussion between the IRA, Sinn Fein  and the moderate democratic Republicanism  of the SDLP. Talks which themselves led to similar dialogues between the British government and extreme Republicans; and then in the end to the talks between all the elected representatives, and the paramilitary organisations, of both communities of the north of Ireland. A line may be traced from that blood stained letter in Father Reid's breast pocket to the subsequent Good Friday peace agreement.

For Father Reid the deep motivation of this part of his ministry was simply to stop the next person being killed. A clergy colleague from the Presbyterian Church, The Revd Dr Ken Newell, said in tribute to Reid this week that he was "The one who saw the first crocus in spring". Newell continued: "I have always seen him as an electrician. He took two wires where there was no current going across them, and he wrapped himself around them like tape and held them together until the current of communication began to flow."

Father Reid's death this week and watching that BBC interview in which he recalled the events of that day, made me also remember the recent death of Seamus Heaney and famous words from his play The Cure at Troy. The Cure at Troy is Heaney's 1991 verse adaptation of Sophocles' Philoctetes, a story which comes from the cycle of myths relating to the Trojan War.  At the beginning of the play, the protagonist Philoctetes has been marooned on an island with a wound that would not heal. His suffering and exposure to the elements has made him animal-like. But he ultimately rejoins the war at Troy, which could not end without him. He becomes as Heaney puts it "the hero that was healed" who "heals the wound of the Trojan war itself" effecting peace, and fulfilling hope in the course of history itself. It's easy to see why the pictures of Father Reid brought to mind these verses:

Voices From Lemnos
Seamus Heaney

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
It means once in a lifetime
That justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

Heaney's verse states that history says don't hope on this side of the grave, but it insists that at least once in a lifetime justice rises and hope fuses with history. So the poet calls us to a series of hopes:
Hope for change beyond revenge.
Hope for miracles.
Hope for fire, and lightening and storm.
Hope for the voice of God.

Hope that cries of pain and terror are transformed into the birth cry of new life coming into being.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the Universal King. As we come to the end of one liturgical year, and as we prepare to mark Advent Sunday, we can already hear in the recesses of our ears the cry of the baby in whom we believe new life is continually coming into being. At Christmas we recall how as Christians we believe that God enters into history itself, and shares in our human story, identifying with us in solidarity and showing us the depths of Gods love for the whole of creation. Advent and Christmas are seasons sounded through with the stories, songs and images of hope:
hope for human redemption;
hope for universal peace;
hope for our families and friends.

Throughout the normal course of the year, however, after this high point of Christmas and the equal emotional pinnacle of Easter, much of this sense of hope evaporates. The world goes back to its usual spin:
typhoons wipe out communities in the Philippines;
10,000 children are killed in the Syrian War;
people are kept in forced slavery in basements of our own city.

But it's not just at Christmas that the Church calls the world to remember that hope and history rhyme in God's solidarity with us in the person of Jesus Christ. It calls us continually throughout the year to do the same, even in the midst of the evidence of natural disaster, human pain, suffering, and violence.

Today's feast of Christ the King expands this rhyming of hope and history from the purely human and historical to the cosmic level and pictures the renewal of the whole of Creation. Today we celebrate Christ as King, the Omega point, the ‘end-point ‘or the ‘goal’ of creation. The great hymn of our second reading from Colossians calls Christ the eikon of God; God's very 'image;' the physical fullness of God’s presence. The hymn begins with Creation: in Christ ‘all things hold together.’ And it turns to history: Christ by being a human person is the ‘Head of the Body the Church.’

Christians believe Christ is the eikon of God, and the Universal King, precisely because he is not like earthly Kings, president or rulers. Christ's reign is one not gained by birth or privilege; it is not  won in war, by the assertion of power over others; it is not a kingdom of this world but of the fullness of the age that is to come. Christ is King because he is the one who in his faithfulness to the call of God upon his life, fully lived his life for others; the one who restored the marginalised and the downtrodden; the one who cured the sick and diseased; the one who gave of his own life, even to the point of death, in faithfulness to that vision of God's kingdom which is solidarity with the whole of God's groaning creation. As our gospel this morning vividly reminds us: this is the King whose throne is a cross and in whose dying breath is the forgiveness of those who crucify him and the restoration and reconciliation of the thief who turns to him in for mercy. This is the King who is not a king. This is the God who is not a god. The God who, like those soldiers, is a human person of flesh an blood, some woman's son, Mary's firstborn.

As we allow the wonderful words of Colossians to deepen our appreciation of what it means for Christ to reign as King we are reminded that the world, the entire creation was created in and by and through this Christ who continually gives himself in love. We are reminded that this Christ in the person of Jesus has demonstrated the human capacity to aspire to and even to fulfil such a life in history itself. We are reminded that this self giving love is the very heart beat of what it is to be fully human which is also to be fully divine. We are creations of God's self giving love in our vey being. We are recipients of God's self giving love in the life of Jesus. We are called to live that life of self giving love in history in our own lives. All, in the end, resounds with this self giving love, which is never eclipsed or defeated, but is the end point, the goal of all creation.

Jesus is the eikon of the invisible God and we too are called to be icons of the invisible God. St Paul calls the human person, in general, the eikon and glory of God (1 Cor 11.7). Christ is the fullness of what we are all called to be. Often we fail to see that, but in the actions in our lives which resonate with Christ's, in the actions which, like Father Alec Reid's, places our own life in danger for the sake of what is good and right, for the sake of others, we know and feel something of what to be an eikon of Christ the King really means.

So today we pray that we may continually grow into that fullness. We pray that hope and history may rhyme in us. We pray that we may be electric cables of communication and connection bringing peace and reconciliation on our own communities, families and lives. We pray that we may not only see the first crocuses in spring, but that filled with Christ, we may actually be them.
Holland Park Benefice