A Tale of Three Holidays
Scriptures: Ephesians 1:15-23, Psalm 95:1-7a
This week we have experienced not one, but three distinct holidays. One, a well-intentioned national holiday, one, a less-well intentioned corporate and cultural holiday of sorts, and one, an often-overlooked church holiday. I am referring of course to Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Reign of Christ Sunday. A friend of mine asked if it was reasonable to call Black Friday a holiday, to which another retorted: “Well, it depends on your religion.” The origin story of each of these days can tell us a great deal about not just how but why we mark them with fanfare. Three holidays, three stories, and somehow across two millennia, Paul manages to address all three.
Thanksgiving harkens back to 1620, when the starving settlers of the Mayflower had their first successful corn harvest with the help of Squanto and the Wam-pan-o-ag natives. Following that first “Thanksgiving,” many days were established by various presidents and states as one-off celebrations of thanks, but it wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation that the day became a national holiday. He wrote, “The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.” Now, this was the peak of the Civil War, and Lincoln went on to ask all Americans to “commend to [God’s] tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.”
On Thanksgiving Day, regardless of circumstance (which could hardly be worse than Lincoln’s!), we are called by our nation to mark our thankfulness.
Now Black Friday has a more checkered history. HILARY STOUT of the New York Times offers this background:
The word “black” in front of a day of the week has almost never meant anything good.
Black Monday was the sell-off the day before the stock market crash of 1929, Black Tuesday, as well was the day of an even bigger crash in 1987. Black Wednesday was used to refer to a day of widespread air traffic snarls in 1954, as well as the day the British government was forced to withdraw a battered pound from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992. Black Thursday has variously been used to describe days of devastating brush fires, bombings and athletic defeats, among other unpleasantness.
Ben Zimmer, executive producer of Vocabulary.com, who has researched and written about the term, says its association with shopping the day after Thanksgiving began in Philadelphia in the 1960s — and even then, the reference wasn’t positive.
The local police took to calling the day Black Friday because they had to deal with bad traffic and other miseries connected to the throngs of shoppers heading for the stores.
Needless to say, that usage didn’t sit well with local retailers. They tried, according to Mr. Zimmer, to give the day a more positive name: Big Friday. (NYT)
Obviously, that didn’t take, and eventually retailers put a new spin on the name, noting that it was the day their balance sheets transitioned from red (or negative) to black (or positive). Today, other celebrations of retail have taken similar names, notably Cyber Monday and Prime Day.
On Black Friday, we are called by our culture to mark our rampant consumerism.
Now Christ the King or The Reign of Christ Sunday comes to us through the Lectionary and the church calendar. As church holidays (or holy days) go, Christ the King is the baby in the family. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in the face of growing fascism and nationalist political ideologies. Through the Revised Common Lectionary, we Protestants also mark this day as a reminder that our highest allegiance belongs to Christ and Christ alone.
As I mentioned in our children’s message, next week we start the church calendar afresh with the beginning of Advent, preparing our hearts for the cosmic event that changed all reality—the birth of Christ. Our new year begins with anticipation and yearning. From there the church calendar goes on with the high holy days of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. After Christmas, we celebrate the baptism of our Lord; we get ready for Easter during Lent, and after Pentecost we celebrate Trinity Sunday. Following that we have a long season of Pentecost or ordinary time. Celebrating the Reign of Christ on the last Sunday of our church calendar marks a good ending to our church year.
On Christ the King Sunday, we are called by our faith to celebrate Jesus’ sovereignty over all things, our lives included.
As I said, I find that Paul’s prayer here in Ephesians address all three of these specially marked days.
Paul, who has never met the Ephesians, is thankful for their faith in Jesus and their love for the saints, or other Christians. This is Paul’s thanksgiving. It is followed quickly by what I’ll go ahead and call his Black Friday, in which he prays that they be given a spirit of wisdom and revelation, that the eyes of their hearts would be open, and that (and here’s the Black Friday part) they might know the true riches of their inheritance in Christ.
Just what kind of riches is Paul describing? Does it look like mountainous displays of toys and kitchen gadgets? Does it look like easy-everywhere technology that somehow always complicates our lives despite its promises? No, these riches are hope and power.
With the Ephesians we celebrate the “hope to which we are called,” which is evidenced through the resurrection and enthronement of Christ. Note that God’s power is not limited to re-animation, but extends to incorporating Jesus’ humanity into God’s power and presence. The same God who formed the earth also established Jesus Christ’s reign over it.
And so we have Paul’s powerful declaration that Jesus is the head of all. Note the political nature of Paul’s claim—that all earthly rule is subject to Christ’s power. God has put all things under his authority and all names—Caesar, Obama, and Trump included—under his feet.
Yet we perpetually struggle with the desire for Christ to look like our earthly rulers.
Paul’s proclamation of Christ’s exclusive sovereignty over the cosmos can create a temptation to expect some of that glory to extend to us, the church. We just need to step forward and claim our prize, right? The blessing is ours and prosperity or at least heavenly riches await!
Even the DaVinci painting that just sold for $450 million dollars casts the cosmic Christ as an earthly ruler, holding the crystal sphere of the cosmos in his hand like a European sovereign. Few moments make it easier to understand just how far our image of Jesus can part from the reality of his reign than the sale of a painted “portrait” for nearly half a billion dollars, or (just so we don’t lose track of exactly how unimaginably expensive that is) 7500 times the median yearly wage of an American worker.
Other rulers seek to gather people together under their reign, but such conquest is invariably about personal and/or corporate magnification. But as we are bound to Jesus, we are also bound to the nature of his ministry and Lordship. As the Psalm reveals, the God who established the foundations of the earth is not coercive. Our God does not use force or shame or manipulation. The Great King above all gods invites us to worship. This is not a punitive relationship.
Did you know that the root of discipline is disciple? To teach? Just as discipline needs to be re-imagined as a practice of teaching, so too must we recognize that we are invited into a relationship with Jesus that is marked by learning, not punishment.
There has always been something ironic or even paradoxical in the nature of Jesus’ kingship. As Irenaeus of Lyon, a 2nd Century Bishop, describes: “Scriptures testify two things about him at the same time: on the one hand, that he was not a comely person (here he is referencing Isaiah 53:2: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”), was subject to suffering, rode on the foal of an ass, drank vinegar and gall, was despised among the people, and humbled himself to the point of death; and, on the other hand, that he is Holy Lord, Wonderful, Counselor, and beautiful to look upon, and mighty God, and Judge of all, who comes on the clouds” (The Christological Controversy, 1980, p56).
Jesus’ kingship wraps up all of these things together. Every bit of his humble humanity dwells together with his awesome divinity.
As Christ’s body, we don’t celebrate our dominance over the world, but rather our servitude to it. We are invited into the ongoing work of salvation and reconciliation. Only Christ’s cosmic power is enough to break the wall of hostility between people, as Paul declares in 2:14. Christ’s exclusive power leads us to an inclusive hope.
We are a scattered people. The King of the universe binds us together. As we listened to Christians from other cultures during our latest SPC Together series, we were blessed to experience this binding. We heard stories of faith and the many ways that we are all God’s people. As the Psalm declares, we, all of us, are the sheep of God’s hand.
As Paul declares in 1:10, in Jesus, God is gathering all things together.
Christ reigns above all earthly rule, for all things are under his feet. In Christ we find hope for all the world. Christ is our All in All.
So, let us be thankful for our blessings, let us seek after true riches, and let us live in the assurance that the tomb is empty and Christ reigns on high, embracing the call and freedom to love and serve others, knowing that God is gathering all things together in Christ.