The Emerging Scholars Network is pleased that Bobby Gross has once again agreed to contribute a series of Advent reflections to the ESN blog. This first looks back to Christ the King Sunday just passed and reflects on our longing for a great and good king that is so much a part of the Advent journey of preparing to celebrate the birth of the King and longing for his return.
When I first read the coronation scene in Book Six of the Lord of the Rings years ago, unexpectedly, great tears upwelled together with feelings of exultation and joy pulsing from some place of deep longing. Undoubtedly, after 700 pages immersed in the sweeping saga, I was primed for that response. The arduous and seemingly hopeless quest by two humble hobbits to destroy the evil ring of power had been achieved, the fierce battle over the dark forces of Mordor had been won, the shadow of despair over the peoples had been dispelled. Now at last the rightful heir to the throne, the courteous and courageous leader Aragorn, had come to be crowned. Tolkien conveys the great splendor and solemnity of the occasion:
The Steward of the realm proclaimed: “Behold! one has come to claim the kingship at last. [It had been vacant for a thousand years.] Then he presented Aragorn, pronouncing a litany of titles and affirmations including “victorious in battle, whose hands bring healing” and asked, “Shall he be king and enter into the City and dwell there?” Whereupon all the people cried yea with one voice!
Aragorn humbly asks that Frodo, the hobbit Ringbearer, bring the crown forward and bids Gandalf, the great wizard (and agent of Providence), place it on his head, who then said, “Now come the days of the King, and may they [long] be blessed!”
“But when Aragorn arose all that beheld him gazed in silence, for it seemed to them that he was revealed to them now for the first time. Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him.”
Tolkien is tapping not only into his own cultural history as a twentieth-century Brit under monarchs but also the deep vein in scripture and theology of God understood as “a great King above all gods”; of Jesus announcing and enacting the “Kingdom of God”; and of the Lion/Lamb figure of Revelation, who is “worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
This past Sunday, the last of Ordinary Time in the church’s liturgical calendar, we focused on Christ as the exalted King, reigning in glory. The lectionary scriptures painted a portrait of a Shepherd-King: Psalm 95 inviting joyful praise to God as Maker, Shepherd, and King; Ezekiel 34 denouncing abusive leaders of Israel and portraying God himself as the true Shepherd who rescues the strayed, binds the injured, strengthens the weak, and provides good pasture to all; 1 Corinthians 15 declaring that in the end after Christ has destroyed every (unjust, power-abusing) ruler and authority—and ultimately Death itself, he will hand over the kingdom to God the Father in loving submission so that “God may be all in all.”
We thrill to contemplate this eschatological mystery and promise. In faith and longing, we say: Amen, let it be so!
Meanwhile, we want our earthly leaders—presidents, provosts, prime ministers, governors, chief executives, directors, principals, department heads, pastors—to lead well, with wisdom and integrity, courage and patience, strength and compassion, confidence and humility. In other words, to embody both greatness and grace.
Alas, too often it is not so. Even our best leaders are flawed, but the worst can be horrible, and some unspeakably evil. Just read the weekly headlines.
It’s no wonder that an opinion piece by Jessica Grose in the New York Times this same weekend was headlined: Americans Under 30 Don’t Trust Religion—or Anything Else. “What distinguishes the under-30 set,” she explains, “is a marked level of distrust in a variety of major institutions and leaders—not just religious ones.” Disillusionment, distrust.
Gratefully, I can a name a number of leaders, women and men that I have admired, that I have been willing to follow, that I have trusted and wanted to emulate. They help me to not succumb to cynicism. They inspire me to lead in my small sphere with humility and integrity. They reflect for me something of the character of God, as did Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, and thus remind me to put my ultimate hope in the Great King, the Gracious Shepherd.
This longing for more signs of the Kingdom of God propels us into the Advent season beginning this coming Sunday, December 3. So we do well to pray the collectappointed by the Book of Common Prayer for this week:
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.
 So suggests Fleming Rutledge in The Battle for Middle-earth: Tolkien’s Divine Design in The Lord of the Rings (Eerdmans, 2004), her brilliant commentary uncovering “the theological currents that lie just under the surface of Tolkien’s epic tale.” I also commend Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans,2018), a rich collection of Rutledge’s sermons from her decades serving as an Episcopal priest.
 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (Houghton Mifflin, 1965), pp. 245,246.
 See Revelation 4 and 5
 I.e., collective prayer