Music Notes | Last Sunday of Pentecost – Christ the King

Eric Mellenbruch
Associate Director of Music
and Organist

‘At the Name of Jesus’ [435] was written by Caroline Maria Noel, an Englishwoman who in 1861 published a collection of verse, The Name of Jesus, and Other Verses for the Sick and Lonely, written over a decade or so during which she was bedridden (as she continued to be for the rest of her life). The theme alluded to in the title and treated in the opening poem must have been an important one for Noel, as the second edition  also included a text for Ascension Day beginning ‘In the Name of Jesus’ (the first word later altered to ‘At’ by hymnal editors to conform with common translations of Philippians 2). 

The text may have been intended for, or inspired by, Ascension Day, but – especially in its full, original form, the second and third stanzas of which do not appear in the Hymnal 1982 – it covers the entire life and ministry of Christ from his eternal home in heaven, to his role in creation, to his earthly life and death, to his resurrection, ascension, and return. It is thus appropriate on several other occasions, including this last Sunday after Pentecost, on which we celebrate the kingship of Christ as we look to his final advent.

This Feast of Christ the King was instituted in the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Pius XI in 1925 to remind the faithful of their allegiance to God rather than to earthly rulers (specifically, Mussolini) and was taken up by other communions in the ecumenical consensus that followed the Second Vatican Council. From the beginning, the feast has reflected the ambivalence of Our Lord himself towards the monarchical imagery that often, understandably, attaches itself to religion and religious figures. The Gospel originally appointed for this feast (now read in Year B of the three-year lectionary) is the scene of Jesus before Pilate: Christ is being hailed, or mocked, as the ‘King of the Jews’ but seems reluctant to take on the title, being more interested in truth than (earthly) power. 

In this year’s Gospel we read more about this most curious king: we may rightly await his glorious return, but we learn that he has actually been coming and going among us all along: ‘Just as you did it to [i.e. fed, visited, welcomed, clothed, sheltered] one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Furthermore, as ‘At the Name of Jesus’ (referring to various Epistles) tells us, not only has the Divine been among and within us mortals, but Christ’s human Name and nature (what Noel calls ‘its human light’, and the Articles of Religion [BCP 868] call ‘all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven’) have been both taken up ‘to the throne of Godhead, to the Father’s breast’, and ‘filled…with the glory of that perfect rest’. 

This brings us to Sunday’s Epistle, a passage from Ephesians 1 to which our hymn refers – 

God put [his] power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

– as well as the somewhat similar Epistle (Colossians 1.15–20) appointed for this day in Year C. The Kingdom of which Christ speaks so often is one filled – abundantly, he might say – with the fullness of God; one in which the divine purposes and vision are fulfilled; one in which we come to know God (in Christ, who is fully divine and is fully – indeed, the perfectly fulfilled – human) fully. Its King is already fully present within us; he simply waits for us to, as our hymn says, ‘in [our] hearts enthrone him’, to ‘let his will enfold [us] in its light and power’, and as the Baptismal Covenant (drawing on this week’s Gospel) says, ‘to seek and serve him in all persons’, to fully ‘respect the dignity [because they too bear the glorious image of God] of every human being’. The head of that Kingdom is indeed a ‘King of glory’, whom, as Noel says, our hearts and tongues confess, and who is ‘ever to be worshiped, trusted, and adored’.

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