“Come, Thou Almighty King”

The hymn is an object lesson in modern confusion about the Feast of Christ the King.

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By chance I found myself on the last Sunday of the liturgical year—the Feast of Christ the King—attending a church that I have avoided on Sundays.  The music was mostly a pleasant surprise: a male cantor and organ led the congregation in traditional entrance, exit and offertory hymns.  (Of what happened musically during Communion, as usual: the less said the better.)

There are many virtues in traditional hymns, one of which is that they stick in the head and, consequently, can be sung when hymn books are missing or (as often happens to the parent of young children) inaccessible by reason of incommoditude.  Thus I found myself singing “Come Thou, Almighty King” from memory.  Not surprisingly, the invisible disposable hymnal had consistently altered “thou” and “thy” to “you” and “your”; but an on-the-toes congregant can manage such alterations on the fly.

Come, you Almighty King,
Help us your name to sing,
Help us to praise!
Father all glorious,
O'er all victorious!
Come and reign over us,
Ancient of Days!

The hymn is a doxology writ large: one verse for each member of the Blessed Trinity, and a third verse that sums up the whole, like the conclusion to a good freshman paper.  Thus the second verse addresses the “Incarnate Word,” beseeching him to “gird on [his] might sword” in order to attend our prayer and “’stablish [his] righteousness.”

Except that it didn’t. I opened my mouth to utter the accustomed phrases, but what I heard was:

Come, you Incarnate Word,
Who for us death endured,
Our prayer attend.
Come and your people bless,
And give your word success,
Fill us with righteousness,
Savior and Friend.

Which would have led me to say, “Get off my lawn!”, but for the fact that (even with millennial punctuation) the sentiment is inappropriate for holy liturgy.

To begin with the obvious, a prayer for Jesus to “fill us with righteousness,” while it duly acknowledges the divine role in sanctifying humanity, turns the focus from Our Lord’s actions in perpetuating God’s kingdom to our well-being as members of that kingdom.  There’s nothing wrong with singing about the latter, of course; it’s just an odd thing to change. Perhaps the editors thought that no one would understand “’stablish” was a simple abbreviation of “establish” (which is strange, given the slurveyism that bedevils American pronunciation; but you never can tell, with editors).

The real neutering of the edited verse occurs in the second line. Once again, there is nothing offensive about singing of how Jesus endured death for us (on the contrary!), but compared to Jesus “gird[ing] on [his] sword,” enduring death is rather passive.  And of course, Jesus was passive—he suffered—passio, in Latin, from which our word Passion comes—like a lamb led to the slaughter. He also will “come to judge the living and the dead.” We need to be reminded of both truths; the editors of the hymn seemed more comfortable with the first than with the second.  And that discomfort with Jesus as the judge, the king, the sword-wielder and the flipper-of-tables epitomizes modern confusion over the Feast of Christ the King.

I have written on this topic before, but the central point bears repeating: many of us are uncomfortable with words like justice and judgment; but these are precisely the words that bring comfort to innocents. Small children feel little compunction when the villain of a fairy tale is slain by the sword, because small children are innocent. We adults are less so, and talk of punishment makes us uneasy.

For who shall stand when he appeareth?
For he is like a refiner’s fire…

And if adults generally become uncomfortable when speaking of God’s justice, modern adults are particularly so. “Be just!” said the ancient citizen and lawmaker. “Be fair,” we all say now, for fairness does not imply the idea of sin associated with justice. “Fairness” conjures up notions of children who do not understand how to share; we rightly teach our children how to be fair, since they do not know. But an adult complaining of unfairness seems juvenile; for adults do by and large understand what is fair, even if we frequently act otherwise.  We violate charity not through ignorance, but through unwillingness, and the word “justice” is rightly invoked in response.

But justice is not merely punitive — it is a necessary restorative.  God is just because God is. Christ is King, and “girds on his mighty sword,” for the same reason, but also because that is what a “Savior and Friend” does in an unjust world. Human friends sometimes tell uncomfortable truths; our Divine Friend is no different—nor, upon due consideration, would one wish him to be.

This, then, is one part of the discomfort that a modern person feels about the Feast of Christ the King: the ordinary discomfort of the sinner, exacerbated perhaps by modernity’s tendency to mince potentially offending words. There may be no cure for this condition, but it might be ameliorated by the salutary tonic of keeping the edge on the cutting words of older and less euphemistic ages.