Christ the King
The Ascension of Christ receives rather less emphasis in the Common Worship calendar than previously, its celebration being practically confined to Ascension Day itself. The effect of this is, however, partly offset by the new festival of Christ the King on the Sunday before Advent.
The right hand
The language of ‘sitting at the right hand’ of the Father, familiar from the creeds, derives ultimately from Psalm 110, quoted by Jesus himself with reference to the Messiah in Mark 12.35–37. The picture suggested is of the Messiah sharing in God’s rule over the universe as his viceroy or, as we sometimes say, ‘right hand man’. The reality suggested by the picture is affirmed by Jesus of himself, for example in John 5.22–23, where all judgement is entrusted to the Son, and Matthew 28.18, where Jesus states on the eve of his ascension that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him.
These bald statements of authority, however, need to be understood in the context of Jesus’ teaching about the exercise of authority within the community of his disciples. In Luke 22.24–27 Jesus draws a contrast between himself and his disciples and the worldly authorities. They ‘lord it’ over their subjects, and like to be called benefactors. Among the disciples it is to be quite different. Here the leader must become like one who serves. Here and in Mark 10.42–45 Jesus draws attention to his own example as the servant par excellence, who gives himself in service to the point of laying down his life for his human subjects. This understanding of the nature and exercise of authority must colour our whole concept of the kingship of Christ.
Glory and honour
When we reflect on the kingly rule of Christ, we inevitably realize, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it (2.8–9), that not everything is yet subject to humanity (as indicated in Psalm 8.6), but that Jesus, who in his incarnation accepted a status below that of the angels, has been crowned with glory and honour after his passion and death. This reminds us that we are at a point within the working out of the redemptive purpose of God. Jesus has already offered the one all-sufficient sacrifice to atone for the sins of humanity and been raised from death and exalted to the Father’s right hand, where he reigns in eternal glory. But we still do not see all things subject to him. Poised as we are between the Ascension and the Second Coming, we are reminded of the Church’s commission to preach the Gospel throughout the world, and that only at the last day will the kingdom of Christ come to its fruition. Only then can we expect to reap the full benefits of Christ’s beneficent rule, and only then will the divine purpose for humanity be fully realized. This festival thus prepares us appropriately for the coming season of Advent.
Tony Gelston is Emeritus Reader in Theology in the University of Durham