Music Notes | The Feast of Christ the King

Eric Mellenbruch Associate Director of Music and Organist

The 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. The title is not used in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and the occasion is not a feast properly so called but is a privileged Sunday, always the last one after Pentecost before the beginning of the Advent season and a new liturgical year.

The liturgy at 11:15 begins with the Introit for this feast, taken from the heavenly acclamation in the fifth chapter of the Revelation to St John: 

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain

to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might

and honor and glory and blessing.

(The music for this Introit, needed for the newly appointed feast, was adapted from an existing Introit – just as many other chants have been adapted and appropriated as occasions have demanded over the centuries. It is also heard, at both 9:00 and 11:15, in an organ volutary by 20th-century French Benedictine Paul Benoit.)

The Introit sets the tone for the liturgy and for our understanding of Christ as King: he is the one who ‘came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’, as Sts Matthew and Mark, and our Prayer Book, put it, and his power flows only thence. From the beginning, the present feast has indeed reflected the ambivalence of Our Lord 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, the current year, 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.

Another passage from the Revelation, this time from the first chapter, serves as the Epistle; it offers a striking list of the attributes of this most curoius king – he is ‘the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth…who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father’ – before looking to his return:

Look! He is coming with the clouds;

every eye will see him,

even those who pierced him;

and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.

This passage forms the basis of one of Charles Wesley’s best hymns, ‘Lo! he comes with clouds descending’ [57], titled ‘Thy Kingdom come’. The most striking stanza of all, however, is the third, which affirms not only that the ascended and then returning Christ still bears the signs of his sacrifice, but also that those wounds are sign and means of his glorification:

Those dear tokens of his passion

still his dazzling body bears,

cause of endless exultation

to his ransomed worshippers;

with what rapture, with what rapture

gaze we on those glorious scars!

Though an alternative tune is provided in the Hymnal, Wesley’s hymn has been set from the beginning to the tune ‘Helmsley’, whose composer is not known with certainty but may have been Martin Madan, who also wrote part of the hymn ‘Hail, thou once despisèd Jesus’ and was an influential hymnal compiler and editor. Ralph Vaughan Williams’s arrangement transforms the somewhat trivial 18th-century tune into an exceedingly grand piece of music that, however much attention it draws to itself, is also a worthy vehicle for Wesley’s words.

The Gospel for this day also offers an opportunity to sing a very fine devotional hymn that otherwise is usually sung only on Palm Sunday: ‘My song is love unknown’ [458]. Published in 1664 by Samuel Crossman, an Anglican (and sometime Dissenting) clergyman, it was not used as a congregational song until the 19th century. The intensely personal and emotional text – written in a mood one might call ‘dumbfounded’ – makes excellent use of the chosen stanzaic form: four lines of 6 syllables each, rhymed abab, followed by four lines of 4 syllables each, rhymed cddc. In every stanza the last four lines contain a contradiction (‘but…’, ‘then…’, ‘yet…’) or an intensification and personalization (‘who am I’, ‘O my friend’, ‘What may I say?’, ‘This is my friend’) of the first four, and the many contradictions, reversals, and ironies are also evoked formally in the cddc rhyme. The text is admirably supported by a tune written for it by John Ireland in 1919, which, sensitive to Crossman’s many enjambed lines, combines lines 3–4, 5–6, and 7–8 into one musical phrase each.

Our entrance hymn, the excellent ‘At the Name of Jesus’ [435], was covered in the notes for this same Sunday last year, November 22. Our postcommunion hymn is ‘Crown him with many crowns’ [494], whose well-crafted tune beginning with a fanfare-like gesture (which, however picturesque, does suit the dactyl at the beginning of the stanza) is probably responsible for most of its popularity; nevertheless the text admirably conveys Christ’s incarnation, Passion, and exaltation, and above all his ‘wondrous name of Love’.

The closing voluntary is the last movement, ‘Acclamations’, of the Suite Médiévale by 20th-century French composer Jean Langlais; it is based upon the text and chant of what are sometimes called the ‘Royal Acclamations’, a set of prayers for the Church that, among long litanies and other prayers, includes lines such as the following:

Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ commands. 

Give ear, O Christ…King of kings, our King, our Hope, our Glory… 

To him alone be authority, praise, and rejoicing, through the ages of ages… 

Let the peace of Christ come! Let the reign of Christ come! Thanks be to God. Amen. 

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