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The Reign of Christ is a day when we call to mind a lot of epic imagery: a mighty ruler coming down from heaven, billowing clouds either side; castle gates opening wide to make way for a procession; trumpets sounding, sun glistening all around. Our music this morning evokes this very imagery. Charles Wesley’s immortal words: “Lo, he comes with clouds descending/Once for favoured sinners slain/Thousand thousand saints attending/Swell the triumph of his train:/Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!/God appears, on earth to reign.”

There’s the American Catholic priest William Jabusch, who composed this memorable ditty: “The King of glory comes, the nation rejoices. Open the gates before him, lift up your voices.”

And, then, there’s the modern earworm “Days of Elijah” by Northern Ireland’s Robin Mark (there are even actions to this one): “Behold He comes, riding on the clouds, Shining like the sun at the trumpet call. Lift your voice, it’s the year of jubilee, And out of Zion's hill, salvation comes.”

I wonder, on a day like today, when you imagine this ruler coming down from heaven, who is it that you see? What do they look like? I once asked my Sunday School class what God looks like, and one of the kids said, “Ariel’s dad” (from The Little Mermaid). King Triton with his big muscles and his flowing white beard.

Another kid said, “Nah, more like Hercules.”

Yet another said, “He’s really more like Tarzan.”

I was hoping the kids would’ve said one of my favourite Disney heroes, like the Black Panther. Or, the Woman King, a film about Agojie, the all-female warrior unit that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey during the 17th to 19th centuries. I know these images are, perhaps, the farthest thing from what the Reign of Christ is actually supposed to look like, but this is what’s often imprinted on our imaginations. Perhaps it’s no accident? Most of the imagery in the Western world for god-figures is presented to us through Disney or Disney-adjacent adventure films.

But, it’s not just Disney who’s responsible for the images of Christ that take up real estate in our minds. There’s also the long history of Western Christian art: Raphael’s Jesus at the transfiguration; the Italian painter, Andrea Mantegna, and his “Adoration of the Magi”, the magi, depicted as Asian, Middle Eastern, and African, present expensive porcelain, agate, and brass from the Persian, China, and Ottoman Empires while gazing upon a very white, very European-born Jesus. This imagery of Christ very much symbolizing the European trade and colonization of the time. 

Then, there is the all-time most reproduced image of Jesus: Walter Sallman’s 1940 “Head of Christ”—printed on candles, prayer cards, stained glass, oil paintings, hymnals, night lights—you name it. Walter Sallman actually got started in his career as a commercial artist for advertising campaigns, so it’s no wonder his rendering of Jesus was such a success!

My goal in recognizing some of the origins of our “Christ” imagery isn’t to shame us for the images we hold dear. We needn’t go away and rid ourselves or our grandmothers of every cherished Walter Sallman trinket. Recognizing the images of Christ that “reign” in our minds is simply to help us put some context around the images that we might default to or be the most familiar with. And, perhaps, once we’re more aware of that, we might consider some other, less popularized images of Christ.

I think of the 17th century depiction of the Holy Family originating in Northern India. Jesus is prevented from tipping over a porcelain vase by his mother, Mary, whose fingers are painted red with henna; around her forehead, she wears a bindi. The suggestion here that Jesus is very much in the care of an Indian mother and perhaps even the offspring of an Indian woman.

Or, how about the rendering of Leonardo DaVinci’s “Last Supper” with Jesus cast as Jamaican-born model Tamari Hinds? This is by Lorna May Wadsworth. A 9ft print of her painting was hung on the altar at St Alban’s Cathedral in Hertfordshire in 2020. 

Even as we try, on this feast of Christ the King, to recall and re-form the reigning images of Christ in our minds, I’m conscious of the fact that it wasn’t, in the end, skin colour or gender that Jesus was keenly aware of as he described to his disciples what the reign of Christ would look like. The story of the sheep being separated from the goats in our gospel reading this morning comes on the heels of several parables where Jesus tries to get through to his disciples that there is no one nation, no one ethnic group, no one gender, race, religion, or creed who will reign in God’s kingdom. 

You can just imagine Jesus telling today’s story. He says, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” And, his disciples are sitting there, thinking, “Okay, here it is, he’s going to tell us exactly which nations are the sheep and which are the goats!” 

Then, Jesus says, “Actually, if God is going to favour anyone, it will be the poor.”

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

If the disciples, if we wish to know to whom God shows partiality, who it is that reigns with Christ, it is unequivocally those who experience poverty. That is the defining feature. Which isn’t to say that those of us who have a roof over our heads, or those of us who feel safe walking the streets of our neighbourhoods, that we ought to count ourselves “out” of God’s kingdom. Nor that poverty doesn’t often intersect with things like gender, or race. Rather, that as we consider the impoverished parts of our cities and our world, that we would also consider the impoverished parts of ourselves—be it in body, mind, or spirit—and that we would consider these as places where God reigns. 

What if one of the images of Christ that reigned in our minds was the image of our very selves reflecting God’s image? The places where, sometimes behind closed doors, we experience poverty (whether illness, grief, insecure housing, debt, loneliness, regret). These are indeed the places where—in the words of Ezekiel this morning—God the Shepherd seeks out her sheep. I reckon if we want to ride with the Messiah, if we want to reign with Christ, the destitute king, when he comes in glory from heaven, then we’re going to have to first get seated amongst the poor—both the poor out there and the poor in here. Amen.