Have you heard of ‘manspread’? It is a new term coined, not to express the middle-aged spread in men’s physique, but of the phenomenon that occurs when a man takes up a seat, perhaps on the London underground, or in a cinema or theatre, or whatever, and manages to spread himself beyond the confines of his seat, with arms, legs or even bags, thus taking up space meant for those sitting next to him. Apparently, manspread has become such a problem on the New York subway trains that they have had to legislate against it and those caught doing it are now going to be fined.
The whole bizarre notion reminds me of a mosaic that I used to look at every day in St. Paul’s Cathedral. High above the East end altar there is a depiction of Christ in glory, sitting on an enormous throne and posing as if recently crowned with what I can only describe as a posture of manspread. He is king, he is glorious and he is judge. Today we celebrate Christ the King as the highlight of the relatively new liturgical season of Kingdom, which stretches from All Saints Sunday, when we remember the kingdom of the faithful, to Advent Sunday next week, when we begin to prepare for the coming of the child king at Christmas. The collect that was prayed at Matins this morning echoed the kingship theme as we prayed for our own monarch:
‘O Lord, our heavenly Father, high and mighty, King of kings, Lord of lords, the only Ruler of princes, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth: Most heartily we beseech thee with thy favour to behold our most gracious Sovereign Lady, Queen ELIZABETH …’
The idea that Christ the Messiah brought about a new kingdom, which is to be made complete at the eschaton, the end times, is repeated throughout the gospels. In fact, the very first verse of St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Christ comes from a line of kings. Matthew wrote ‘An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham’. Thus, Christ is immediately introduced to us as a figure of authority and kingship, just as he is in the final verses of the gospel that we heard read out this evening.
Indeed, Jesus’ ancestor, David, was a great king. He was, as we heard tonight, the anointed, exalted, favourite and strong one of Israel. A king. A judge. A great authority. But David’s final words makes it clear that his authority for all his great reign has come from the greater power of God: ‘The Spirit of the Lord speaks through me, his word is on my tongue. The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: One who rules 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.’
David acknowledges that his success in ruling justly and with great favour and authority is because he acted in obedience and not out of his own human pride. Now we do not need another sermon on the sin of pride, as the Provost has already preached eloquently on the subject in this chapel already today, in this morning’s University Sermon, but perhaps we might end this day reflecting upon the attendant virtue to the sin of pride, which is the grace of humility.
When Henry Holiday, the pre-Raphaelite artist, designed the windows for this Chapel, he themed each window on a scene from the life of Christ, from annunciation to ascension. Unlike St. Paul’s Cathedral however, Holiday chose not to have the East end of the Chapel depicted Christ the King in glory, but rather the crucifixion. I, for one, am grateful for Holiday’s theological insight in so ordering his design, for the theology of this Chapel is all the stronger for it. For Christ’s kingship is one of the servant king, the suffering king, the humble and obedient son of God who saves humanity by sacrifice and pure love. As St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, ‘though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.’
This is why the crucifixion window is different from the other windows. They are more a celebration of life, whilst here, we have the struggle with death. Holiday has depicted the darkened sun, the crescent moon, the skull, and the dereliction of Christ. Look up at this scroll above this window, and you will see Daniel 9: 26 which reads ‘The Messiah shall be cut off and have nothing’.
That suffering and self-giving love of Christ is one of the main themes in this Chapel. If you walk through the nave here you can see the unusual bench-ends on the pews. They’re all symbols from the story of the last week in Jesus’s life, when he was tried, tortured and killed. There is the seamless robe, the crown of thorns, the nails, the thirty pieces of silver, and the ladder to take Jesus down from the cross.
So when, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, the risen Jesus takes his disciples up onto a mountain top, with some of them still doubting as to his reality, and he tells them that ‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations’, we still have, as the disciples had, the very fresh memory of Christ crucified, of the suffering, compassionate, loving face of Christ. Any authority the disciples are given, is only licensed to them because it is in the gift of the servant king. If they are called to be leaders, then they are servant leaders.
A good friend of mine and Emma’s, Robert Atwell was made Bishop of Exeter in July and we went down for the induction ceremony. The cathedral was, of course, packed with people, and the beginning of the service opened with the dramatic scene of the Bishop elect, banging on the outside of the cathedral doors to be let in. When the doors are opened the dean asked who is knocking, to which Robert replies that he has come to be the next Bishop of Exeter. Quite rightly the Dean asked what qualifications Mr. Atwell had for the post, ‘None’, he replied, ‘I am only a sinner seeking the forgiveness of Christ and humbly wishing to share the love of Christ with others’.
I found this to be a powerful point of departure for leadership of a Diocese, or indeed any leadership. Christ’s own humility, even though he is God, is our example as well as out salvation. It for these reasons that we celebrate Christ as King – that by his life of service, of love and compassion, and self-giving death, he has given life to all. That is why we sing with George Herbert: ‘Let all the world in every corner sing, my God and king’