The Word Engaged
The Counter-Cultural Sovereign
“We are only paying the price for what we’ve done, but
this man has done nothing wrong.”
The Feast of Christ the King stands in stark opposition to two contemporary trends in some Christian circles. The first trend is the rejection of honorific titles like “king” or “lord.” The second is the proposal that Christ is not pre-eminent as a revelation of God, but merely one among many equal sources of truth and salvation.
The distaste that some Christians have for the notion of kingship mistakes the very nature of Christ’s dominion. His is a total reversal of the roles usually assigned to royalty and servitude. He refuses to be the master of the world, the mighty monarch, the spiller of blood. His reign subverts our notion of kingship.
He is the king who serves the other. He is the king who dies for the other. He is the king who is ridiculed, scorned, and mocked. Most insufferable is the fact, most repugnant of all, that he is a powerless sovereign. Dying on his cross-throne, Jesus is thrice taunted for the fact that he does not save himself. “You are a savior?” they jeer. “Then save yourself.” Soldiers with their sour wine chide, “Aren’t you a real king? Save yourself.” Even a criminal scolds: “I thought you were supposed to be a Messiah. Prove it.”
As opposed to every other king, Christ is unguarded. He disavows the protection of armies. He rejects self-defense. He abjures force. This is a king? No, this is a scandal. This is a stumbling block.
Thus, to repress Christ’s title of king is to repress the earth-shaking revolution of his realm. The crucified king is also the secret key to Christ’s uniqueness. There is none other like him in the fables of human consciousness. No cult or culture could dream it.
The mystery of the Cross is so difficult for humans to comprehend that even Christians have devoted their lives and scholarship to ignoring the awful truth of Christ’s sovereignty. Christ’s kingship is an abomination for any earthly royal aspiration. It is an assault upon the desires of every tribe or nation that ever craved ascendancy.
More baffling yet, Christ the king, utterly innocent, completely accepts the appearances of utter guilt. One of the criminals crucified with him saw and embraced this startling truth—and he was saved. “We deserve it after all. We are only paying the price for what we’ve done, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
In celebrating Christ the King at the end of the church year, we force ourselves to remember the appalling fact of our salvation. God has spoken, become enfleshed Word, in a way that defies human cleverness.
Our hunger for pre-eminence, our desire for dominance, which may well motivate our every choice and predilection, is spurned by this king.
René Girard, professor of language and culture at Stanford University, is a rare contemporary thinker who confronts the implications of Christian faith. In his book Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Girard shows how Christ dismantles the triangle of desire, violence, and retribution.
In Christ there is no envy, greed, or lust for power. He, the innocent king who executes none, is executed. He seeks no vengeance. Christ the king is the only sovereign to embody such principles.
It can be shown, I believe, that there is not a single action or word attributed to Jesus—including those that seem harshest at first sight—that is not consistent with the rule of the Kingdom.
It is absolute fidelity to the principle defined in his own preaching that condemns Jesus. There is no other cause for his death than the love of one’s neighbor lived to the very end.
He goes on to say that when we acknowledge Christ as God and king we accept his reversal of the violence that dominates humanity. “A non-violent deity can only signal his existence to mankind by having himself driven out by violence in the Kingdom of Violence.”
Jesus is the sole king who saves fallen humanity from its twisted wish. In this respect he is truly original, truly exceptional, the divine challenge to a world which imagines kingship to be enslavement of the other.
How appropriate it is, then, that St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians professes Christ’s cosmic centrality paradoxically revealed in the triumph of a cross.
He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creatures. In him everything in heaven and on earth was created, things visible and invisible. … In him everything continues in being. … He is the beginning, the first-born of the dead, so that primacy may be his in everything.
It pleased God to make absolute fullness reside in him and, by means of him, to reconcile everything in his person, everything, I say, both on earth and in the heavens, making peace through the blood of his cross. (Second Reading)
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University