The Feast of Christ the King – John 18:33-37
I was at a meeting the other day with some people from the community, good, committed people. But we were talking about holding an event and where it should be, and the argument was being made–it was really being made–that we shouldn’t hold this event in a church because a lot of people find the idea of God offensive and see the church as a sign of political oppression.
Christ as a sign of oppression? What?
I was really upset by this.
I was upset in part because of the assumption that faith is a matter of personal opinion and what we like and don’t like when for us Jesus isn’t an opinion and Jesus isn’t whatever we want Him to be. He is the truth. He came into the world to “testify to the truth,” as he tells Pilate today. We may not like kings, but too bad. Jesus is the king, a real king, of all majesty and greatness and power.
It’s like going to the Grand Canyon and saying, I don’t like things that deep. It’s like going to see Van Gogh’s Starry Night and saying, I don’t like things that beautiful. Too bad. Some things are grand and some things are beautiful and some things overpower us, rightly, and Jesus is all that and more, far more, and it doesn’t matter what we think of him, as C.S. Lewis once said: it matters what He thinks of us.
But I was also upset because these people and others, and maybe us, too, some of the time, we’ve all have just gotten Jesus wrong. We don’t understand the kind of King he really is.
There’s a book I really like and keep coming back to, The Death of Sigmund Freud, by Mark Edmundson. It’s about the last years of Freud’s life in Vienna and how there was someone else in Vienna at the same time, someone who had just come marching in, Hitler, with his armies, and how Freud thought a lot about Hitler and about the nature of dictators, and how in a way there is a Nazi in all of us. Most of us don’t go as far as the Nazi’s, of course, but Freud thought that deep down we all long for a great leader to come and remove the burden of complexity from us, we all long for someone to save us from thinking for ourselves, and we really have to watch that and keep it in check.
And this is the problem with God, Freud thought. Freud was a very principled atheist, dismayed by the way true believers in any religion can justify violence and racism and barbarity in the name of some simple, unwavering absolute.
But that’s just not who Jesus is. Freud just didn’t understand.
Jesus isn’t a dictator, and he doesn’t take away our freedom, and he doesn’t ask us to stop thinking or engaging the world the way it really is. Jesus is a king who the moment before our gospel today knelt down and washed the feet of his disciples. Jesus is a king who is now standing before Pilate, before worldly authority, and allowing himself to be humiliated and allowing himself to be killed.
Don’t you think I could call down the angels, he asks Pilate? Don’t you think I understand power in that sense? I do. It’s you who don’t understand. It’s you who don’t understand that the kingdom that will come and that is already here is a kingdom of love, of gentleness, of smallness, of ordinariness.
Jesus isn’t the Sky God Freud rightly feared and critiqued. He is the God who comes down to earth, who enters into the world–who empties himself out and who calls us to empty ourselves, too.
We shouldn’t expect to be kings in our prayer lives, for example, enjoying all the royal privileges, consolation on demand, joy by right. Sometimes we have to stand before our own inner Pilates. Sometimes we have to just stand there, not trying to escape, not trying to hide, but enduring the chaos and enduring the struggle.
In fact, as St. Ignatius says, moments like this are important exactly because they teach us humility: that “it is not within our power to acquire great devotion, ardent love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation, but that all his is a gift and grace of God our Lord.” Moments like this teach us “not to claim as our own what belongs to another, allowing our intellect to rise up in a spirit of pride or vainglory, attributing to ourselves” what belongs to God.
We shouldn’t act like kings with the people around us either, always trying to impose our own will, in every argument, every conflict, always trying to conquer our spouses and children and friends. We shouldn’t be signs of oppression ourselves. When in doubt we should remove our outer garments—our false selves, our pretentions, our fantasies—and kneel down to wash the feet of others, in whatever way the situation requires.
It’s what I didn’t do in that meeting with the community leaders. Outwardly I was polite enough, but inwardly I was seething. I wanted to be right. I wanted to demonstrate my power and vanquish the foe. Those people were my Pilates, as maybe I was theirs, and I didn’t want to stand before them. I didn’t want to stop and think about what they might really be afraid of or how I might be able to help.
“I need to overcome a sense of my own impotence,” Dorothy Day once wrote in her diary, “my own failure, and an impatience with others that goes with it. Such a sense of defeat comes from expecting too much of one’s self, also from a sense of pride.” That’s it. That’s the key. On this recognition turns all our health and all our happiness. “More and more,” Day continues, “I realize how good God is to me to send me discouragements, failures, antagonisms.” Yes. Discouragement teaches us, failure frees us, or can. “The only way to proceed,” Day says, “is to remember that God’s ways are not our ways. To bear our own burdens, to do our own work as best we can, and not fret because we cannot do more or do another’s work.”
This is the source of our joy. This is what leads to the resurrection. This is the majestic truth of our King and how He is King and why He is King, why He is all truth, the Grand Canyon and the Starry Night and all the stars themselves: because he is gentle. Because he is small. Because he washes our feet. Because he calls us his own.