There are forty-four days left until Christmas. I know this because I received an e-mail message reminding me of the urgency to get to the shops as soon as possible and to spend as much money as I can – whether that be in good hard cash, or on a credit card. For those of us who have presents to buy for children, or grand children or great grand children, this reminder of the imminent arrival of our Christmas festivities may not be altogether welcome news this morning, given that there are many presents still to be bought. Now that Halloween (the latest big retail money maker courtesy of our American friends) has passed us by, all of the focus in our shopping centres will be on helping us to part with our money in the hope that we might have the biggest and best Christmas ever. But of course the count down to Christmas in the world around us started a long time ago. According to a news report that I was reading the other day the first advert for Christmas goods for Christmas this year was seen over one hundred days ago, back in August. So the count down has well and truly begun.
Today in the life of the Church we start a rather different count down. Not focused on the number of shopping days left before Christmas, but a count down towards the end of our Christian year; because the year that we follow in the life of the Church does not begin on the 1st January as our calendar year does, but on the first Sunday of Advent, and it is from that date – in three weekends time – that we begin to prepare ourselves for our celebration of the coming of Jesus at Christmas, and his coming again in glory as the righteous and merciful Lord and judge of all, when all will be gathered up into Christ at the end of time: and between now and then – on this weekend and the two weekends that follow – we spend the final days of this liturgical year (this Christian year) focusing on the Kingship of Christ.
As we prepare ourselves to start another cycle of Christian living, in a new Christian year beginning on the 1st December, we take time over the weeks between now and then, to recall all that God has done for us, and through us in the year that is now passing away. During these three weekends of what we call the ‘Kingdom Season’ we return to wearing the red vestments of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – those great days of Holy Week when we remembered together the Passion and death of Jesus, the same red that we wear when we honour and celebrate the lives of Christian martyrs who have laid down their lives as witnesses of the Gospel, because we need in this Kingdom Season to have uppermost in our minds that our King is unlike any other earthly experience of royalty that we have experienced or heard about.
It would be true to say that throughout the history of humanity there have been both good and bad kings and queens. Royalty who have sought to rule justly, and royalty who have reigned over their subjects in such a way that they have drawn power and wealth to themselves without regard for others. But in these final weeks of this Christian year we focus on a king who is unlike any other. Not a king who draws power to himself for his own personal gain, but a king who endures a crown of thorns, and a throne of hard wood to which he is nailed, as an act of loving service for the whole world. So the blood-like colour that the ministers wear on these last Sundays of the Christian year remind us of the character of the one we follow and worship as the King of Kings; who calls us to imitate him in lives that are marked by sacrifice and self-giving for the sake of others.
On this first weekend of the Kingdom Season, it is the eternal consequences of God’s love, shown to us in our King’s loving offering of himself for the whole word on the cross that we focus upon at this Mass. It is interesting that although – in the Gospels – we see Jesus going about his work living out signs of the future resurrection hope, by raising people like his friend Lazarus from the dead, that the Gospel encounter that we heard afresh a few moments ago, is the only passage in Luke’s Gospel which contains any discussion from the mouth of Jesus about what resurrected life will be like. We know of course that the only reason that the writers of the Gospels wrote anything down at all, was because they believed that Jesus himself had been raised from the dead. The Gospel writers only began writing about the good news of the life of Jesus after that fact had been established for them. There would have been no point in writing his story if he had not risen from the tomb. Just as throughout our Christian year we celebrate again and again, at the start of each new week as we have gathered for the Eucharist, the resurrection of Jesus, so we know that every page of the Gospels is purposed to point us to that very hope.
As we heard, some Sadducees (members of one of the religious Jewish parties) come to Jesus with a question about what this resurrected life, will be like. On first hearing, the reading that we have just listened to from the Gospel of Luke may seem very strange to us. It reminds us of the distance between Jesus’ time and culture, and our context today. It comes from a world which is very different from our own, where it was not only normal but required by the religious laws of Moses for a man to marry his brother’s wife if his brother died, in order to provide care for her in a society which had no other way of supporting widows.
The question that is posed by the Sadducees – who did not believe in the resurrection anyway – would have been a live conundrum for people in the time of Jesus, albeit deliberately exaggerated. ‘What will happen if a woman has had more than one husband on the day of the resurrection, will she find herself married to all of them, or just to one of them when they are all resurrected together?”
So what does Jesus say in response to the question, as he gets right to the heart of what resurrected life will be like? He notes that they have asked the question from the law of Moses, and so he takes another example from the great tradition of their Jewish forefathers in response. He reminds them of the story of Moses, wandering in the wilderness, who comes across a bush and removes his shoes because he realises that he is standing on holy ground. From the bush comes the voice of the almighty, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” God is God not of the dead, but of the living. If you believe in the law of Moses, then you must also believe that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are alive to the one who gave the law that you quote from. In other words, resurrection life is truly a reality.
We will rise with Christ and then we will know that the love that we experience now is of no comparison to what it will be like to live in the presence of God, as equivalent to the angels, with the dignity of knowing that we are his children. The question of who will be married to whom, on that day, will not be significant. It is not that we will be angels ourselves, as some modern myths would have us believe, sitting on clouds and strumming harps. But rather, that even the love of God that we know now, and even the love that we know in marriage now, will be entirely insignificant compared to our knowing in every part of our resurrected being that we are his children, in his presence for eternity. That is the tremendous hope we have in Jesus, that through his resurrection we too will share his resurrected life.
The temptation, of course, when we come across passages like this, is for us to fall into the trap of assuming that all of this can only be spoken about in the future tense. We somehow conflate together resurrected living (which can only happen after we have died) and eternal living (which has already begun for each one of us now, because we begun eternal life at our baptism, when we were joined to Christ by water and the Holy Spirit) as if they are both the same thing. It is true, that we know so very little about God now. And that is why we cling on to Jesus, because we believe that what we see in Jesus we will one day find in God. That is a very present reality for us, because to live in Jesus now, full of hope for what is to come, drives us continually to live in the present, with the concerns that Jesus had for all those on the margins of society.
Never take for granted the fact that when we receive Communion together in this Church, we hear the words: ‘The Body of Christ, keep you in eternal life.” – Not keep you going until you enter eternal life, but keep you – now – in the eternal life which began when you were baptised into the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, which lead us one day to be resurrected gloriously and victoriously with the one who has gone before us.
So, as we near the end of this Christian year, we celebrate the Kingship of Christ. Our Christian year, week by week, has not only held up for us the hope that we have for the future, but the part to which we are each called to play now in sharing in God’s mission of love to the world.
On this first weekend in the Kingdom Season, as we celebrate the eternal Kingship of Christ, we remember that his Kingship was not in one place, and at one time – but is universal – in all places for all time. And although we know it only dimly now (as if through a darkened mirror as St Paul puts it) one day we will know the full reality of what life in the Kingdom of his love will be like for the rest of eternity. So we celebrate together today the Kingship of Christ. We celebrate that we are already joined with him in the eternal life of his love, and we look forward to the day when we will share in his resurrected living for evermore.