“Ancient of Days”

Here’s the Blake image I referred to in my Sunday sermon

I mentioned that the shafts of light emanating from the fingers are reminiscent of a compass, which calls to mind Milton’s description in Paradise Lost of God creating the universe:

Then stay’d the fervid Wheels, and in his hand
He took the golden Compasses, prepar’d
In God’s Eternal store, to circumscribe
This Universe, and all created things:
One foot he centred and the other turn’d
Round through the vast profundity obscure,
And said, Thus far extend, thus far thy bounds,
This be thy just Circumference, O World. Paradise Lost VII.224-231

The image of the golden compass has itself become quite familiar in contemporary culture, most prominently in Phillip Pullman’s novel of that name, recently made into a movie.

Proper 29, Year B

Christ the King

Last Pentecost, Yr B

November 22, 2009



I’ve long been fascinated by the power of visual images. For some odd reason, that power always comes to mind when I reflect on the texts for the last Sunday of the Church Year, what has come to be known as “Christ the King.” In all three years of the lectionary cycle, the texts we read paint vivid pictures of the kingship of God, and of Jesus Christ. Over the centuries, the rich and evocative biblical imagery of Christ or God ruling in majesty as a king has inspired equally rich and evocative visual images.

The one I’ve been reminded of all week is “Ancient of Days” by William Blake. Blake is one of those historical figures who is a perennial focus of fascination and debate. His religious views were unorthodox; he was a visionary, a visual artist, and a poet. The print depicts a strong man, with white hair and a long, flowing white beard. He seems to be surrounded by, and standing on the sun. He is bent over on one knee, with an arm stretched out. His fingers are splayed in a 90 degree angle and from them emanate two shafts of light, perhaps even a compass, as he creates the universe.

Blake is depicting another visionary’s image. We heard today from the Book of Daniel the description of the “Ancient one… his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence.”

In fact, the reason we heard these verses read was not so much for the ancient of days, but for what is translated as “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven” who was given dominion and glory and kingship. What is translated here as “one like a human being” reads literally in the Aramaic, “the son of man” and of course that title comes to be used in the NT of Jesus Christ. Much of the imagery in Daniel is repeated in the reading from the Book of Revelation.

A copy of Blake’s print leaned against the back of the rood screen up until last week. I don’t know how it got there or why, nor why it was removed, though I suspect its absence has something to do with the bishop’s presence here last Sunday night. Perhaps no one wanted to give him any ideas.

Images like these exercise immense power on our psyches. We are still, even the most sophisticated and intellectual of us, prone to occasionally conjure up images for ourselves of God with white hair and a beard, in a flowing white robe. On the surface such images may seem harmless, but often they can be fraught with danger. If God is an old man with white hair and a beard, then we may be prone in our relationship to God, to act toward God like we might act toward an old man with white hair and a beard.

This is even more true when it comes to other images, like kingship. Even though few of us have ever lived under a monarchy, and what passes for monarchy these days bears little resemblance to ancient monarchies, our hymns, psalms, and liturgy, is full of language of kingship: Today’s psalm reads “The Lord is king, he has girded himself with strength… Mightier than the breakers of the sea, mightier is the Lord who dwells on high.” To think of God as King seems obvious. When we think of God, we think of power and might, a vast distance between ourselves and the deity. We imagine ourselves bowing before him. Of course that’s a gesture full of meaning itself, as we heard last week of the outrage on the right when President Obama bowed to the emperor of Japan.

Both of these images—the ancient of days, and God as king resonate powerfully and seductively. Yet there are dangers when we use such language of God. You may have noted that I used the male pronoun consistently when I spoke of the Ancient of Days and King. I did so deliberately, because both of those images are tied to masculinity. What would you have thought if instead of speaking of God as King, I had begun speaking of God as Queen? No doubt many of you would have been uncomfortable, perhaps some of you would have smirked, even.

The point is that such images are used to say something about God, but in the end, they are inadequate to fully describe God, and it is relatively easy to elevate the image in our mind, to a reality. Thus children often think of God as an old man with a white beard, but as we grow older and mature, we come to see the inadequacy of that image. If we don’t we may in fact fall into the sin of idolatry.

The inadequacy of the image of kingship is glaringly obvious in our gospel passage. Pilate asks Jesus a straightforward question, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus responds finally with those famous words, “my kingship is not of this world.” It’s hard for us to hear these words freshly because of our own history, and indeed our culture’s history, with these concepts. It seems to be a rather obvious and clear distinction between secular and spiritual between political kingship and divine kingship. We tend to blame Pilate, and the Jewish authorities for misunderstanding what Jesus was about. But as we’ve seen this fall while reading through the Gospel of Mark, contemporary notions of messiah-ship were focused on the political, that the Messiah would deliver the Jewish people from the Roman occupation and would restore the fortunes of the Jewish people.

What’s important to recognize is that in the synoptic gospels, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, when Jesus rejected the notion of the Messiah as a political deliverer, he was not rejecting the political implications of messiah-ship or indeed of divine kingship. If God is Ruler, there can be no secular ruler. And of course in the Roman Empire, by proclaiming the kingdom of God, the reign or rule of God, Jesus was explicitly challenging Roman rule. That’s why there was so much conflict between the Roman empire and Christianity. In Rome, as the notion of the divine emperor developed, there was no room for another ideology that proclaimed a different ruler or emperor.

All of this may seem rather far from our twenty-first century lives, but it’s not. The temptation to equate the nation with God is a persistent human tendency that has profound, long-lasting, and dire consequences.

Nowhere is this more true than in contemporary America, where many Christians view the United States as uniquely ordained, blessed and protected by God. Perhaps it is especially common in the South, where churches advertise a special patriotic service on the Sunday before Memorial Day or the one nearest the 4th of July. Instead of hymns of praise, God Bless America, My Country tis of thee, and the like would be sung. There’s often a pageant, and the promise of a color guard, or military presence in the service.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s wrong to be patriotic. It isn’t. It’s wrong to allow patriotism to take the place of religious faith or to equate patriotism with faith in Jesus Christ. To do so, is to commit the sin of idolatry and even worse to see one’s enemies then, as enemies of God, as satanic. Apparently, it has gotten so bad in some places that conservative Christians are advocating praying for the death of our president, because to them he so clearly is going against God’s will. They are apparently using a verse from a psalm as sanction for such desires.

What does it mean to think of Christ as King and ruler of all? What does it mean to imagine God reigning in majesty over the universe? These are political images so it is impossible not to draw out political implications from them. Typically when Christians have done so, they have tended to equate the political system in which they find themselves in light of that political imagery. But we live in a democracy, not a monarchy or empire.

There’s a profound irony at the heart of Christ the King Sunday. It is an irony expressed in Jesus’ words, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” Our king Jesus Christ does not ride in majesty, he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. The purple in which he is clad is a purple that is mocked. The crown he wears is a crown of thorns. He has no palace or throne, but as he said “Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Over the centuries, and even in our own day, Christians have defended and legitimized their power, wealth, and oppression of others with the language and imagery of the bible, of Christ reigning in majesty. But as Jesus told his disciples repeatedly in the Gospel of Mark, and as the gospel of Mark has reminded us all these weeks of the fall, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”

Our ruler is a servant, not a king. His power is the weakness of the cross, not of weapons or armies. His kingdom is not of this world, and if we are his disciples, we should hope and trust in his love, not in the power and might of any government. Thanks be to God.