O Rex Gentium: O King of the Nations

by
21 December 2018

Jane Williams reflects on her penultimate antiphon from ‘The Great Os’ of Advent

The Picture Art Collection/Alamy

Elohim creating Adam, William Blake (1795)

Elohim creating Adam, William Blake (1795)

BLAKE’s depiction of the creation of Adam is by no means a celebration of life. Blake was deeply ambivalent about the theological narrative that seems to say that we are created good but constantly judged for being unable to live up to our origins. It is as though we are blamed for being what we are.

This painting is full of pain and bitter symbolism. The winged creator figure, whom Blake called Elohim, rather than God, has a look of fierce, abstracted effort on his face, as he wrenches Adam out of the ground. His left hand is clenching the earth, as though he is having to tear it away from Adam.

Adam, too, looks full of terrible sorrow, his left hand desperately reaching back into the watery darkness beneath him, which represents the homely nothingness he longs for, and from which he is being forcibly removed.

Even as the earth begins to recede, the human form is already manacled to its deathly destiny. Already, the serpent is coiled around Adam’s leg, which ends in a hoof. He is an unclean thing, bereft of choice, from the start. Adam longs to be uncreated, disembodied, returned to nothingness, rather than burdened with this earthly life in which no freedom from sin is possible.

 

BLAKE’s tragic vision of human destiny rings true: from this terrible beginning flows a human race constantly forced, almost against its will, to wage war on each other and wreak havoc on the earth.

At Advent, we call out to Jesus as the King of the Nations, the one who can take the responsibility of this tragic history from our shoulders, and lift from us the weight of rule and governance that we are so incapable of exercising well.

There is no sense that Blake intended this echo, yet the racked figure of Adam seems to prefigure that of Jesus, laid out on the cross, his arms outstretched, his hands waiting for the impact of the hammered nails.

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Just as Blake’s Adam is made unclean by his creation, as symbolised by his cloven hoof, so too was Jesus’s punishment designed to declare him unclean — “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deuteronomy 21.23). Paul picks up the reference in Galatians 3.13, with the extraordinary statement that Christ becomes “a curse for us”.

 

THE bitter, enslaved humanity that Blake seems to show us is one that Jesus deliberately takes on himself. If this is indeed what it is to be human, then this is where Jesus will go.

But Jesus comes to this state as “King of the Nations”. Adam is not the fount of the human race, the matrix through which its meaning must be read — Jesus is. If we can imagine Blake’s picture of creation being mapped on to one of the crucifixion where the human figure is now Jesus, then what we are seeing is what is described in Ephesians 2.15-22: Jesus is making a new humanity. The fragmented pieces of the old humanity are nailed to the cross and put to death, so that what is reborn is the new nation of which Jesus is king.

We are no longer “strangers and aliens”, as Blake’s Adam is to his hated existence; instead, we are “members of the household of God”. Sad, egocentric, embittered, and self-obsessed as we are, we have tended to assume that Jesus became human like us, but now, illuminatingly, we discover that we are invited to become human like him. Jesus is the original, in whose likeness we are dreamed.

As we wipe away the clinging soil, unwind the grave clothes, what we find is our humanity, rejoicing. Ours is not a fearful legacy, where we are called to be what we cannot be, and judged when we fail. Instead, we are invited home, where all our sins are forgiven, nailed to the tree.

 

THE Advent assertion that Jesus is King of the Nations is one that reclaims the creation vision of the oneness of the human family, all made from the same dust, all tracing our blood lines back to one progenitor, all given a joint share in the one world.

In Jesus, all of this comes together again. Here, again, we find we are one human race, not fragmented by enmity; sharing one world, not fighting to break it into pieces; knowing one source, owing allegiance to one king.

So look again — Adam or Jesus? Life torn from the earth, or life offered to the earth? Desolation or restoration? Expulsion or homecoming?

 

For reflection or discussion

Do you feel hopeful about your life?

What practical things can we do to live as though we believe that Jesus is “King of the Nations”?

 

Come, Holy Spirit, and draw us, rejoicing, into the kingdom where Jesus reigns over all, enthroned at the right hand of the Father. Amen.

 

The text is from The Art of Advent: A painting a day from Advent to Epiphany (SPCK Publishing, 2018, £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9)).

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