Christ the King: A festival of scripture and song for the last Sunday of the Christian year
Many churches observe the Feast of Christ of King on the last Sunday of the Christian year, which falls on the third or fourth Sunday of November and celebrates Jesus’ conquering of sin and victory over death, his eternal reign, and our identity as a royal priesthood that shares in his reign. This festival was established in 1925 by the Roman Catholic Church as a proclamation to combat the secularization of society and to call on everyone, including governments, to submit to Christ.
Ladd Harris, the rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, compiled ten lessons corresponding to the significant events of Jesus’ life; we collaborated on selecting the hymns.
I loved working on this service. Nearly every hymn selected has some reference to the kingship of Christ, and because they are sung out of their usual context, there is much potential for the congregation to experience their great depth and meaning (“This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing”; “the power of Satan breaking, our peace eternal making”). The rich texts, along with a wide variety of tunes in different meters chosen from throughout the church’s history can help weave the kingship theme throughout the service.
The Thanksgiving hymns we used also contained references to Christ the King that we might not normally take note of: “the Son and him who reigns with them in highest heaven”; “give his angels charge at last in the fires the tares to cast.” Searching for particular themes is an excellent way to get to know your hymnal (and other hymnals).
The service can be as “bare bones” or as elaborate as needed; choirs, soloists, and instrumentalists can play an important role in conveying the message. Above all, the service encapsulates the entire life of Christ using readings from Isaiah and the gospels, and is a way of “singing through” the Christian Year. And for those of us who love singing, a service of thirteen hymns is a rare and wonderful opportunity.
You may be interested in following all the suggestions from the service presented here, but more likely you will want to explore other options. Here are some suggestions:
- Using the topical index in your hymnal, look for headings such as God/ Christ as King, Kingdom, Lordship of Christ, Ascension and Reign of Christ, and Worthy Is the Lamb.
- Read through all the stanzas of a hymn. Don’t assume that because the title includes the word King it is appropriate (“The King of Love My Shepherd Is” probably wouldn’t work in this service). Make sure that the hymn selected helps to explain or elaborates on the specific lesson. Omit stanzas if they don’t relate to the text, but make sure that the remaining ones are cohesive. Check hymnals from other denominations to explore other texts, tunes, and copyright information.
- Try to include a broad range of styles and genres; songs children could sing and the elderly would know; mostly familiar but a few unfamiliar. Consider using one or more choirs to introduce initial stanzas of an unknown song (then sing the rest in unison), or even a beloved one (a children’s choir could sing a stanza of “Beautiful Savior”).
- It may be difficult to pick a different “style” of hymn for every single lesson, but do watch the sequence of hymns, considering key, tempo, meter, tone/mood, date written, instrumentation, and how these will best reflect the given lesson.
- A festival of lessons and hymns doesn’t need to be boring—don’t sing each hymn the same way! Read and play it through, and consider how the introduction, stanza assignment, harmonization and instrumentation can best convey the spirit of the piece. Our service plan designates stanzas for choir only, women, men, a cappella, in harmony, in unison, in canon. Know your congregation’s strengths and weaknesses and choose accordingly (if they’ve never sung a canon, you might skip it here). I wouldn’t use an alternate harmonization on the last stanza of every hymn, only on a few where the text calls for heightened treatment. Let the organ alone interpret one of the stanzas; let the congregation speak a stanza out loud. Use a flute or a violin to introduce a song. Use descants sparingly (after four or five they’re anticlimactic, but do use them, especially for the Resurrection, Ascension, and Presentation hymns). Have two trumpets play the fanfare for the majestic and stately “A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing” as an introduction and as an interlude between each stanza. Add a tambourine and drums on the Israeli tune “Open Your Ears, O Faithful People.” Consider where piano would accompany best and ask a student to play. If the adult choir is singing, change “Entrance” to “Processional” Hymn and “Closing” to “Recessional” Hymn.
- You may use a more general praise text for the Offertory anthem and Presentation hymn, although kingship references would be a plus. Try to find an anthem based on an appropriate hymn. The text of “Come, We That Love the Lord” is most appropriate (“Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God, but children of the heavenly King may speak their joys abroad. . . . We’re marching through Emmanuel’s grounds to fairer worlds on high. Hosanna . . .”); if the tune is unfamiliar, teach the more singable Southern Harmony one. Ralph Vaughan Williams’s arrangement of the Doxology (old hundredth) can be a jubilant outburst of praise at the presentation of the offerings, the highest point of the service. Have the adult choir lead (only one stanza), with the director cueing the congregation. Organ accompaniment is glorious; it’s even better with trumpeters.
- The congregation sits or stands according to the content of the service (standing at the Resurrection and Ascension lessons, the Presentation Hymn, Closing Prayers, Blessing, and Closing Hymn). At the Passion and Death lessons, kneeling (or sitting) is optional.
- Select readers based on age, experience, skill, vocal tone and speed, and how these relate to the lesson (for example, use a child for Birth, Epiphany or Childhood lessons). You might use more than one person or a group for a reading.
- If your church has a banner for Christ the King Sunday, hang it in a suitable place or consider making a new one. You might also use the same design for the bulletin cover—think of what symbols (scepter, crown, a lamb) would best convey the themes from the texts and music you’ve selected. The liturgical color for the day is white (gold is also fitting).
- Perhaps someone in your congregation could create a liturgical dance for one of the hymns or anthems. Or you might introduce a children’s education or worship program. With the basic form of the service given, the creative possibilities are endless.
- Be sure to select instrumental pieces that are festive, majestic, solemn, and glorious. (I listed several organ options that are easy to moderate in difficulty.) Whether or not they are based on hymn tunes, they should reflect these qualities so that the worshiper is mindful of the majesty and awe of God, the glory of Christ’s reign, and our sharing in it.
Festival of Lessons and Hymns
Several options are given for each hymn and instrumental piece. All hymns can be found in Hymnal 1982 (Episcopal). Performance suggestions refer to that hymnal; other hymnals may have different or number of stanzas.
Deo gracias (Agincourt Hymn); arr. Johnson
Deo Gracias (Agincourt Hymn); arr. Walloon
“Come, Ye Thankful People, Come,” st. george’s windsor PsH 527, PH 551, RL 18, TH 715, TWC 381
“Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” lauda anima PsH 475, PH 478, RL 144, TH 76, TWC 26
“Crown Him with Many Crowns” diademata PsH 410, PH 151, RL 600, SFL 181, TH 295, TWC 92
*The Bidding and Lord’s Prayer
Dear people of God, on this Feast of Christ the King, let us hear and heed in Holy Scripture the story of God’s loving purpose from the time of our rebellion against him until the glorious redemption brought to us by his holy Son, Jesus, and let us sing the praises of our deliverance with hymns and songs of praise.
But first, let us pray for the needs of the world, for peace and justice on earth, for the unity and mission of the church, especially in our country and in this city. Let us remember the poor and the helpless, the cold, the hungry and the oppressed, the sick and those who mourn, the lonely and unloved, the aged and little children, as well as those who do not know and love the Lord Jesus Christ.
And let us now pray the words which Christ himself taught us, saying . . .
Advent of Jesus
Lesson 1: Isaiah 11:1-10
“There’s a Voice in the Wilderness Crying” ascension
stanza 1, choir; stanzas 2-3, all
“O Day of Peace That Dimly Shines” jerusalem PH 450
Birth of Jesus
Lesson 2: Matthew 1:18-23
“What Child Is This” greensleeves PH 53, RL 217, TH 213, TWC 150
stanza 1, all; stanza 2, women; stanza 3, men
“Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light” ermuntre dich PsH 343, PH 26, TWC 158
choir sings through once, then congregation
Epiphany of Jesus
Lesson 3: Matthew 2:1-12
“What Star Is This, with Beams So Bright” puer nobis PH 68, RL 227
stanza 1, all; stanzas 2-3, all in canon, right side starts, then 4 notes later, left side starts
“Earth Has Many a Noble City” stuttgart
stanza 2, men; stanza 4, women
Childhood of Jesus
Lesson 4: Luke 2:41-52
“Fairest Lord Jesus” (“Beautiful Savior”)
st. elizabeth PsH 461, PH 306, RL 370, TH 170, TWC 115
stanzas 1-2, all in harmony; stanza 3, unison
“Blest Are the Pure in Heart” franconia RL 236
Baptism of Jesus
Lesson 5: Mark 1:9-11
“Christ, When for Us You Were Baptized” caithness PH 70, RL 241
stanza 1, choir; stanza 2, all; stanza 3 spoken
“The Sinless One to Jordan Came” SOLEMNIS HAEC FESTIVALS
stanza 1, choir; stanzas 2-4, all
Temptation of Jesus
Lesson 6: Matthew 4:1-11
“Forty Days and Forty Nights” aus der tiefe rufe ich PH 77
stanzas 1-3, all in harmony; stanza 2, a cappella
“Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” st. flavian PH 81, TWC 200
stanzas 1-3 only
Life and Ministry of Jesus
Lesson 7: Isaiah 61:1-4
“O Zion, Haste” tidings PsH 525, RL 421, TH 444, TWC 731
stanzas 1-2 only
“Open Your Ears, O Faithful People” TORAH SONG
choir on stanzas, congregation on refrain or stanza 2, women; stanza 3, men
Passion and Death of Jesus
Lesson 8: Luke 23:26-49
“Were You There” PsH 377, PH 102, SFL 167, TH 260, TWC 218
stanza 1, solo/cantor; stanza 2, organ solo; stanza 4, all
“Go to Dark Gethsemane” petra PsH 381, PH 97, TWC 225
stanza 3, a cappella
[“Ah, Dearest Jesus” or “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” are also fitting here]
*Resurrection of Jesus
Lesson 9: Luke 24:1-12
“He Is Risen” unser herrscher
stanza 1, men; stanza 2, women; stanza 3, all
“Jesus Lives! Thy Terrors Now” st. Albinus RL 320, TH 706
*Ascension of Jesus
Lesson 10: Luke 24:50-53
“A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing” deo gracias/ agincourt hymn PH 141, TH 289, TWC 259
[“O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High” is also appropriate PsH 364, PH 83, RL 342, TH 155, TWC 193]
“King Jesus Is A’Listening” (tenor/bass ensemble); arr. Dawson
“To God Sing Praises” (youth choir with two flutes); Buxtehude
“Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow” old hundredth PsH 638, PH 591, RL 556, SFL 11, TH 731, TWC 808
arr. Vaughan Williams
“Come, We That Love the Lord” vineyard haven RL 575/576, TH 700
“To God with Gladness Sing,” Camano
Closing Prayers and Blessings
The Almighty God bless us with his grace; Christ give us the joys of everlasting life; and to the fellowship of the citizens of heaven may the King of Kings bring us all. Amen.
“Crown Him with Many Crowns” diademata PsH 410, PH 151, RL 600, SFL 181, TH 715, TWC 92
“Now Thank We All Our God” nun danket alle gott PsH 454, PH 555, RL 61, SFL 33, TH 98, TWC 374
“Crown Him with Many Crowns”; arr. Wyton
“Deo Gracias” (Agincourt Hymn); arr. Dunstable
“Majestic Piece No. 1”; Arnatt
Additional Song Suggestions
The authors prepared their song choices from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 and encouraged others to check their own hymnals for other options. Here are some suggestions that emphasize the kingship of Christ from Sing! A New Creation (Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2001). The song numbers are included in parentheses.
We Will Glorify (21)
We Bow Down (42)
He Is Exalted (41)
Psalm 24: The King of Glory Comes (15)
Psalm 145: I Will Exalt My God, My King (27)
I Love You, Lord (16)
Jesus Is Our King (18)
Make Way (98)
Soon and Very Soon (106)
Meekness and Majesty (109)
Mary Had a Baby (107)
Los magos que llegaron a Belén/The Magi Went to Bethl’hem Long Ago (118)
Bring Forth the Kingdom (123)
Take Me to the Water (236)
Throughout these Lenten Days and Nights
(sung to tallis canon) (129)
Life and Ministry
Blest Are They (122)
Bring Forth the Kingdom (123)
Passion and Death
Mantos y palmas/Filled with Excitement (133)
Psalm 22: What Wondrous Love (142)
Psalm 118: Hail and Hosanna! (146)
Celtic Alleluia (148)
God Has Gone Up with Shouts of Joy! (154)
You Are Crowned with Many Crowns (158)
Gracias, Señor/We Give You Thanks (219)
I Love the Lord (226, 227)
Any of the songs from the Entrance section, plus:
Alleluia, Alleluia, for the Lord God Almighty Reigns (39)
Lord Most High (47)
You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd (182)