This Sunday, the last before a new church year begins with Advent I, is the Feast of Christ the King. From the archives, meditations for this feast from two other years: they use different scriptural texts from the ones we will hear this Sunday, but -- each in its own way -- both turn a speculative eye on the issues of leadership that have so absorbed our attention worldwide.
Jesus said, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory."
HOW TO KNOW A REAL KING WHEN YOU SEE ONE
November 24, 2007
The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!"
-- Luke 23:35
Notice that it is the leaders who direct this taunt at the crucified. They assume that the messiah will be privileged by virtue of his status. Before anyone else, they think, surely the leader's life will be preserved. He will make saving himself a priority. That's one of the ways in which we'll be able to tell he's the boss.
This is a serious flaw in their understanding of what it means to lead.
The Queen Mum understood it better. "I'm glad we've been bombed," said the mother of two teenaged girls, after Buckingham Palace was hit during the London blitz. "It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face." The little lady in the big hats trudged with her royal husband through the rubble of bombed-out apartment buildings, clasping the hands and looking into the eyes of the people who had called them home. Perhaps she should consider removing with her daughters to the country, suggested the prime minister, where they would all be safer? But she refused.
"The children could not go without me, and I could not possibly leave the king, who would never go," she said. And that was that. She began target practice with a rifle on the palace grounds, just in case. And the apple never falls far from the tree: as soon as she was old enough, her eldest daughter volunteered for military service under her family name -- she was, simply, Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor, service number 230873. A grainy black and white photograph survives: the young princess in coveralls, intent on changing a tire.
We will not follow those who do not lead by example. A leader must purchase our faithfulness with his own. He cannot expect us to be more self-giving than he is willing to be. If we know our leaders are willing to lay it all down for us, we will lay it all down for them. And if our leaders preach and model nothing beyond what self-interest prompts, they will get back nothing more than our own self-interest. "What's in it for me?" will be the extent of our political and moral debate. For many citizens and far too many leaders, it already is.
This is the Feast of Christ the King. Christian or no, anyone can strive to be Christ-like. And our leaders must strive to be Christ-like, too: refusing to send their people anywhere they will not go themselves.
CHRIST THE KING
November 22, 2003
The Feast of Christ the King is the newest feast in the Church year -- it was created by Pope Pius XI in 1925, when Europe was still reeling from a war more terrible than anything theretofore imagined. It was a Roman Catholic feast, not an Anglican one, but an increasing number of Episcopal Churches observe it with hymns about kings and crowns, with the readings we will hear in church this Sunday: extravagant words of longing for a king who will reign over a world of peace and justice. And careful words from Jesus, who sets little store in the power of any earthly monarch to bring about anything anywhere near the reign of truth and goodness imagined by God for the human family.
The young ruler of the American Camelot, sainted in the popular culture far beyond what any achievements of his brief administration might have merited, stepped suddenly into eternity forty years ago today (ed. note: now 48 years.) That it was so long ago seems impossible for those of us who remember the day well, that one of a handful of life's days on which you always remember where you were when you heard. Forty years later we persist in making him better than we was, still miss him, even though we now know he had character flaws which would make him unelectable today.
We choose our memories. We remember his heroism in saving the men in his World War II command and choose not to remember the Bay of Pigs. We remember his triumph over chronic pain and choose not to remember his personal indiscretions. We remember his steely handling of the threat of our worst nuclear nightmare, the contagion of his excitement about space exploration. We miss his optimism about the things for which, forty years later, we have just about given up hope. We miss a lot of things.
Is it only God's imagining? There has never been peace. We have never lived together in justice. Never. Not a single age has succeeded in restraining the dogs of war, and most ages have loosed them enthusiastically many, many times. Most ages have looked to the battlefield as the place in which the human spirit is at its most true, the place in which heroism is most to be found. Almost always, we have thought that the capacity to make war is what makes a nation strong. Almost always, we have been much more willing to appear ruthless than to appear weak. Almost always, we have packaged our aggression in the thin clothes of borrowed justice, telling ourselves that our wars have nothing to do with money or power when they have had little to do with anything else. It has seldom been a convincing disguise.
Some of the ancient Israelites were afraid of having a king, afraid of where it might lead. Thought that they should have remained as they were, in the wilderness. Simple wanderers. They would become like "the nations," they feared. And they did -- they became just like them. Temporal power tinctures spiritual power and weakens it, and those who grasp for it never realize it's happening until it's too late.
A student of history has every reason to be grim. It is not a pretty story. Perhaps it is to God's imagination of us that we must look instead, that vision of a peaceful humanity, such as we have never seen in the flesh. Perhaps the absolutism of the vision, the very fact that it is out of earthly reach, is its primary use. We measure against it, and see wherein we are found wanting. The peace of God diagnoses our warring. The Feast of Christ the King is followed immediately by the sober honesty of the Advent season. It is just what we need.