Christ the King, the last Sunday of the liturgical year presents us with two images of Christ as leader. Christ the King robed in the trappings of political culture. The paramount operative in the zero-sum-game of dominion as domination sits in an uneasy tension with Christ reigning not from a throne but nailed to a tree.
One is an image of power, the other an image of vulnerability. We are more comfortable with displays of power, with images of strength, while we easily mistake displays of vulnerability with helplessness and weakness.
The age-old Jewish expectation of the messiah as the one who would come with power – God’s super shepherd – to set the world right-side up took a sharp left turn in the imaginations of the followers of Jesus. By bringing two familiar O.T. images together they forged a new vision for messianic leadership. The messiah was not only to be the great shepherd about whom Jeremiah speaks in the O.T. lesson for Christ the King. For his first followers Jesus was the one who will gather a scattered people and put the world to rights through following the path of suffering about which the prophet Isaiah had much to say.
Drawing on images of both shepherd and suffering servant the first Christians forged a revolutionary understanding of the messiah’s role inspiring in them a new vision that changed the world.
Throughout the centuries the Christian Church has worked hard to portray the crucifixion of Jesus as the ultimate exercise of kingly power. But in order to flesh out such a vision, the Church borrowed the paraphernalia of earthly trappings of power. The dying man becomes the triumphant hero vanquishing the anti-God forces through the in-breaking of God’s reign of justice. Christ Pantocrator, sitting atop the world with scepter and orb in hand and crown on head – the superhero of the Byzantine age emerges in the middle of the 20th Century as the triumphal Christ the King, leading the Christian legions against the evils of Communism.
Luke is an amazing storyteller. Mark’s storytelling is spare and sparse – communicating an urgency of living in the moment in which there is no time to lose. Matthews storytelling elevates Jesus above the hubbub as he recasts the story of Jesus in the light of the age-old Jewish hope for a new Moses. But it’s Luke who offers us a Jesus storyline that connects with our intimate experience of the world as it is.
When they came; the they being the political and religious movers and shakers. When they came to a place whose name was synonymous with violence – the place of the skull – otherwise known as cranium hill – they scrabbled about like vultures for the poor man’s clothing, eventually casting lots among them. They mocked him, twisting his words and throwing them back at him – huh, he saved others why can’t he save himself if he is who he says he is?
The political and religious operatives unleashed their foot soldiers of political street violence – to further the false narrative of mockery – accusing him of pretensions of kingship by emphasizing the absurdity of such a claim. False and misleading stereotypes are always easy to demolish. And they place the man Jesus between two common criminals as if to drive home the inference of guilt by association.
And Luke tells us that all this time, in the background, the people stand by, watching while their leaders scoff. And Luke gives no indication that the people share their leaders’ attitudes.
Luke refers to the people as the laos; a term that refers specifically to the community of the faithful, the holy assembly – the laos -from which we derive the term- the laity. We can’t miss Luke’s inference here – these are not some rabble crowd of prurient onlookers but God’s people, standing-by to silently bear witness to the event unfolding before their very eyes that signals the crash and burn of their dream of a great shepherd who would free them and put the world to rights.
The powers of this world will have their way. Luke’s laos – the people of God -witness the destruction of their expectations of Jesus as the great shepherd – the messiah of Jeremiah’s prophecy. It will take time for them to discover Jesus as God’s suffering servant. And only some of them will do so.
At the heart of this scene Luke portrays the most important conversation taking place between the three figures standing at the center of this drama; Jesus and his criminal companions. Here we find the tussle between refusal and acceptance of responsibility for deeds done. One thief blames Jesus for his inability to miraculously rescue him. While his companion accepts his responsibility –for we indeed have been condemned justly. This admission of guilt is a first statement of repentance. The second thief is an archetype of the believer, he alone truly recognises who Jesus really is, and it draws from Jesus the promise of saving inclusion.
At the heart of the drama of the cross we find not the image of the great shepherd as triumphal worldly messiah. Instead we find the portrayal of love in action. Love demonstrated not from a position of power, but through the acceptance of suffering.
It’s no longer 1925 – the year when Pius XI proclaimed the feast of Christ the King as the final Sunday of the Christian year. I have traced this history in a previous post and you can find this here. We now live in an age when the Church has lost its capacity to compete with rivaling political systems in the contest for authoritarian power. Consequently, two great temptations befall us.
The first is the temptation to hitch our wagon to the secular political train. We witness sections of the Evangelical world falling prey to the temptation to Christianize the politics of the right for self-serving advantage. The second temptation is to withdraw into silence, accepting the thesis of the secular left -that there is no place in the civic marketplace for a Christian voice.
When viewed in conventional terms is the cross a failure or success? It’s hard to see death on a cross as successful leadership. But what if it’s through apparent failure that the way to success opens up? Confronted by the failure of Jeremiah’s vision of the messiah as king and super shepherd, the first followers of Jesus encountered the victory of the cross in the unexpected image of Isaiah’s suffering servant.
Viewed in purely worldly terms, the Jesus project ended in the failure. However, we must not be misled as to the nature of the real failure here. The cross is not a failure of Jesus or of God’s to deliver of the divine plan. What fails here is the death on the cross of our own earthly ambition – ambition projected onto God’s purposes.
For the first followers of Jesus the vision that emerged from their initial experience of their failure of expectations at the cross – achieved more than any successful earthly demonstration of power could ever do. The vision that emerged was a vision that changed the world.
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 hearts …. 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