Sunday, November 24, 2013

"Are you a king?"

Way past time to post again. I'm leading worship and preaching next week for the first time in a year-and-a-half, so maybe that's what is motivating me to do this now.

It is probably appropriate that I missed worship today (because of snow) since today is a festival that simply makes no sense to me. In most liturgical churches today was "Christ the King" (or some variation on that title). It is a recent invention. First introduced as a fall festival in Roman Catholic churches in the 1920s, it was intended to be a statement against encroaching secularism and  support for the Vatican's ongoing struggle with the Italian government for its sovereignty.

During Vatican II its emphasis was somewhat revised and moved to the last Sunday of the liturgical year. A little later many Protestant churches adopted the Revised Common Lectionary, which included Christ the King Sunday. It was appealing both in providing a more formal end to the church year and, at after a string of doom and judgment texts, doing so on a high note: "Jesus will reign" in the end.

The most immediate problem, which should have been obvious at least to Protestant churches c. 1970, is with its central symbol of king. Today, the few remaining kings and queens are political figure heads. In the counties that still have them, they are cultural symbols of national unity and pride. No one today has first-hand experience of a king as a ruler. Royal imagery for most people is from tourist pageants, gossipy scandals, or Disney tales. Christ the King?

Okay, so let's acknowledge that royalty has fallen on hard times in the last few centuries. "That's not what we mean by king," ecclesiologists may say. But then what do we mean by "king" in this context? Is there some better or ideal regal image we should be conjuring up? It's hard not think that the church is trying to refashion some version of the "benevolent dictator" with this icon of Christ the King.

Taking this one feast day apart quickly becomes a "pealing an onion"-like task. There's a lot more here than one first realizes. Obviously this is another example of the how much of the church's imagery and theology is rooted in an ancient world long gone and therefore essentially meaningless to modern people. Yet it goes deeper than this. The medieval church supported monarchs as ruling in God's stead; human kings were surrogates for "Christ the King." Originating in the Enlightenment, the democratic movement, however, rejected monarchy as fundamentally evil and oppressive.

Can God or Christ as a king work as a meaningful symbol today? I don't see how, nor do I see why we want it to, except for cultural and political reactionary purposes. This is, after all, what the Vatican intended in creating the feast nearly a century ago. The notion that God is king in the Hebrew Bible is a complex and ambiguous one. And the title almost seems antithetical to the person we know as the historical Jesus. Many of the texts for this feast day reflect that ambivalence (Jesus "reigns" from the cross) but in doing so only draws attention to the day's internal contradictions and even to contradictions at the heart of Christianity.

Is God or Christ as cosmic ruler really our best-case vision for the culmination of history? Or was Jesus actually trying to get us to envision history as well as ourselves in radically different terms? Wasn't he actually trying to end our dependence on supernatural, let alone earthly, parental figures, challenging us instead to take on the responsibility of "ruling" ourselves? If so, then a festival celebrating "Christ the King" seems confusing at best, and more likely a contradiction of the heart of Jesus' own message.