Happy feast of Christ the King – a relatively new feast in the Church. It dates back all the way to the to Pope Pius VI in 1925. It was created to make a sort of bookend for the Pentecost season – The Day of Pentecost at one end and Christ the King at the other. Because otherwise we might not notice that it was Advent next week…
I have to admit I am a bit dubious about this feast. A big celebration just before Advent, to me, does not seem to set the right tone. Advent is meant to be a time of quiet introspection – so let’s party to get in the mood… Of course, Lent is also meant to be a season of introspection and of penitence, and it gets kicked off with Mardis Gras…
But I have deep issues with the whole concept of Christ the King.
Some years ago, I came across someone’s sermon for Christ the King. Its author was concerned that we didn’t really understand our place. In the Kingdom of Christ the King, we are nothing. Christ is everything. We don’t need to think. We simply need to obey. Our opinions and feelings are not needed. Our total submission to the King is needed.
I have lots of thoughts about God’s Kingdom – and, needless to say, they are quite at odds with this other sermon.
In part, I believe that Jesus, the King, does not intend to be a super version of an earthly king… a sort of improved and extreme version. Jesus’ message is that true Kingship is more like servanthood… We don’t understand the role of leaders particularly well in Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom. Trying to understand God’s Kingdom through the lens of our earthly systems of government will not help us understand God one little bit.
Sigmund Freud believed that our concept of God is made up of our own projections; as he said, “The human father, writ large, and projected against the sky.” Over the centuries quite a great deal of sorrow and misery has been caused by us thinking that our notions of God are correct… That we know and understand God. What I know is that God is entirely beyond my understanding. In a sense I do know God, but I know God to be a mystery.
Centuries ago, rulers were understood to rule by God’s will – the so-called divine right rulers. Indeed, early in scripture, the people need leaders and so God gives kings who rule at God’s pleasure. And if they fail at the task, God will replace them.
Of course, lots of rulers in ancient days were thought to be actual gods. Obviously, none of the Pharos, none of the Ceasars, or Divine Emperors of Japan were gods. And Jesus doesn’t come to bring us an actual divine Ceasar, or Pharoe, or King. Jesus comes to change our notion of what a leader is, of what a society should be. Jesus Christ, King of the Jews, is not a name that Jesus gives himself… And it is not one he seems to embrace.
Rulers have dominion, they dominate their subjects. Jesus relates to us as brothers and sisters… as siblings… as family members. He does not call us servants, but friends. Jesus is not as a dominating force. In the Kingdom that Jesus seeks to build, we are all part of one body, one flesh. We all have a place; we all have a voice. God loves us all equally.
The lectionary gives us an interesting, Easter-appropriate reading for today. Jesus on the Cross, dying. And two criminals, one on either side, chatting about it all. One seems to repeat the temptations that Jesus faced at his baptism – If you are messiah, prove it. Save yourself… come down from the cross… you’re supposed to be God… The other, who seems to have a better understanding of the Good News than some of the disciples, simply asks that Jesus remember him, the criminal, when he comes into his Kingdom… the Kingdom of Christ the King.
Jesus’ response – you will be with me in Paradise today – in my Kingdom. Is Jesus saying that to just one of the criminals being crucified with him? Or to both? Or to the crowd that has gathered to watch him die? I believe it is to all the above and more. Jesus comes to bring salvation to the world. As St Paul tells us, in Jesus God has reconciled all things. Nothing and no one is beyond God’s love.
But Paul tells us more about this Jesus, this King. He reminds us that we preach Christ Crucified – a scandal to Jews and madness to Gentiles. Why a scandal? Why madness? It is about perspective.
The faithful Jews were looking for Jesus as Messiah, as savior on Earth. Jesus is supposed to lead a triumphant war against the Roman oppressor. It is scandalous to suggest that Messiah has not only failed to deliver victory but has been killed in a most ignominious way.
The gentiles, the Greeks mostly, had this image of Kings as Gods, as invincible super-humans. A crucified Jesus does not fit that mold at all. Jesus is not only not superhuman, he died in disgrace on the cross… and here we are not only living with that fact but celebrating it. Sensible people, like the Greeks, would try to hide the inconvenient fact. Lunatics would proclaim it.
We also have an intriguing passage from Jeremiah, the firebrand preacher of his day. He doesn’t say much, at least not directly, about Jesus. But he does have important things to say about the King. Jeremiah begins with the notion of shepherds – a less-than-privileged class of people – that God will raise up shepherds over us and that we will not live in fear.
Jeremiah goes further – because God apparently goes further… God will raise a righteous King who will deal wisely and execute justice. All God’s people will be saved and live in safety. This is the Kingdom of Christ the King… a Kingdom where love, and it reflection justice, rules over everything.
As we prepare for the season of Advent, we might reflect on the fact that Jesus was a profound disappointment for the faithful Jews of that time. They wanted, and believed they had been promised, a great and mighty military leader who would wipe away the Roman oppressors and deliver them to some restored state of glory. And they got Jesus, who is anything but the warrior they hoped for. They got Jesus, who is crucified – the lowest sort of defeat. It was a cruel blow.
And for me, the danger of the image of Christ the King is that it includes the residue of that desire for a great and powerful ruler who will force the world to his will. Somewhere in our heritage of faith is the notion that God will go out with our armies… that God will help us conquer our foes and smite our enemies. But the Jesus who comes to us at the end of Advent is not that.
I cannot see Jesus carrying a sword, or a gun. I can see Jesus weeping when Ukranian soldiers are killed in that battle. But if I focus, I can also see Jesus weeping just a hard when Russian soldiers are killed. For in truth, we belong to God, God does not belong to us. We belong to Jesus, Jesus does not belong to us. The people who we want Christ the King to smite are just as much children of God as we are… an insult to Jews and foolishness to Greeks…
I’ve sort of made peace over the years with this annual Feast of Christ the King. It’s not that I’ve grown comfortable with it. It’s that I’ve grown to understand that there are things in our tradition that should make us very uncomfortable, things that should make us feel guilt and shame. To paraphrase poet Wislawa Szymborska, a clear conscience is a sure sign of not being human.
So, I’m grateful that the Feast of Christ the King comes around each year to trouble my conscience. Would that it were the only thing that did so… That this feast comes just at the start of Advent is especially helpful in stirring up my soul to truly ponder who and what it is that I am waiting for.
Part of me is like the crowd that cheered and enjoyed the thought that Jesus was being crucified. Jesus was a great disrupter… a great destroyer of the status quo. And it is very difficult for any of us who have grown up with at least a modicum of privilege to want the status quo disrupted. We benefit from things being the way they are. Injustice is not so intolerable when it happens to someone else – someone I don’t know.
But honestly, the weight of our social injustice around issues of wealth, of food, of the use of the earth’s resources, of stewardship to name a few, is becoming unbearable. Our status quo is toxic. It desperately needs to be disrupted and it seems that if we don’t disrupt it, nature will.
We need to let go of the Jesus we want – of Christ the King, and embrace that loving servant, shepherd of all, who is coming at the end of Advent.