Good News From Alaska

Sermon at New Song Episcopal Church on November 21, 2021:


(Wikimedia Commons image)

As many of you know, I recently published a book about tracing my family roots. One of the amusing things I ran across in my research on Scandinavian history is that in the transition between Christianity and paganism in the 10th and 11th centuries, there were images created of Christ that made him look a lot like the Norse god Thor. Those recently converted Vikings weren’t very fond of the suffering servant Jesus, but they thought they could get along OK with one who looked more like what they were used to in a god.

That story came to mind when I started preparing to preach today, because this is Christ the King Sunday. It comes at the very end of the church year, with Advent starting next Sunday. So this is in a way New Year’s Eve, which we’re supposed to celebrate by reflecting on the sovereignty of God.

A lot of us here at New Song probably don’t resonate to that king symbolism very well, preferring instead to focus on metaphors less tied to hierarchy. But in the history of the church, Christ the King is one of the most common ways of portraying Jesus, and so this morning I want to reflect a bit on what it means to picture Jesus in this way—or in any way for that matter.

In the 8th and 9th centuries, the church had a huge argument over whether any image of the divine should be created at all. That led to the iconoclastic controversy, when icons all over the Byzantine Empire were destroyed. After the church eventually changed its mind on that theological point, Christian art was off and running once again.

A 19th-century image of Christ the King (Wikimedia Commons image)

Through the ensuing centuries Jesus has been depicted in a wide variety of ways. In many Renaissance paintings, for example, he has the look of an Italian aristocrat. In the Sunday School pictures of my youth, Jesus had long hair that made him look a little like a California surfer, though one with a suitably pious expression. In the Anglican church that Bob and I worshipped in two decades ago when we lived in England, the stained glass window behind the altar had a Jesus who looked a lot like King Arthur.

In my travels, I’ve seen images of Jesus in which he takes on the features and skin color of the people who live in various countries. In Mexico he often has dark skin, for example, and in South Korea he looks like he could live in Seoul.

Given that variety, does it matter how we picture Jesus, whether we view him as a suffering man on a cross, a robed teacher walking with his disciples, or a triumphant king coming in glory?

Now I’m sure it won’t surprise you that I’m going to come down on the side of artistic diversity. But the tricky part, and the most important part, is to both honor the image and to realize it’s just a finger pointing at the moon, and not the moon itself, to borrow a Buddhist teaching. And so on Christ the King Sunday, I’m fine with the royal imagery, as long as we don’t imagine that’s the only way of imagining Jesus.

All of this makes me think of an experience Bob and I had a couple of weeks ago when we were visiting Alaska. While we loved seeing the northern lights, I also treasured the chance to reconnect with my cousin Debbie, whom I hadn’t spent time with since we were young.

Statue of St. Nicholas in front of St. Nicholas Catholic Church in North Pole, Alaska (Bob Sessions photo)

Debbie lives in the small town of North Pole, which is next to Fairbanks. When we were at her house we went to church with her and her husband, who attend North Pole’s Catholic church. Can you guess which saint the church is named for? St. Nicholas, of course. And our visit to that church was one of the highlights of our time in Alaska.

For one thing, I was charmed to see the Alaskan motifs in its architecture and furnishings, including a lectern made out of logs. And behind the altar, the tabernacle, which is the small box that holds the body and blood of Christ in Catholic churches, was in the form of a log cabin. And instead of stained glass windows behind the altar, there were large, clear windows, so that as we worshipped we could see snowflakes coming down. It was all very Christmasy and very cozy.

We loved their priest, too, who in some ways was a surprise, because he’s from a country far away from Alaska—Zimbabwe. He has the most wonderful name, too: Father Welcome. Now that’s a great name for a religious leader. And in his sermon, Father Welcome talked of needing to respect and care for widows, and told of his mother who had been left a widow and of the many widows in his home country. “Many of them are very lonely and struggle to survive,” he said in his accented English. It was good to be reminded of the Biblical command to care for widows and orphans, which is so clear in the gospels but which is not often preached about in the U.S.

It all felt a little dreamlike, to be honest, to be in North Pole watching the snow fall behind the altar, listening to a priest from Zimbabwe give a homily while I looked around the nearly full church. The congregation included many children, as well as people whose faces looked like they came from around the world—a reflection in part of the diversity brought to the area by the Air Force and Army bases located nearby. And there we all were, worshipping together in a church dedicated to St. Nicholas.

North Pole, Alaska, Christmas mural
North Pole, Alaska, has a Santa Claus House with colorful murals. (Bob Sessions photo)

The other Alaska experience I want to tell you about was a conversation we had with a woman who works in a vodka distillery in Fairbanks, where we stopped for cocktails one cold afternoon. When the woman heard we were from Iowa, her face lit up. “I love Iowa!” she said, and told of coming here for reunions of a cross-country peace march she’d walked in a number of years ago.

When we asked how she’d ended up in Fairbanks, she said she was a native of Boston and had moved to the state a couple of years ago because she wanted to get to know its landscape. She loves Fairbanks, she said, in large part because of its people. “People come here from all over,” she said. “Some are in the military, and some work on the pipeline. There are back-to-the-land environmentalists and hunters. You wouldn’t think we’d all get along, but we do. I think it’s because the climate is so harsh here. You know you need to have good neighbors in case something goes wrong. If your car breaks down on the highway, you’ve got five people stopping in the first ten minutes to make sure you’re OK.”

I came away from that conversation, and from worshipping at St. Nicholas Church, with a light heart. Maybe we’re going to be OK, I thought—and by we I mean the entire human race. If North Pole, Alaska, can have a beloved priest from Zimbabwe, and peace marchers from Boston can live in harmony with Alaskan hunters and pipeline workers, maybe some of the fractures in our larger society can heal too.

Because we’re all dependent on each other. It’s easy to forget that in the lower 48 states, where our temperatures don’t get to 40 below. But we, too, need our neighbors and we, too, need to learn to get along with people despite the differences that divide us.

It all makes me think that it would be a good thing if we all moved to Alaska for awhile. Just for a winter or two, not permanently, but long enough to recognize how we’re all connected.

I know we thin-blooded Midwesterners aren’t likely to do this. But maybe we can learn something from Father Welcome, and from that peace marcher, and from our brothers and sisters who worship in North Pole, Alaska. We can be reminded that God’s love takes many forms, and that the church is amazingly resilient and often flourishes best in out of the way places. And we can remember, too, that whether we picture Jesus as a king or as a servant or as a suffering man on a cross, the important thing is that we have a relationship with him—and that we need to hold any image we have of him lightly, realizing it’s just a finger pointing at the moon.

And now I must admit that I’m ready to be done with New Year’s Eve. Being in North Pole made me eager for Advent and Christmas, eager to put away the sadness of this past year, eager to hear a message of hope and renewal. I heard some good news in North Pole—and that message is on its way here, too, blowing south on the chill winds of winter.


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