Our Hope and Our Fear
Last Sunday before Advent, the Solemnity of Christ the King (Year C)
24 November 2013–8:00 a.m. Said, 10:00 a.m. Sung Mass
Parish Church of Trinity, Ashland (Oregon)
God, give us hearts to feel and love,
take away our hearts of stone
and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, a festival introduced only in 1925 by Pope Pius XI and now observed by most denominations. It was a reaction to sweeping social changes: the American revolution and then the French had started a century and a half of upheaval that brought an end to “Christian” kings like those of France and the Russian Tsars. The few monarchs remaining, including the pope, had lost much of their political power. The European Church’s craven failure to prevent World War I had, in the words of historian Diarmaid McCollough, “tolled the final death-knell for ‘Christendom.”
Pius asserted that despite such changes, order still stood amid the growing chaos, a holy city among the ruins, a kingdom ruled by one true King, Jesus Christ.
But the image of Christ as King does not really speak to us Americans. We live in a republic that gave up on kings 250 years ago. We have little or no experience with kings as such. We tend to belittle the very idea, except perhaps as a tourism-boosting ploy for countries like Britain who had the good sense of stripping kings of their powers even as they preserved the institution.
The Oba of Kétou
I once met a king. When I was living in Africa, I was honored for my work with villages and traditional leaders. Together with Roman Catholic priest and sustainable farming advocate Father Godfrey Nzamujo, I was named an honorary prince of the Yoruba Kingdom of Kétou. Within the larger context of the Beninese and Nigerian states, the kingdom is ruled by a hereditary ruler, a King called the Oba. I have to confess—I was nervous, since the ceremony was partly religious and the closest thing to a state church there is what we in the West dismissively and ignorantly call “Voodoo.” My staff at the American Cultural Center was excited to have their boss thus honored, and told me to obey exactly any instructions from the King or his ministers. They assured me that we would not be asked to do anything dangerous, immoral, or compromising our Christian faith.
Fr. Nzamujo and I were received at the palace of the Oba unceremoniously ushered into the basement while dancers and singers performed for the assembled crowds in the palace courtyard. Three elderly women looked us carefully up and down, and left. Then the King’s chamberlain evenly commanded, “Mettez-vous à poil (strip naked).” We proceeded to do so under the watchful eyes of the king’s security guards.
We then waited together in the dark naked for a few minutes, feeling vulnerable and a little silly, until the chamberlain returned. He looked harshly at us, and had his assistants produce three items in sequence. “This is water from the Oba’s well. Let him quench your thirst if you are to become his sons.” We drank deeply from the gourd. “This is manioc from the Oba’s table. Let him satisfy your hunger if you are to become his sons.” We ate the gray paste. And finally, “These are ashes from the King’s pipe. Enjoy his leftovers and taste bitterness with him if you are to be his sons.” We tasted the ashes. Then, producing a small bowl of palm oil, he had a vodun priest anoint us as he translated the Yoruba chanting into French for us: “I anoint your brow that you may think as the King thinks, your eyes that you may see with his eyes, your arms that you may defend him and his people, your legs that you may always hurry to heed his call.” Then he clothed us with exquisite royal robes and hats, hemmed to our exact bodily dimensions in the minutes while we waited in the darkness. The elderly women who had scanned us were expert tailors. We then were ushered up a stairway into the bright light of the tropical courtyard. We were told to approach the Oba, who then took a full mouthful of gin and sprayed it over us as the priest said, “You are my sons, princes of Kétou.”
After a lengthy public ceremony, we were handed plastic bags containing our original clothes and escorted back to our car. I didn’t really realize how much all of this meant to the Yoruba until what happened next: On the long drive back to the city, we stopped to have a late lunch at a roadside restaurant. Not having the chance to change back into our western clothes, we were both in the royal robes as we walked from our car. A group of 20 or so market women came around a corner and, when the saw us in our robes marking us as royalty, they all, in a second, fell prostrate before us, faces in the dirt. They remained motionless until we had passed and entered the restaurant.
This experience taught me that a king is the object of love, awe and fear. He embodies the well-being or woes of his people, and is responsible for them. The “divine right of Kings” is not simply an effective propaganda tool to enforce hierarchy on possibly restive subjects. It expresses a faith of an earlier age: a king reflects in some way—however dim—God’s relationship to us, just as a parent, a shepherd, or a trusted teacher.
God in the Bible is often described as a King, and even the “King of Kings.” The Royal Psalms describe the King of Israel “Son of God.”
The core idea here is not hierarchy, authority from top down, or rule for the sake of the ruler. Rather, it is the responsibility that comes from being chosen: the King is first in battle to defend his people, and last in retreat from an attack on them.
The fact that human kings so often fall far from this ideal is the reason that the Deuteronomistic History in the Hebrew Bible also includes an anti-royal tradition. In it, God, the only true king of Israel, reluctantly allows the people to set up kings like Saul, David, and Solomon. This is a defection from God’s true plan, a concession to God’s people, who want to “be like the nations round about us.”
These very passages were used by the Puritans during the English Civil War to argue against Charles I, and later, by the American Revolutionaries against George III.
Col. John Hutchinson
One of my ancestors, Colonel John Hutchinson, Governor of Nottingham Castle, was a puritan who so believed these anti-royal verses that he was one of those who signed the death warrant of King Charles I. Hutchinson later realized that the Puritan Commonwealth leadership could be every bit as tyrannical and “unbiblical” as Charles and kings like him. Hutchinson fell afoul of Oliver Cromwell when he disobeyed orders to massacre Cavalier prisoners of war in retaliation to Charles’ summary executions of Roundhead prisoners. In part due to this, Hutchinson in the end escaped execution as a regicide after the restoration of the monarchy.
So what does this have to say for us, good citizens of a Republic that we are? Why celebrate Christ as King?
If we change the question slightly, a reason appears. Why we do not celebrate Christ the President, Christ the CEO, or Christ the Celebrity? Leaders chosen because of popularity or achievement may make sense, but most certainly might not be leaders who give us what we need rather than what we want or merely find attractive.
The heart of the matter is found in the very story in John’s Gospel where Jesus empowers his followers, and calls them friends rather than slaves. In that most anti-hierarchical of passages, Jesus puts it plainly: “It was I who chose you, not you who chose me.”
In our marketplace of goods and ideas, we tend to have a consumer’s approach to things. But being attracted to an idea does not make it true. Choosing leaders because they or their program strike our fancy is no guarantee that they will lead us where we need to go. In fact, the very individualistic egotism and partisanship of such an approach almost guarantee the opposite.
Again, in John’s Gospel, Jesus meets initial success. Large crowds follow him, intrigued by his signs of power and his teaching. But when he gives the bread of life discourse. Immediately, large numbers desert him. Not liking his message, they vote with their feet, withhold their pledges, and find another teacher more to their liking. Jesus asks the Twelve if they are going to leave too, and Peter replies, “Lord, and just where would we go? You are the one who has the words of eternal life. We have come to trust and know that you are God’s Holy One.” (John 6:60-69)
One traditional catechism defines faith as “trusting and believing in what God reveals because of the authority of the revealing God.” Submission to a higher power, to an authority, is a key part of faith. Simply agreeing with God’s word because it pleases us is not faith. It is consumer choice. It cannot transform us because it can take us only as far as we already have gone. It may at times demand support, but this is simply an appeal for funds based on the logic that you may want to continue to have your ears pleased and your fancy tickled. In such an approach, it is we who choose Jesus, not Jesus who chooses us. This is boutique religion, not living Christian faith.
Christ as king means we have a personal loyalty and devotion to him. As the personal embodiment of God’s love, responsibility, awe- or fear-inspiring power, we admit he has chosen us, and not we him. Dostoyevsky famously said something that used to trouble me: “If I were faced with truth on the one hand and Jesus Christ on the other, I would throw myself into the arms of Christ and abandon truth.” Dostoyevsky here is not calling for self-delusion and deceit, but rather a confession of Christ bearing the very stamp of God in all his person just like in today’s epistle reading. He is admitting how flawed our own perceptions of the truth may be at times.
On this Christ the King Sunday, this last Sunday of the Church year when we will be gathering in our offerings and pledges of offerings to Christ and the Kingdom for the next year, let us remember that Christ is King. In the words of George Herbert, let us say in our hearts:
King of glory, King of peace,
I will love thee;
and that love may never cease,
I will move thee.
Thou hast granted my request,
thou hast heard me;
thou didst note my working breast,
thou hast spared me.
Wherefore with my utmost art
I will sing thee,
and the cream of all my heart
I will bring thee.
Though my sins against me cried,
thou didst clear me;
and alone, when they replied,
thou didst hear me.
Seven whole days, not one in seven,
I will praise thee;
in my heart, though not in heaven,
I can raise thee.
Small it is, in this poor sort
to enroll thee:
e’en eternity’s too short
to extol thee.
In the name of Christ the King, Amen.