Today, I think we are ambivalent about royalty. Not just those of us who subscribe to the republican ideal, either. The old idea of royalty as the epitome of glamour and privilege and raw power has been under attack for quite a while. On the pages of New Idea, Prince William still rates, but he has to compete with Cate Blanchett and David Beckham. Queen Elizabeth still rates, and she still reminds a good proportion of us of the fast-fading dream of Empire, she still stands for the slightly more watered-down idea that we belong to the political abstraction of Commonwealth. We still like the idea of monarchy, but we’ve been turned off a bit by too much information about the tawdry reality of royal lifestyles, by the intrigue and infighting that fill the pages of the glossy magazines.
We see a king with all the traditional trappings in the Wizard of ID – a ruthless little despot, both physically and morally small – desperately hanging on to power but not very bright and easily duped by Sir Rodney and the wizard, the king hasn’t got much of an idea what his subjects lives are like – addressing the peasants from the balcony, they can’t hear what he’s saying, and he doesn’t care what they’re yelling back at him.
In modern democracies, the idea of a king as a figure of absolute power has given way to the new business-suited idea of a president or a prime minister. That’s where we see real power being exercised in the world we live in – even though Kevin Rudd probably can’t compete with Cate Blanchett in the glamour stakes, and – please! - we don’t want him to! As citizens of a democracy, over the last few weeks especially we have subjected our political leaders to constant critique, we’ve examined their motivations from all angles – oddly enough, at the same time as political power has become more concentrated than ever in our modern democracies, our attitudes towards those who have it have become more ambiguous than ever as well.
Christ the King Sunday I think picks up some of the ambiguity that surrounds the whole idea of worldly power – on the whole, I think this might be unintentional. The idea of the risen Christ as a king is almost as old as Christianity itself – we begin to see paintings and images of Christ Pantocrator – pictures of the risen Christ surrounded by the trappings of power - from the fourth century around the time when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official State religion – more than anything else this maybe says something about the thousand year alliance between Christianity and worldly authority, the church’s assumption of worldly power. So, in fact, rather a troubling image! On the other hand, the day of the church year that we call Christ the King Sunday is very recent, beginning in December 1925. At the time, it was a powerful symbolic action. Europe was facing an uncertain future. Mussolini had been the leader of Italy for three years; and a rabble-rouser named Hitler had been out of jail for a year. The Nazi party was growing in popularity, and the world lay in a great Depression. Pope Pius XI asserted that, despite all of these dictators and false values in the world, Christ was King of the universe. Christians knew where their ultimate loyalties lay — not with dictators or power manipulators, but with Christ! He was our true leader, our true King — and he was unlike any of these earthly leaders, who would one day pass away. You could say, Christ was like an “upside down king”.
Christ the King Sunday raises some big questions: certainly questions about the meaning of Christ, but beyond that, questions about where and how we place our social loyalties; how we live our public life as followers of Christ. There are some hard questions about all this – asserting Christ to be King of all Kings is not just a feel-good formula for a poppy praise-song – it’s a serious claim, but it’s also ambiguous. It raises some questions that don’t have any easy answers. How do we as followers of Christ the King relate to earthly Kings and leaders? Does our understanding of political power and leadership dictate how we understand Christ as King? Or should it be the other way around? If Christ is a king, how is that kingship expressed? Is the kingship of Christ about this world or the next one?
A significant change occurred in Australian politics and social life in the 2004 Federal elections, with the election of a Family First party candidate to the Senate. According to one exuberant campaign worker on election night, this was ‘a victory for Jesus’. In our hyper-secular, post-Christian nation this is remarkable, though we might question whether Family First’s agenda of family values is all Jesus was really on about. With last night’s nail-biting finish, the nation’s nerdiest Christian politician might even be on track to make liberation theology trendy – certainly Jesus is now firmly on the political stage in Australia – but whose version of Jesus are we talking about? If Jesus really is king, what are his policies?
The irony of this special day in the church’s calendar is heightened by the fact that our gospel reading directs us not to Christ’s glorification, but to the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth as King of the Jews. In Luke’s account we are confronted with the logical end result for the Jesus who, over and over again, calls into question the dominant models of political and religious power – the Jesus who teaches his disciples that the greatest among them would be their servant is a different sort of King! Yet Luke’s passion narrative also builds in the ambiguity of Jesus’ claim to kingship that we continue to grapple with today.
Luke’s version of the story makes one thing very clear – Jesus was crucified as a political subversive – in good company with the supporting cast from the zealot Barabbas to the ones crucified with him – the Greek word lestai is better translated as brigand or revolutionary, than as criminal. For Jesus to be recognised as the long awaited messiah necessitated political overtones – the Hebrew word messiah like the Greek word christos means ‘anointed’, in other words, a warrior king in the model of David. Yet the way Luke writes it, it was all a tragic mistake because Jesus was a different kind of messiah – the ones who had been expecting a political figure had it all wrong and the Romans had it all wrong too – according to Luke Jesus was innocent of the charge of being a political messiah, instead he was concerned only with the kingdom within – Luke in other words is emphasising that Jesus really isn’t a threat to the status quo at all because he is talking about a heavenly kingdom not a geographic one.
Mark isn’t so sure, and he points to Jesus’ denunciation of the temple as the real reason for his arrest and trial. Clearly, Jesus was not leading a military insurrection, but on the other hand, the following that Jesus attracted and his message of liberation for the poor just as clearly presented a political danger to the Jewish and Roman authorities. From the beginning when Jesus stands up in the synagogue to define his mission as good news for the poor he is emphasising the value of those who have no value at all under the status quo. Jesus is announcing a program for change – and it’s change that he doesn’t only talk about, he puts it into action. The difference between Jesus and Barabbas is that Jesus is preaching a revolution of peace and grace which confronts the power of this world by proposing a new sort of power and a new set of priorities. But he stands with Barabbas in asserting that the oppression of this world matters – ironically, this Jesus has actually more in common with Barabbas than with Christians who choose to withdraw from the world into a private spirituality.
The feast of Christ the King is ambiguous, and it’s problematic. We don’t get around the paradox by resorting to standard images of Christ as a King with all the trappings of ancient royalty but in another place, in a spiritual or a heavenly sphere. Jesus is not setting up an alternative power structure the church can withdraw into or claim some priority over. Jesus himself gives us something more humble, something more subversive, which is a life poured out in compassion, and a life that confronts the structures of worldly power. The kingship of Jesus is a different sort of kingship. But it is not other-worldly, it is a kingship that challenges us to live assertively and compassionately, to engage with the issues of our time in a way that embodies Jesus’ reversal of the world’s priorities, and Jesus’ insistence on the value of those who the world dismisses as having no value.
Ultimately, the feast of the kingship of Christ is about eternity, because it orients us away from our own perspective towards the perspective of the God whose priority is to transform death and finality into life and new possibility. But it’s a perspective that – like resurrection itself - has to be claimed and lived out in the context of the world we live in. In a sense, the reign of Christ is about us, because it presents us with a challenge: what are we actually about? Do our actions match our rhetoric? Who do we really follow?