The Word Encountered
The King’s Standard
“... not of this world.”
Not every image of kingliness is pleasant. Even in better times for royalty, kings have been associated with opulence, money, and reckless appetite. They were distant and unapproachable, high and mighty surrounded by sycophant and jester. Most strutted through time, decked in finery, decorated with trappings and trimmings of grand lordliness. It was the uncommon king who did otherwise.
King imagery is more problematic today, not only because of widespread suspicion of hierarchy and masculine dominance (a lordly word, that). We are also not likely to be drawn to chivalrous virtues. Notions like honor, obedience, duty, and loyalty vex anyone whose highest value is individualism. We love our autonomy. We celebrate choice because it is ours. Doing the will of someone else is another matter.
Service? To serve? Servant? Servitude? The words insinuate dominance: dominion, Dominus, Lord.
Grand associations of kingship preoccupy Daniel's dream of the ancient one riding the heavens. The prophet imagines an eternal lord receiving dominion, glory, and service. The psalms, too, sing of regal splendor, a great immovable throne for one majestic and mighty, whose decrees are worthy of trust. Even the words of the Book of Revelation, another dream, portray an absolute ruler, a faithful witness of glory and power, who is “the Alpha and the Omega, the One who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” This king, however, is a liberator and lover. The lord of history who stands before the throne of God is not a lion. He is a lamb.
A strange king, to be sure. In the fourth Gospel's account of the Passion, all of our expectations of kingliness are reversed. The king-servant, who washed his followers' feet, is strangely grand and noble, yet only in his quiet vulnerability and the utter truth of his being. He does not muster armies or amass territories. He just invites, relying on nothing other than our hearts' response.
In answering Pilate, Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world. It is a kingdom not fought for with old means of warfare. Rather, it testifies to truth. It will not kill for the truth, it will die for it. If Jesus is king, he will be a suffering king. He will not demand ransom. He will be ransom. He will win, not by spilling the blood of others, but by offering up his own.
Over the centuries Christians have had trouble with this new kind of king, so much have we hungered for the earthly assurances of conquest and control. But it is equally true that the centuries have seen men and women who recognized in Jesus a kingliness that summoned nothing less than the loyalty of a free human heart. Something was unlocked in them when they discovered a “lord of life” whose ambition was not to dominate humanity but to save and serve it.
In the meditation on the Two Standards in Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises,* we are first presented with the picture of a false king, mounted on a throne of fire and smoke, inciting terror, mustering forces of tyranny to snare all peoples in chains of riches and massive pride.
Christ, on the other hand, standing in a lowly place on the great open plains, is a sovereign, beautiful and bright, who draws men and women into a life of liberation. They will be freed of all false securities, whether spiritual or material. They will be a legion of humility, armed only with truth.
It is this king who in Ignatius's Exercises, before the great meditations on Advent and Christmas, asks of us not quivering fright, but union of hearts. He wants us to enter into his life, as he desires to enter ours. He has come to be with us so that we might be with him. Rather than obsequiousness, this king demands love, the "earnest desire and choice" to be together with him, no matter what.
The human heart will never outgrow its longings for such a promised friend and rule. Something deep rises from within us in the face of its beauty. It awakens a long-lost ache to give everything away, if the cause is only good and true enough. As the old Quaker hymn reminds us: “When Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”
We need not appreciate the images of lord and king. But the godly realm we celebrate on the feast of Christ the King is an alternative kingdom—heavenly, majestic, and worthy of trust. It is a kingdom, indeed, not of this earth, yet brought to earth in the Word of God made flesh.
Ignatius Loyola would have us ponder such a kingdom before we imagine the mystery of the Incarnation. We see at a distance our fragile world of broken promises and broken hearts. We behold sin, our own included, amid the manifold glimmers of grace. We hope.
So it was that C.S. Lewis wrote in fantasy wonderfully true: the word is out that the King may land.
It is an appropriate time. So long as human flesh survives, the longing for this alternative kingdom of redeeming love will endure. That is why we will always be ready for Advent.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University