Historically, the feast of Christ the King, which we celebrate on this the last Sunday of our liturgical year, is a recently initiated celebration, stemming from the late 19th century when the Church had been displaced from the centre of power but was desperately seeking to regain its influence. The celebration of the feast acted as a defiant reminder to the emerging independent social and political systems where the ‘real power’ lay, so to speak. Today the feast can speak of a sovereignty and a rule in imagery that can sound quaint to our own ears.
Despite the difficulties of the history of the feast day, Jesus himself does not resile from the title king before Pilate. His preaching is also expressly at the service of inaugurating a new kingdom. However, when Jesus accepts the title ‘King’ in Pilate’s questioning of him before his death, the scene pictured is hardly one of equals. Here is Pilate, with the full power of imperial Rome behind him and there is Jesus, a condemned peasant, completely at the mercy of others. The juxtaposition is not accidental. By claiming kingship in such a context of imbalance, Jesus is forcing us to confront the nature of power. He forces us to be open to the possibility that he himself does have power, but it is not the power of might, of control, of domination
In fact, there are many types of power. Almost daily, through different situations, we read about the power of political might, the power of wealth and the power of evil. Such power, particularly when it is displayed dramatically, shocks us – although sometimes it can act to seduce us. At worst, power is equated with strength, force, decisiveness. We think of a powerful person has one who ‘has the world at their feet’, the one who can marshal resources to achieve whatever they wish and who has control over these resources.
But in appropriating to himself the title of king when he does Jesus re-defines the way in which power is imagined when it comes to God. Our God is destitute, completely at the mercy of others, vulnerable, abandoned, crucified. This is a truth too scandalous for us to really own and yet every crucifix we see, every sign of the cross we make, proclaims it. It is a truth, that has been so accurately depicted by Leunig. He has a man meeting God with the script,
“ He found God. God spoke to him. God said, “Help me, I’m wounded. God lay bleeding on the ground. You’re not God, said the man, God is all-powerful. I am all-vulnerable, said God. I am in pain. I am at your mercy. These words were so unbearable to the man, so infuriating that he finished God off right there and then.”
We ourselves ‘finish off God’ when we look for a God that is not in pain, i.e., when we look away from the scandal of the Cross, when we look for a God that is above our pain, when we look for a God to deliver us from our pain, when we expect God to somehow make us immune from life’s often tragic unpredictability, when we demand God orchestrate events or circumstances to our advantage.
Only when we can accept that God is in our pain and not above it, will we realize the nature of divine power. Because divine power is the power within vulnerability: the power of intimacy, the power of forgiveness, the power of solidarity, the power of hope, the power of community. This is not the love of power but the power of love, as the theologian Jürgen Moltmann puts it so concisely. This is a new kingdom which eschews dominance, wealth, or destruction, but which knows the power of community, hospitality, attentiveness and care, and which asserts that it is this power which will transform our world. In the face of all other forms of power, Jesus calls us to the exercise of this power, the power which animated his own life.
How can we deal with the ambiguity of political power? How can we resist the seduction of financial power? And how can we make sense of the power of evil? One power alone can help us. The power of the Kingdom which pushes into our world in those places in which hurt and hope live together. To the extent that we make the action of community and hospitality, attentiveness, and care part of our life the power of God’s Kingdom enters and pervades our world, transforming it always from within our life together, and never apart from or beyond it.
This Thursday, 25 November the NSW Parliament will vote on proposed Voluntary Assisted Dying legislation. It proposes death rather and care as the answer to the problem of suffering. It seeks to suggest that life can be on our own terms, that we have a right not to suffer, that not suffering is better than the vulnerability of entrusting ourselves into the care of another. Its framework is the very opposite of our Catholic understanding of what we proclaim in today’s Feast: that real power lies not in the illusion of control over both our life and death but in our readiness to discover a quality of care with and from one another. This the truly humanising power open to us. Our dignity does not come from anaesthetising suffering but discovering in it a new way of being with one other in compassion and care. As the campaign says, “Compassion never kills.”
As the Church’s liturgical year closes, let us look back over this last twelve months and ask where have we helped extend community, where and how have we expressed hospitality in our hearts and at our tables, where and how have we been deeply attentive to and responded with profound care to the needs of another, where have we heard and seen the drive for life and enabled that life to live yet more?
The power which alone can save our world is already within us. If we dare to exercise it.
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