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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Where Dwells This King of Glory

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

            There is an image that stirs me so deeply I cannot put words to it or explain it.  At least once a year I feel it coming and my whole body begins to anticipate its response. It happened four weeks ago.  It was All Saints Day.  We were singing, as we always do, the Litany of All Saints including the stanzas of the hymn interspersed throughout.  And here came this verse:

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array:
The king of glory passes on his way, Alleluia.

            In my mind’s eye, the king of glory rides a white horse.  With head lifted high, eyes beaming, clad in a homespun robe, his simple crown made of burnished gold, he rides through throngs from every family, language, people and nation, who bow in adoration and wonder as he passes on his way.  I see him so clearly, as if I were looking at an illustration from a child’s book I might once have held.  And yet I’m there, in the picture, a moving part.  And you are there, too.  And surprising people who I wouldn’t have imagined showing up to see the king of glory are there, as awestruck as any.  Old people and children, men in business suits and leather daddies, women in bikinis and nuns in their habits, garage mechanics and poets and farmers and professors and toothless beggars can’t say a word, utter a sound.  We all just watch the king of glory, whose very sight takes our breath away.

            Where does this come from, this image?  And why do I invariably find myself tearing up when I encounter it?  Why does it stick in my throat when I try to sing the words?  And why would I be telling you all this rather personal, perhaps even private, response to it?

            Let me start answering by parsing the Collect of the Day.  “Almighty God, whose will it is to restore all things…”  We need little convincing that things in this world are flying apart.  I suppose if I were to speak that sentence in Paris this morning, it might sound as if I were mocking an incredibly horrible national wound with words too light to describe it, so shocking the cruelty and devastating results of intentional terror.  But there is another world where things are in disarray.  It is the interior world of the human soul.  St. Athanasius once remarked that the image of God in humanity was flaking away like the cracked and peeling paint of a portrait, needing total restoration.  The chief symptom of the chaos in any of our souls—most of which we are unconscious of—is the pervasive feeling that we are separate.  In some native African religions, there is a myth that once the gods dwelt very close to the earth at about the level of the tree tops until something happened and they withdrew and became distant.  That feeling is replicated in various ways all over the world.  We sense we are alone, isolated.  Our culture specializes in teaching and celebrating the individual, teaching us that we are fundamentally distinct from other human beings.  But even cultures that de-emphasize the individual prize the identity of tribe and fuel a sense of differentness, of separation that guarantees inter-tribal suspicion and competition and ultimately warfare.  The image of the One is flaking away, and in bad need of restoration.

            The collect goes on, praying, “…in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords.”  Listen for a second and you might begin humming the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah.  I want to ask a peculiar question, though, as you hum along with Handel in your heart.  Where is this king of glory?  Do you imagine that he is up in the sky somewhere?  Do you think he is just out of this world?  Well, he is in heaven, you say.  So where is heaven?  Heaven is where God is.  And where is God not?  The first thing I learned in catechism class when I was eight was the answer to the question, “Where is God?”  God, the catechism said, “is everywhere.”  “Where shall I go then from your Spirit?” asks the psalmist.  “Where shall I flee from your presence?  If I climb up to heaven, you are there.  If I make the grave my bed, you are there also.  If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there you hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast.”  There is no place you can go or be where God is not.  And so heaven, if by that we mean where God lives and reigns, is not a place somewhere, but a reality, a dimension, an experience that you can enter any time you please.  The gates are always open, and there is no secret password to getting in.  In fact, it is in your body.  Touch the tip of your nose.  God is there.  Look at your little fingernail.  Heaven is there.  Rub your belly.  God is there.  Heaven is nearer to you than the saliva on your tongue.  God is in everything on your body, in your body, and a part of your body.  And so this King of kings is all over you and all in you and one with you.

            That should not, by the way, be a surprise to anyone who has even a toe in the water of Anglican spiritual tradition.  Many of us have been praying for years such phrases in the Eucharist as “made one body with him, that he may dwell in us and we in him” and “…so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.”  That’s incarnation—the Word made flesh and the flesh made universal!  That’s resurrection:  the divine flesh affirmed and transformed and then offered in water, bread, and wine so that everyone may be made one, reconciled, in him.

            And so the collect rolls into the next phrase:  “Grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin…” Ah!  That word!  Many years ago Karl Menninger of the famous Menninger Clinic treating psychiatric disorders authored a book, “Whatever Became of Sin?”  He suggested that we have lost sin as a meaningful understanding of what is deeply wrong in the human soul.  We have trivialized sin, replacing it with crime, sickness, and other categories. The root of sin, long before it manifests in such things as injustice, hate, enmity, strife, and willful destructiveness, is this basic illusion of separation.  Say it is inevitable, or a part of our hard wiring, or the consequence of the human being coming into our own kind of consciousness:  whatever.  As long as we see ourselves in opposition to creation, to the Creator, and to other creatures, we are “divided and enslaved” by sin.  Why enslaved?  Because we become addicted to our habits of heart, our patterns of thinking, our own defenses behind our walls of isolation.

            The collect has us praying that we may “be freed and brought together.”  We should know by now that this freeing is not a one-time-only event.  It is ongoing, and it is as eternal as the condition from which we are freed.  That is why confession is so integral a spiritual practice.  We have constantly to remind ourselves of our dance with delusion, the notion that we can free ourselves.  Now here is the climax—the moment when the king of glory passes on his way.  His way is right through the heart of you, down in the depths of your soul.  Imagine fire coming from the nostrils of the horse he is riding, a fire that you feel as a deep burning, yearning, that strangely becomes a tear-producing joy.  And imagine that has that unearthly fire breathes through you, the king of glory turns, and of all things, winks at you, making you laugh uncontrollably and cry at the same time, so undone you are by that little wink that says, “God, how I love you!”  Remember that all this is coming from the one who lives in you and in whom you live.  You are inseparable from him who now frees you and heals this condition of morbid isolation that you taste perhaps as anxiety sometimes, as depression sometimes. 

            Then there is this last little phrase in the collect:  “under his most gracious rule.”  Your soul is not terribly different from a puppy.  Puppies don’t do well unless they bond with a master.  Smart dog owners know that training a dog is not an act of cruelty or abusive power but an act of love.  Dogdom is full of happy dogs who, in their own form of consciousness, know the deep connection between obedience and love.  Humans, used to justifying our separateness—men against women, women against men—humans against nature, nature against humans—people against God and God against people and people squared off against each other—have a harder time, partly because we often think it is wrong to submit to anybody.  Hence we don’t even want to call him Lord, since it smacks of the very oppression which we imagine we ought to be freed from.  It messes up our minds, quite literally, to hear that down deep we need to obey.  But we are not talking here about obeying external authority, but obeying the deepest part of our Selves. And the deepest, most beautiful part of ourselves is this heaven in which dwells graciousness and courteousness personified in the King of kings.  When you so much as imagine it, much more when you feel it, you’ll find yourself breathing a sigh of deep peace.  The king of glory will be passing on his way.


© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2015

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