Ten years ago, an essay about kingship, on the anniversary of President John F Kennedy's assassination. When I wrote, it had been forty years since that day. Now, it's been 52 years. Ah, me.
CHRIST THE KING
November 21, 2003
The Feast of Christ the King is the newest feast in the Church year -- it was created by 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. 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.