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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

19 November 2021

Malcolm Guite reflects on the paradox of the feast of Christ the King

SO, WITH the feast of Christ the King, which seems somehow earlier this year, we come to the end of the liturgical year, even if the calendar year has another month and more to stagger through. This feast is a comparatively late addition to the liturgical calendar, of course, and is something of a challenge — or, more charitably, a paradox.

In one of the Advent antiphons, Christ is hailed as Rex Gentium, King of the Nations, but in his earthly life, and in the history of the world, he has never been crowned, except with thorns. Indeed, to call the carpenter of Nazareth a king is to subvert radically and then to reimagine the meaning of kingship.

Christ himself makes this explicit on Maundy Thursday, when he takes the bowl and the towel and washes the feet of his disciples, declaring “I am among you as one who serves.” There is, however, something in the idea of the itinerant carpenter who is, in truth, a hidden king, which touches on one of the deepest motifs of our own folklore and mythology: there is King Lear on the heath, exposed in the storm, and willingly so, to feel alongside poor Tom o’ Bedlam the worst of life, and calling on other kings to do the same:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed

Your loop’d and window’d raggedness,
   defend you

From seasons such as these? O! I have ta’en
Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

Indeed, the theological reach of that scene is clear, as Shakespeare imagines a king before the time of Christ declaring that only a king who knows poverty and “feels what wretches feel” can show the true justice of heaven.

And, to move on from Shakespeare, there is the figure of Strider in Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, the ragged ranger who walks with the Fellowship on the hard road, long before they discover that he is their true king.

Perhaps we love these stories of the hidden king because, deep down, we know that that is how God has come to us. Perhaps the source of all the hidden-king stories is the story that Jesus tells in Matthew 25 of the king who gathers the nations to judgement, and then reveals that he has been met with already, unrecognised, again and again, in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, and the sick. Indeed, that was the reading set for Christ the King in the year when I wrote my poem for the feast:

Christ the King

Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of
Our hoardings screen us from the man of
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: “I am
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.

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