This Sunday brings the church year to a close. It is roughly the equivalent of New Year's Eve, the end of the preceding year. The liturgical church year is independent of the calendar year most of us utilize because it is focused on the life of Christ and the activity of the church and divides the year into seasons that mirror aspects of both.
We might imagine viewing this church year through the lens of a camera. Advent, the four weeks prior to Christmas, is the like the family photo album, with all of us gathered and preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ. Advent begins shortly, Dec. 3.
During Christmastide and Epiphany, the seasons following Christmas Day, the lens is trained on the early life and work of Jesus. Then comes Lent, in late winter, and the lens zooms in for a tight focus on Jesus and his journey to the cross.
The season of Easter follows, celebrating the resurrection of Christ and his post-resurrection appearances to his disciples.
Easter is followed by Pentecost, which occupies the bulk of the year, and which runs from Pentecost Sunday, which often falls in May, through the end of the church year in late November. This is the longest season of the church year, and it extends throughout the late spring, all of summer, and early autumn.
This season, as seen through a camera, utilizes a wide-angle lens, and is a time of broad focus on the life and work of Jesus and on the discipleship of the church. The church year comes to an end with Christ the King Sunday, falling this year on Nov. 26.
Christ the King Sunday is in many ways a paradox. The Scripture lessons assigned for this day lift up Christ's reign and often look forward to the end times, when God's rule triumphs. In some ways, this seems a most appropriate way to end the church year: on a note of victory.
But the paradox comes in when we consider that Christ never once claimed to be king. He spoke of himself in any number of other ways: as shepherd, as the son of man, as the mother hen, as the light of the world. But never does Christ call himself a king.
In fact, in one Gospel story, he rejects the title of "king" when the crowd wants to make him king by popular acclaim.
Furthermore, if Christ is a king, he is a king unlike any other. He rules through love rather than force.
His crown? It was made of thorns, rather than gold.
His throne? He was lifted up on a cross, not an elegant chair of state.
All of which means that Christ redefines what it means to be a king. It is not to wield power for the sake of one's self, but rather to empower one to serve others humbly and without fanfare, and to demonstrate authority through self-sacrifice rather than self-promotion. Christ the King Sunday expresses a very different understanding of power and authority than that which our culture does.
This means that the church year comes to an end not so much on a note of noisy victory, like New Year's Eve fireworks, perhaps, but rather with a quiet invitation to servanthood, like Christ kneeling to wash his disciple's feet at the Last Supper.
The church year closes not with a bang, but with an appeal — an appeal for our willing hearts and hands to serve others as Christ does, and in doing so, to serve our Lord and king.
"On Faith" is a weekly column in the News-Chronicle written by area religious leaders. Pastor Susan Berge serves at Knife River Lutheran Church and lives in Duluth.