In the Name…
The story is told of a poor woman who was walking along an English country road at the beginning of the 20th Century. As she made her way, she saw, approaching her, one of those large and sputtering modern machines called an automobile. It pulled up and stopped and the man in the back seat apologized that, as he was going the other way, he couldn’t give her a ride to town. But, he asked, would she accept, as a gift, a small picture of his mother? As the bewildered woman stared at him, the man proceeded to hand her a gold coin bearing the profile of Queen Victoria. The man was Victoria’s son, King Edward VII.
Christ-the-King is one of the feasts that I think many folks find difficult to understand. So, I did some reading about the history of this feast and found it was only introduced in 1925 by Pope Pius XI as a counter to the rise of totalitarian governments in the 20th century.
And, this gave me some new insight. As we know, that while ‘king and queen’ are mostly becoming titles of the past, or just symbolic in places where they still exist, we are not free in the 21st C from dictatorial governments and authoritarian regimes of the sort which existed in the 20th. In many countries, the state itself, though draped in democratic-sounding titles is an agent of tyranny. On another front, we are also increasingly tyrannized by technology, media and affluence. Therefore, far from being archaic, this feast is still needed to remind us who our real ‘Boss’ is, as it were.
In the Gospel text of today Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” We have come to the point in the narrative when the jig is up. The chips are down. Jesus stands before Pilate, his life hanging in the balance. And, he says words which pierce to the very soul of Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
No wonder Pilate feels threatened. The Kingdom of God is the ultimate threat to every human government that has ever existed or ever will exist, for Jesus’ kingdom is not from here but he has brought it here, uninvited. And, Jesus, in these words, is asserting his independence that this world and its powers ultimately cannot determine his fate. Indeed, he says, were he and his followers of this world, then naturally they would use the primary tool this world provides to establish and keep power. They would use violence. But, Jesus is not of this world and the kingdom is not of this world and so he will not defend himself through violence. He will not establish his claims by violence. And therefore, his followers will not fight for him because to bring the kingdom about by violence is to violate the very principles of this kingdom.
That’s why, instead of carrying a sword or some other weapon, this King Jesus displays open hands. His hands are open in forgiveness, not retribution; in compassion, not punishment. His hands are open to feed, to heal, to cast out demons and to calm storms, to give new life. Even on the Cross, this king’s hands are open to the world and his arms stretched wide in a saving embrace. And the resurrected king still bears the mark of the nails in his open hands, because compassion and mercy, by their very nature, require sacrifice on the part of the giver. And those who would be the citizens of this king’s kingdom must also display the same open and wounded hands.
But, wait, we might say. What about all those traditional hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “Fight the Good Fight”? What about all the images about Christian warfare? Well, yes. There is a war on, but not one that Pilate would have understood because we have been asked to fight this war with what he would have considered the most useless of weapons – mercy, love, and forgiveness.
These weapons did not save Jesus from dying on the Cross. These weapons did not save Mark the Evangelist from being killed in A.D. 80 or Abp. Oscar Romero from being killed in 1980. These weapons have never saved the life of anyone. And they won’t save our physical lives either. In fact, using these weapons will put our physical lives at risk. Which is why St. John writes, in one of his letters, at the end of a long passage about how Christians should show love for all, the jarring words, "Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you."
But, why? Christians do good things. We run schools and hospitals and food pantries and try, in countless other ways, to make people's lives better. What is hateful about that?
Well, for one thing, the World, with a capital W, doesn't want people's lives made better. People are easier to lead into despair, crime, violence, and a million other sins if their lives are miserable. When I was in the army we had a course on terrorism and the instructor said that the basic profile of a suicide bomber was someone who felt he had nothing to live for. It wasn't about believing in a cause and it didn't matter about gender, nationality, economic status, education, religion, or any other variable. It all came down to a personal issue. Did this person have hope, or not?
Yes, God’s weapons of mercy, love and forgiveness sound useless when the jig is up and the chips are down, but these are the weapons that will pave the way to bring God’s kingdom to earth.
If we look at the temptations of Jesus that appear in the Gospels, we see Jesus makes a choice as to what type of a king he is going to be. To borrow an image from card games, Jesus could be ‘the king of spades’, using his power to uproot his enemies. He has the option to be ‘the king of diamonds’, using his power to buy people’s loyalty. He has the opportunity to be “the king of clubs”, and preserve himself by force. But, he will not call down fire from Heaven, turn stones to bread or come down from the Cross.
Instead, Jesus asserts that he be “the king of hearts.” He will appeal to the hearts of people. This kingdom will not be brought through revolution, but by evolution from within through conversion.
That is how the kingdom spreads and, every day, more people declare their citizenship in it.
Jesus says to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from here.” But, Jesus has brought it here.
Yes. The jig is up. The chips are down. But, it is now our lives that hang in the balance.
Who is our King?
In the Name…