Yesterday was Christ the King Sunday. For Anglicans and Catholics, and anyone following the Revised Common Lectionary, it’s the last Sunday before Advent and the start of a new Church year. It’s a fairly new feast day, Pope Pius XI inaugurated it only in the 1925, and it joined the Revised Common Lectionary in the 70s.
It’s a Sunday to reflect on the already-but-not-yet reign of the Kingdom of God on earth. It’s a time to remember the power of Christ working in the world and in our lives. It’s the glorious conclusion of Pentecost of the Holy Spirit being with the Church.
Of course one of the challenges to really understand Christ the King Sunday is that I, and many others, live in a country without a king. So my images of a “king” are mainly based on fairytales and epic fantasy that draw on the medieval ideal king.
There are drawbacks to this of course; a shiny plastic Disney version of a benevolent but slightly disconnected king isn’t exactly what the feast is celebrating. (Disney kings seem to most often play the part of bumbling fathers who inadvertently set their daughters, or occasionally sons, up for misadventure, by slighting temperamental fairies, or dying and leaving them to bad step mothers.)
But then some of my very favorite characters are kings.
There is Strider / Aragorn in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: noble and rough, taking up his destiny and healing the fractured kingdom.
image: Gwydion by saeriellyn
Or there is another similar wild ranger, wise and brave, Lloyd Alexander’s King Gwydion in The Book of Three, whom young adventure-seeking Taran the assistant pig-keeper learns to recognize and love as king even without fine clothes or wealthy court trappings.
Then there is Iorek Byrnison, the King of the Bears in The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. He is the wise bear who refuses to become what he is not, and helps Lyra on her quest because he recognizes goodness and kindness in her.
There is brave King Arthur learning from Merlin, taking up his sword and ruling well, and the Crusade-fighting King Richard the Lion Heart who swoops in at the end of Robin Hood to put an end to bad Prince John’s schemes.
Then of course, there are all the wonderful kings in The Chronicles in Narnia, High King Peter, and redeemed King Edmund, good King Caspian X, the first King Frank, the last King Tirian and of course the greatest king of all: Aslan
One of my very favorite passages from all 7 books is the first introduction we get to Aslan when the Pevensies first arrive at Mr. and Mrs. Beaver’s dam.
“Who is Aslan?” asked Susan.
“Aslan?” said Mr. Beaver, “Why don’t you know? He’s the King…I tell you he is the king of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-The-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.”
“…Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “…Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
“I’m longing to see him,” said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened when it comes to that point.” (Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe p. 74-76)
CS Lewis is of course making a more direct comparison of Aslan the King and Christ the King (although the wonderful work of Michael Ward dissuades us from the notion that a simple one to one allegory is all that is going on there).
JRR Tolkien would be uncomfortable with drawing too straight of a line between Aragorn and Christ (or between any person in history), and Phillip Pullman would be downright annoyed if not a bit horrified at the thought that Iorek Byrnison is an image of Christ.
But the point is not a one to one allegorical stand in, King of the Forest for King of Kings. It’s more, as the wonderful John Granger says, about symbols. Symbols that we stack, overlapping to put together a picture. The Bible is always stacking symbols of Christ: he’s King and Prince, Shepherd and Lamb and Lion, he’s vine and tree, and Adam and Moses and King David. Like a tissue paper collage, where the light spills through in a moving rainbow of color and shape, the Bible gives us a myriad of ways to try and understand the Son of God.
And we too are all readers and writers of these symbols. We take in what it means for Christ’s kingdom to reign by the memories of our parents’ strong arms comforting us, the warmth of a lingering dinner with good friends, the kindness of a stranger graciously making our path easier.
We are knowingly and unknowingly symbols of Christ to our neighbors as we extend grace to those around us, like King Gwydion fishing the scraped up and scared Taran from the bushes, or Strider standing over the hobbits at Bree, or King Edmund listening to his rotten cousin Eustace’s tale of how he used to be a dragon but isn’t one anymore.
NT Wright often translates Jesus Christ as “King Jesus.” And I love the fairytale-feel of that. Somehow King Jesus captures all the wonderful parts of the stories that I love. That we are all inside the quest, the great forest, and that we are all on our journey to the castle to see the King.
Along the way, we have our adventures, those dark and trying nights on the road, those sweet comforts of a warm inn. But in the end we are learning about belonging to the true King and finding our way to our true home.
Do you have a favorite literary image of a king?
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