November 25, 2012
“What’s in a name?” the Bard asks. At first sight, the title Christ the King seems to us moderns a bit antique. After all, we have just elected a president. We even elect our bishops and rectors. There is something else rather odd about the title given to Jesus in today’s feast. The word “christ” is the equivalent, at least to the ears of non-Jewish, first-century Christians, of “lord” or “emperor.” Neither of these titles seem enlightened or modern. How odd to have a Feast of “The King, the King”!
A good deal of our difficulty lies in the fact that we compartmentalize our lives into two separate realities, rather like the separation of church and state. There’s the world of daily practical living, of politics and jobs and school and work, of friends and relatives, of those to whom we relate and those with whom we have no contact or, even worse, look down on.
Then there is our religious life, which is about such things as doing good, spirituality, church, saying prayers and listening to this homily. Because this is true, we might understand a Feast of Christ the Religious Leader or Christ the Guru, but not Christ unto whom every knee shall bow.
The first Christian creed was expressed in a few words. It said: “Jesus is Lord.” There you have it: “Christ the King.” Confine Jesus to the role of a religious leader, someone who went around saying nice things and performing miracles, and he becomes just another good man, like many others. Elijah said good things, performed miracles and healed. Elijah isn’t king.
In the Old Testament we read that the people wanted a king. They were warned that a king would be partial, corrupt and a bad idea. They persisted and got Saul, who was partial and corrupt. David succeeded him, and despite his very modern notorious sin of adultery, became for the Jews of his time and thereafter the example of a good, wise and heroic king, anointed by God. It is no accident that Jesus was of the House of David.
In Jesus two things happen. Kingship is redeemed. Jesus is a perfect monarch. In him leadership is redeemed, made new, just as all humanity is redeemed and made new through Jesus. We are made new. However the word “we” doesn’t mean you as an individual caught up in some other-worldy spiritual reality, lived side by side with the reality of life. A restored humanity is part of a restored world. Christians are not a holy club devoted to changing society, feeding the hungry, attacking discrimination and injustice – although Christians do all those things, or should do. Christians exist to tell the world that it belongs to God, not to us, not to nation states, but really and truly to God. Christians exist to tell the world that it has an anointed Monarch, Jesus the Lord.
The early Christians were not persecuted because they believed that Jesus was their religious leader and in the light of his teaching they did good things. As long as you admitted that Caesar was Lord, the Romans were remarkably tolerant of religious diversity. What could not be tolerated was that simple claim: Jesus is Lord. That claim threatened Imperial and thus political authority. It said bluntly that as Jesus is Lord, because God reigns, everything not only has its origin in God, but is subject to God’s will.
Christians were not subversive because they refused to acknowledge legitimate political power. The church taught that Christians should respect the powers that be, obey the law and even pay taxes. They were subversive because they believed that legitimate power was passing, was relative, and ultimately judged by a higher power, the power of Jesus, that there are not two compartmentalized realities, worldly and spiritual, but one reality, the Kingdom of God, which, as Jesus says, is from above and is all in all.
In a vital sense, all we do in this place, on this day, is recognize that fact. We are drawn through worship, the act of showing God what God is worth, into the ultimate reality of God, as we bow the knee to Jesus and anticipate that moment to be, when we join with the hosts of heaven and the redeemed of a new earth in hailing the sovereignty of God. That is how Holy Scripture begins in Genesis and ends in the Book of the Revelation.
This seemingly impractical acknowledgement that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that therein is” empowers and enables us to engage in the work of God in our communities, as God claims them, and restores them into God’s image. We then go on to engage in what our church terms “the Marks of Mission”: in telling about Jesus; in caring for people in their need; in fighting for justice; in announcing forgiveness and mercy, enabled and empowered to live as the church, as Christians. Because we know just who is boss, whose realm this bit of territory we call our parish is. Unless we get this right, Christianity and our church is merely a compartment of life, a club for do-gooders who enjoy a religious experience.
What seems something apart and impractical – taking bread and breaking it, taking a cup and blessing it, eating and drinking, hearing scripture – is merely religious self-indulgence unless its context is our representing all creation in acknowledging the Kingship of Jesus, in whose sacrifice on the cross and alienated world is restored to its author and creator, God.
We may sing merrily “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow. Every tongue confess him, King of Glory now,” but unless in this great hymn we became united in the love song that rings throughout the cosmos, and admit our utter dependence on God and his King Jesus, we merely enjoy membership of a holy club – perhaps enjoyable, even inspiring, but of no ultimate reality.
So today forget the utility of Christianity – what it is good at doing or not good at doing, its strengths and purpose, its failures and weakness – and concentrate on that which is ultimate. “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee,” as we offer bread from the earth, wine from the vine and money from our wallets, is a cry of allegiance to God in Jesus, through whom all things were and are made, and to whom all creation ultimately returns.
Christ is THE King.
Thanks be to God.
— Fr. Tony Clavier is a retired priest and a missioner in the Diocese of Springfield.