Do you know that the Christian calendar year runs a little different from the every day? Church calendars consider this Sunday the last Sunday of the year – it’s “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ” Sunday – when we try to realize Jesus at his fullest. Over the course of the church year that starts over again next week, we’ve wondered at Jesus’ arrival (Advent season), celebrated it (Christmas), journeyed up to the cross and resurrection at Easter, and on and on, all the way until THIS day. It’s the Sunday to remember that by what we believe ultimate reality is this: God lived among us in Jesus, who charged into death to destroy it and save us, and right now he still sits at the right hand of God awaiting the day to return. Colossians 1:9-20 is an awesome picture of that fullness.
These are the points of Christian faith where many folks who are kind of fond of Jesus as a person or teacher have to bow out of going so far with him. Where Jesus is still 100% man, but also 100% God. Where he is still alive. Where he reigns over all. I can understand how that’s a big leap for some folks…those ideas assume much about life, the universe, reality. And I think most of us are nervous about putting too much power and authority into any one person’s hands. We get nervous about putting all our faith/outlook into the hands of any one set of ideals anyway…there’s too much room for error if we end up mistaken, we’ve been let down too many times, or it’s just too exclusive of others. Besides, there’s no pressing need to make such a jump, to assume so much.
So for plenty of us it’s hard to buy fully into “Reign of Christ” Sunday. Maybe there’s some truth in it about Jesus, but it’s long been embellished into legend. Maybe it explains some of the things around us…maybe it’s just good and entertaining. Maybe exalting Jesus so much fills some need in us to have a hero figure to hope for or to try to be like…. Maybe it’s a lot like most of our legends, even like our American Tall Tales?
Really — we’ve got Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, John Henry, Johnny Appleseed, Dan’l Boone and Davy Crockett, Pecos Bill — there are actually hundreds of such characters. And some are absolutely historical, or at least started out that way. Every one of them is interesting or entertaining or tries to explain things.
Did you know that Paul Bunyan was so big that even as a newborn, it took five storks to carry him to his parents? At one week old he could fit into his dad’s clothing. His first infant giggle boomed so loud it shattered every window in the house. When he grew up, he was so big that whenever he went camping he’d have to light a huge fire to stay warm; and the next day to be sure the fire was out he always piled up stones on top like most of us do. Only, his piles became what we know as record-breaking peaks like Mt. McKinley and Mt. Hood. And the Grand Canyon? That’s what happened one day when Paul got tired of lugging his axe over his shoulder, so he set to dragging it along the ground behind him.
Good stuff. Paul Bunyan and some of these tales are a little goofy, but what is it about them and our other hero characters that appeals to us?
Jimmy Dean gives us another good example…he doesn’t just make sausage, as a singer/songwriter this song of his came on the radio this week while I was preparing, it’s called “Big Bad John”. Listen:
So another story that has some historic basis, about a “big, big man” but also a mysterious one, an intimidating guy no one knew much about. But a guy who leapt into action when things looked their worst. That’s a legend. If you like it, why?
I like it because it stirs something in me that hopes for “big, big” help in my darkest hour, when all looks lost and no effort of mine will be enough. But that’s exactly where some of us decide to try and back off of our hero legends or faith. We rationalize and say, “…but it’s not true, and I better have more sense than to count on help like that. I don’t have that kinda luck, it’s not smart to bank on it, I need to take care of myself.” I agree, really. It’s not smart at all, but I’d still rather hope when all seems lost than just lay down and quit, or sit there and rationalize.
Truly, all the tall tales and hero stories can give us hope. Not in and of themselves (don’t know many folks willing to stake their lives on Paul Bunyan and Babe coming to rescue). But only if they point to the one story that is true, and the one hero that is all-sufficient. Because indeed we will all experience something that for many of us seems dark and freaky, or at least totally uncertain — death. No power of ours, no amount of will or strength or intellect, can put the tiniest dent in it. The only shot we have to hope for any survival with it, is the hope beyond all hope that One can come to our aid and handle it.
And I need a hero not just for death, but LIFE. We’re every day dealing with parts of life that smack of death — hate and violence that make no sense, things that strike at our hearts and those of the ones we love, things that enslave and destroy. EVEN MORE, it is often ME who contributes to those deadly things in myself and on others around me. So the greatest hope story would involve a hero that deals with death, but also with saving us daily from life, and even those deep parts of ourselves that need it.
The tallest of tales, that is. Would be absurd to hope for it. But I still need it, personally. I think the world does. After all, “Christ the King” Sunday wasn’t a day ordered by Jesus, it’s a really recent development. In the early 20th century, events around the world were taking such a toll that the church saw fit to institute this day of celebration. One major component was the events unfolding in Mexico — in 1918 the nation had passed a constitution that made it pretty easy for folks to pressure and eventually persecute the church. Until the 1940s, for their faith Christians dealt with imprisonment, confiscation of property, torture and death (this was the 1940s!). And in front of the firing squad one young priest shouted out something that inspired the naming of this Sunday — “Viva Cristo Rey!” It means, “Christ the King Lives!”
So since 1925 when it was first observed in response to those events, this is the Sunday when we assert the reality of the fullness of Christ Jesus exalted above all authority in heaven and on earth. Now, no, that’s not to say that whatever our leaders and governments do is pleasing to God or sanctioned by him. For God always leaves it to us to choose for ourselves, and I’d say we jack that up most of the time. But it is to say that those authorities and rulers, and even our own authority over our own individual lives, is still ultimately subject to Jesus and will be held to account one day soon.
In the meantime, can we take a look at ours and the earth’s situation, and maybe see that nothing but heroic intervention is going to succeed here? Maybe we can start to consider that kind of hope.