This Sunday, the last in the season after Pentecost is Christ the King. Christ the King is a relative newcomer in our Anglican-Episcopal calendar, having been adopted only with the Three-Year Ecumenical Lectionary. The Sunday before Advent was traditionally known to us as stir-up Sunday because of the opening words of the Collect:
STIR up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The English joke that the name stir-up Sunday derived from this Sunday marking the first occasion for the many stirrings of the Christmas Pudding, presents a lighter side to this day. There is, however, a more serious side to the designation of Christ the King for the last Sunday of the calendar year. In 1925 Pius XI proclaimed the feast of Christ the King as an assertion of the Catholic Church’s protest against the rise of fascism and the growing threat of communism.
Against these forces, Pius XI asserted the old Constantinian power of the Church as the only center of allegiance for Roman Catholics. At a considerable cost to liberty and freedom of thought within the Church, he marshaled the Catholic legions against those he perceived as the enemy.
The historical context for the origins of the commemoration sounds a tone today that is also problematic. This is an old story of one authoritarian system asserting itself against competing, equally authoritarian rivals. This is problematic because the Episcopal Church lays no such claims to this style and exercise of political-monarchical authority. Consequently, we have to find our own more authentic understanding of Christ as King.
Luke 23:33-43, a section of Jesus’ Passion Narrative appointed to be read on Christ the King this year points us back to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion in our search for a model of Christ as King that is authentic to our tradition.
The crucifixion is the end phase of a process that has Jesus embroiled in a complex three-way political power play between the Temple Authorities, the Roman Governor, and an angry and anxious populace. Finally, the Temple priests have Jesus in their grasp. Yet, they fail to get Pilate to easily do their bidding. Pilate thinks he has adroitly outmaneuvered the Chief Priests in finding no charge against Jesus. However, as he prepares to release him he is confronted by the third force in this political quagmire – the people who on realizing Pilate’s intention clamor for the release of Barabbas, a much more dangerous yet popular rabble-rouser. Throughout history, crowds seem to have an attraction for bullies who appear to be men who will upset things and get things done. Pilate is trapped. Although fully prepared to thwart the designs of the Chief Priests he caves before the pressure of the threat of popular agitation.
Politically, there is nothing new under the sun. Like many at the moment, I find myself transfixed and at the same time repulsed by the drama of the Trump presidential transition appointments. I know that there are others who like me are also transfixed, but yet unlike me, are excited by this process and its prospects. At times, I do approach a feeling of excitement as I catch glimpses of the possibility that Donald Trump might be, inadvertently so to speak, the catalyst for the change we all so yearn for. In other moments, I am filled with fear at the dangers and uncertainties opening before us.
Amidst our uncertainties and deep soul questioning in this post-election period, we have a sense that something fundamental has changed. Whether fearful, or celebratory, or merely curious we all remain so close to events that it’s difficult to see clearly, exactly what it is that has shifted and whether this shift is for better or worse?
I read calls for reconciliation. I hear calls for resistance. I suspect both will be needed yet I am mindful that both reconciliation and resistance involve negotiating confusing tensions. When does reconciliation become simply a cover for appeasement? When does resistance degenerate into a party politically motivated refusal to accept democratic process?
Yet, I am increasingly aware of a third call beginning to emerge; a call for repentance. How has the Left lost the popular support of working men and women? It is sobering to remember that the block who unequivocally voted for the Trump ticket are the people who supported Roosevelt and the New Deal, and who most recently returned Barak Obama to two terms in the presidency. As the Democratic mainstream faces up to a need for repentance, it’s not a matter of diversity politics or jobs to combat poverty. Why not both at the same time, wouldn’t that be a novel idea?
In the interests of even-handedness, it’s also salutary to remind the Right, that although the Republican electorate, in the end, threw itself behind a Trump victory, this is not the wider electorate’s endorsement for Repbublican policies which overwhelmingly favor the 1%. One thing becomes clear, the working class electorate is not stupid as many had begun to fear, it seems to have simply become desperate.
I suspect as we move forward, the specificity of unfolding events will offer greater clarity to each of us about how we need to respond. In Luke 23 Jesus’ ministry has led him to such a moment. Hanging on the cross he makes the ultimate offer of reconciliation. Yet during his trial, he has presented a powerful if perplexing model of resistance in his refusal to play the tit-for-tat power game. Jesus’ strength lies in his very vulnerability and is this not why we overlook him as our model for our political response?
The vulnerability of non-violence reveals Jesus’ truth; that God can do nothing with our pretense of strength. Our pretense of strength squeezes God from our frame of reference. Our vulnerability, on the other hand, offers God an invitation to enter into our picture of the world and to partner with us. Jesus’ vulnerability becomes an opportunity for God to act for the crucifixion is not the end of the story.
That the fear of being vulnerable unleashes a virulent strain of paranoia in any culture, is not a new discovery. We see this coming to the fore as the voices of racial, religious and cultural purity gain ascendancy across the world as otherwise helpless politicians and leaders seek to advantage themselves through the exploitation of fear. Everywhere we see the mounting consequences for populations whose fate is to pose the specter of the utter helplessness we defend against recognizing in ourselves.
It’s a sorry story of history that Pius XI didn’t foresee his increasing resort to authoritarianism to confront authoritarian assaults would lead to a distortion that ultimately made it hard to distinguish between friend and foe.
The deepest insight of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition is that humanity is made in the image of God. The implications of this are rather far reaching to contemplate. So instead the Church has always had a tendency to reverse this central insight and to see God as refracted through our image of ourselves; Christ as an earthly potentate.
When God becomes remade in our image the result is one where violence, oppression, hatred, and fear become divinely sanctioned – Christ dons the trappings of our earthly rulers’ pretense of strength. To realize that we are made in the image of God requires us to embrace vulnerability and be changed by this experience. This impels us to focus on solving problems at source. This is what it means to be agents, not of a worldly rule given the fig leaf of divine sanction, but of the continued in-breaking of the Kingdom of God that moves one heart, one mind, one breath at a time.
We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer continues:
Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men [and women]. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?
As with Jesus, we may discover there is a cost attached. In searching for an interpretation of Christ the King that is more authentic to our own tradition, Luke’s gospel directs our attention back to the iconic image of Jesus, not robed in kingly power, but hanging on a cross. Perhaps here we can see an image of reconciliation as the ultimate expression of resistance.
An anonymous Franciscan blessing goes:
God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships so that we may live deep within our heart. May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom and peace. May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war so that we may reach out our hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world so that we can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen