Come, ye blessed of my Father

Last Sunday after Pentecost

I have written more than once about the ‘pre-Advent’ season focusing especially on the vision of heaven and the ‘second coming’ of Christ that begins to emerge in the summer and becomes stronger throughout the autumn until it becomes explicit from All Saints’ Day. A further connection between the feasts of All Saints and ‘Christ the King’ (i.e., the Last Sunday after Pentecost) came to mind on the latter occasion this Sunday past.

The Gospel appointed for the Sunday in question in Year A is Mt 25.31–46. In it Our Lord teaches that those who have ministered to persons in need have indeed ministered to Christ Himself and will hear the King say, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’.

This very verse forms part of a prayer which is now an Additional Prayer at the Burial of the Dead [bcp 487] (it is also quoted in the Prayers for a Vigil at the Time of Death [465], one of the anthems at the procession to the grave [483], and one of the Rite II Additional Prayers [505]):

Almighty and everlasting God, we yield unto thee most high praise and hearty thanks for the wonderful grace and virtue declared in all thy saints, who have been the choice vessels of thy grace, and the lights of the world in their several generations; most humbly beseeching thee to give us grace so to follow the example of their steadfastness in thy faith, and obedience to thy holy commandments, that at the day of the general resurrection, we, with all those who are of the mystical body of thy Son, may be set on his right hand, and hear that his most joyful voice: ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ Grant this, O Father, for the sake of the same thy Son Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate.*

There is not only a connection here between All Saints’ Day and Christ the King but also continuity between old and new Prayer Book texts and language, for the passage in question is also the source for what the bcp1979 Baptismal Covenant calls ‘seeking and serving Christ in all persons’. The fuller context of the passage in question shows us not just what a saintly life looks like (ministry to those in need), but indeed what Christ looks like (both those ‘doing the ministry’ and those ‘to whom ministry is done’), for Christ became not only human but moreover became poor; Our Lord ministered to but was also ministered to by those among whom He lived.

Meeting physical needs is not a means to an end: the righteous in Mt 25 have not ministered for the sake of a heavenly reward nor even for an earthly ‘greater good’, nor is it stated that they have undertaken their work as a pretext for some further ‘spiritual’ end; they just did what they did because it was the human(e) thing to do, and indeed are surprised to learn that they have been serving the King as it were in disguise. The physical is not (only) a metaphor for or even a (one-way) path to the spiritual.

But fulfilling the demands of the King goes beyond the relief of suffering. ‘The poor you will always have with you’; despite our laudable and necessary efforts, we will never on our own, or at least by our actions (or activity or activism) alone – whether moral, ethical, political, economic, or social, and whether we consider them conservative, liberal, prophetic, whatever – complete the building of the Kingdom on earth, for Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, and thus neither is our citizenship. The real transformations Our Lord effected took place in the meeting and exchange between persons, restoring them to their proper relationships with one another, the community, and the Father.

Rowan Williams, commenting on a passage from the Journals of Fr Alexander Schmemann, naturally expresses this better than I possibly could:

The possibility of a world differently organised, where poverty and wealth, joy and suffering, are everyone’s, a world where every person is not just a possessor of ‘rights’ but a precious and unique friend. That possibility is a fact among us. It may and will move us to action, to the fullest share in the struggle to change things; but the Church is not there in order to change things – if it were, it would disappear when injustices disappear, instead of being fully itself when injustices disappear. When we start defining the Church by campaigns and struggles, God help us; we have lost the one thing only the Church can give, the fact of God’s future made real.

The physical and the spiritual are neither means nor ends in themselves; rather, they are completely connected in the Kingdom. Sacramental Christianity is robustly physical; our tradition teaches that creation is good, that Christ was physically raised in a recognizably bodily form, and that the same is promised to us. The traditional rites and ceremonies of the Church make abundant use of water, oil, bread, wine, wax, gum, branches, ash, breath, spittle, and the like, doing things to the bodies that are a part of who we are. When we confess, we confess that we have sinned in ‘thought, word, and deed’. Our thoughts shape our actions; our actions shape our attitudes; our habits physical, mental, and spiritual shape our selves. And what happens on this Way – the Way of Mt 25, the Way of the Sermon on the Mount, the Way of prayer and service and the ascetical disciplines prescribed by the Church, ultimately the Way / Wisdom / Torah / Word of the Lord Himself – is that we learn to see: to see Christ in others and ourselves and the connections in between, so that when we see Him in the fulness of His glory, we will recognize Him, and indeed we will be like Him, and take our place under His most gracious rule.

*  This fine petition, taken largely from the 1637 Scottish Prayer Book, had, in a slightly fuller form, constituted the end of the Prayer for the whole state of Christ’s Church in the bcp1549 Canon –

And here we do geve unto thee moste high praise, and heartie thankes, for the wonderfull grace and vertue, declared in all thy sainctes, from the begynning of the worlde: And chiefly in the glorious and moste blessed virgin Mary, mother of thy sonne Jesu Christe our Lorde and God, and in the holy Patriarches, Prophetes, Apostles and Martyrs, whose examples (O Lorde) and stedfastnes in thy fayth, and kepyng thy holy commaundementes, graunt us to folowe. We commend unto thy mercye (O Lorde) all other thy servauntes, which are departed hence from us, with the signe of faith, and nowe do reste in the slepe of peace: Graunt unto them, we beseche thee, thy mercy, and everlasting peace, and that, at the day of the generall resurreccion, we and all they which bee of the misticall body of thy sonne, may altogether be set on his right hand, and heare that his most ioyfull voyce: Come unto me, O ye that be blessed of my father, and possesse the kingdom, whiche is prepared for you from the begynning of the worlde: Graunt this, O father, for Jesus Christes sake, our onely mediatour and advocate.

– itself taken in part from the Roman Canon, the Liturgy of St Basil, and the Sarum Mass of the Five Wounds.