Tewkesbury Abbey 31 July 2019

Musica Deo Sacra Festival

The Intention of Christ the King

There was once a young boy of five who declared that when he grew up, he would be King of the World. By the time he was twelve, those ambitions had scaled down – just a little. And are now realised. Don’t worry; this is not going to become an indepth analysis of the state of the nation and our current PM – there’s plenty of that already. But we are going to think about where our real humanity lies.

There was once a young boy who sat at the feet of his elders, and whose finest moment was to die on a cross. We are here to celebrate Christ the King, with wonderful music and liturgy: to celebrate another realm that overturns all earthly powers and dominions, and to which we ultimately belong. A realm that calls into question the worldly ambition and the pre-occupation with self and power that fuels so much of society. For as we worship, we lose ourselves. We are there as we participate in the Christ who was fully human, fully divine. 

The language of the readings set for today stretch the meaning of the words beyond normal understanding. We hear Jesus Christ described as the Alpha and the Omega, the one who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. When Pilate summons this strange criminal to ask him ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ he hears the response – what he made of it we can only guess – that Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world, but belongs to all those who testify to the truth. ‘Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’, says Jesus. 

When we talk of Christ the King we are not talking about Jesus as a monarch as the world knows power. Instead we encounter someone whose presence is truth, the Alpha and Omega of all creation. Christ is King of everything there is, ruling not with the power of law, or coercion, or human charm and persuasion, but with the truth and beauty of love. 

Musica Deo Sacra is 50 years old this year. People come year after year. They come – you come – seeking the incredible combination of great music and liturgy. As we listen and participate, we experience something inexpressible, sublime, unutterable, that engages all we are. 

The naturalist Michael McCarthy, in his book The Moth Snowstorm, captures something of it when he describes a blackcap singing in a tree:

Here was this God-given, blossoming snow-white tree, which was breathtaking in its beauty; and here was this God-given, breathtaking sound coming out of it. This tree, this tree of trees, was not just an astonishing apotheosis of floral beauty. It now appeared to be singing.

The rational part of me couldn’t cope. It was all too much, and it fell to bits. I had gone way past simple admiration into some unknown part of the spectrum of the senses, and there was only one possible response: I burst out laughing. And there, in the exquisite fullness of the springtime, was the joy of it. (McCarthy 2016, p.154, abridged)

‘And there, in the exquisite fullness of the springtime, was the joy of it.’ He describes a fullness that overflows the normal boundaries of the self into something past simple admiration, into ineffability. It’s here that music, art and poetry opens out into truth, and our response is beyond words – for him, laughter, joy. This is where we tumble into worship. Where art and music begin, to end in praise and thanksgiving, perhaps even glossolalia. 

We know what the apostle Paul means when he writes to the Church in Ephesus:

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3, 18–19)

The realm of Christ the King is where the fullness of God stretches us beyond normal perception.  Imagine all the galaxies, known and unknown, reaching over vast expanses of space. Or the tiniest nano-particle, a quark, a neutrino – too small to be seen, but detectable all the same. The boundless extent of all there is, in any direction. Contemplate the inner life of humanity, the heights and depths of the human heart and mind. Filled with overwhelming joy; moved by some wonder of the natural world; or ecstatic as we listen to a fine piece of music. Wonderful though it is – in the realm of Christ, there is always more. 

Wherever we go, as human beings, we can never come to the end of the experience of our hearts, minds, souls or strength. Whatever branch of human understanding, the ground is endless in what we can explore, the depths and heights we can reach. For there is always more in Christ, who dwells in us, as we dwell in him, participating in the fullness of God.

We arrive at one of the great debates of our age. Is our experience all that there is, in a finite world? Or is there reality beyond the utmost bounds of human thought? Some say yes. Some call this transcendent other, God. 

They say that God isn’t a thing alongside other things in that vast universe that humans experience (Shortt 2016). God can’t be identified or located through human faculties alone. God isn’t there to be grasped and domesticated: ‘Now I’ve got God!’

Some will explain the experience of awe within an exclusively humanist frame, reducing such experience to materialist explanations. Awe becomes merely a sophisticated firing of neurons in the brain. The humanist and atheist Raymond Tallis is more nuanced, but still holds that our consciousness of awe can be explained within an everyday transcendence that doesn’t require recourse to God. 

I’m not convinced. It’s not enough for humanity to believe exclusively in itself. 

We only find our full humanity as we participate in the God who is the transcendent Other; ineffable, beyond, beneath, behind, before the seemingly endless reaches of human understanding. 

Art and music take us most of the way. 

Jesus Christ is the way. The truth. The life.

Malcolm Guite captures it in his sonnet Good Measure:  

More than good measure, measure of all things,

Pleroma overflowing to our need,

Fullness of glory, all that glory brings,

Unguessed-at blessing, springing from each seed,

Even the things within the world you make

Give more than all they have, for they are more

Than all they are. Gifts given for the sake

Of love keep giving; draw us to the core,

Where love and giving come from: the rich source

That wells within the fullness of the world,

The reservoir, the never-spent resource,

Poured out in wounded love, until it spilled

Even from your body on the cross;

The heart’s blood of our maker shed for us.

Guite reminds us that at the heart of the fullness of God is gift. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that all should not perish but have eternal life. God gives someone whose response to God and love of humanity took him to the cross. All there is turns on a gift given for the sake of love, which keeps giving in all joy and suffering, now and for ever, and which draws us back to God. The cup overflows. 

Christ reigns in this realm of love and truth, and it is here that we find our full humanity. This is not a kingdom where power is the will to mastery, to dominate, to fulfil earthly ambition. Christ the King shows the ultimate power of human weakness and death, under the powers of hatred and cruelty, to reveal a greater, deeper life that is ours as we participate in the fullness of God.  

Whatever pain or injury we suffer, whatever fear we might have of death, there is an abundant world where we belong. Where everything lives and moves and has its being in the fullness of the God who is love.

When we hear or see something sublime and transcendent in the beauty of music, or the intricacy of a spider’s web, or the dawn coming up over the sea, we encounter a transcendent fullness that breaks through the confines of the ordinary limits of experience. We glimpse a love that passes human understanding. Which sustains all living creation, even through death.

We survey the wondrous cross, gazing on Christ the King, the prince of glory, and our ego-driven thirst for control and power is known for what it is in the light of the self-giving love for the world.  Christ the King shows us the truth and cost of that love. When we hear or glimpse the unutterable, we know the heart of God, a love and joy that knows all loss and pain and yet affirms the fullness of life.  

Listening to music such as this festival offers, at one level, enables the experience of awe, wonder and enchantment. Listening to music within liturgy is to go further into our humanity. It is to offer a sacrifice of our selves by turning away from self and ego in love and praise to God. We are encountered, then, by a fullness beyond anything we can conceive. We stand under the glory of the cross, knowing and not-knowing the mysterious truth at the heart of the universe. 

Wonderful music, inspiring architecture, stirring art: the experience of awe. All within the context of the liturgy. All the best that humanity creates and offers finds its fullness, ultimately, in worship. We are created to worship – it is the end of who we are. 

We are fully human as we offer ourselves to the truth of love that knows all pain and suffering, realised within the fullness of love and joy. As we worship, we open ourselves to encounter the love that challenges us out of ourselves, into the humanity we are called to be, full of the abundant life that Jesus Christ the King gives.