2 Samuel 5:1—3
This week’s readings remind us of how important the concept of kingship is to the Biblical narrative and to the history of salvation. It is tempting, especially in America, to dismiss the whole notion of monarchy as a relic of the past. In those places where it has not either been abolished or reduced to a cultural artifact preserved for display, it retains all the negative qualities we now associate with autocracy and authoritarianism. The modern assumption is that to be a king with kingly power is almost of necessity to be corrupt. Yet the Christian faith seems to require at least for the possibility of kingly rule that is not only legitimate but just in an absolute sense. It is very difficult for Christians to evade the apparent fact that the Gospels clearly portray Jesus as a king, and that the most explicit purpose of his work on earth was to establish a kingdom.
Since we belong to a Melkite parish, my family and I normally participate each week in the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which always begins with the priest singing “blessed be the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Likewise each week, immediately before receiving communion, the faithful cry out together the words of the good thief: “remember me, O Lord, when you come into your kingdom,” the very words we hear in today’s gospel. The worship we offer is thus entirely framed by this concept of “kingdom”—but what could that concept mean for us now, removed as we are from any worldly analogue of true monarchial government? Of course, the question is not so much about the organization of government as it is about the true nature of power, and where true power really lies in this world so full of corruption and injustice.
On the one hand, the feast of Christ the King reminds us that power is not evil in itself. Contrary to some theological traditions, Catholicism has never taught that worldly structures of authority are necessary only because of the Fall. Despite the contingency that characterizes the natural order both as a whole and in its innumerable parts, we nevertheless find hierarchical relations to be a permanent feature of creation. According to the Christian worldview, it is not intrinsically unjust and oppressive that some creatures should stand in a subordinate relation to others. Likewise it is not intrinsically unjust and oppressive that some within the human community remain subordinate to authorities who wield power on their behalf. The good of all demands that some assume a position of authority so as to direct and preserve the operation of the community as a whole. This necessity is not a concession to our fallenness, but rather a reflection within the human realm of the larger pattern of ordered relations that apply to all the natural world.
On the other hand, though, the history of a fallen world is most often told as the history of the misuse of this power. Our gifts of foresight and ingenuity are ultimately meant to be employed in the larger task of being our “brother’s keeper,” and yet from the beginning they have been employed to serve our own personal aims at the expense of our brother. History has clearly shown us that in this sort of world, the power of authority can be a very dangerous and destructive tool.
We see it in Israel’s first real engagement with kingship, when the Pharaoh reduces the Hebrews to slaves and resorts to genocide in order to assuage his paranoia. Yet as the first reading reminds us, eventually the poignancy of this memory fades and Israel herself demands an absolute ruler. The dream of worldly prominence is all too fleeting for this earthly kingdom, however, and for centuries upon centuries Israel is left only with the promise of a new king, the Mashiach who will set her free from subjugation and restore her to glory. The coming Messianic king will also bring the people, and by extension the world, into a proper relation with God. God will rule through him from Jerusalem, to which all the nations will come and worship together.
Christians believe that Christ is this coming king. Yet his coronation was anything but conventional, and his proclamation of his authority anything but definitive. For his crown was a ring of plaited thorns, and the official decree of his enthronement was a piece of parchment nailed to the top of a cross. Both were meant to be ironic, of course: gestures of malicious derision and wanton cruelty. Yet those who follow this crucified Messiah see them as fitting signs of God’s kingship over the world. They reveal that true kingship lies in self-giving love. They reveal that true power lies in the willing sacrifice of one’s life for another.
Christians see in the Lord’s passion not only the humility and courage of a single man, but also a window into the true nature of all reality. “Those who seek to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life will find it” (Lk 17:33). They also glimpse the true nature of authority and hierarchy: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Lk 20:25—28). This is the true paradigm of kingship, and the definitive template for the kingdom which Christ inaugurates.
Thus to enter into the kingdom of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to be “remembered” in this kingdom, is to participate in a form of life that cannot be circumscribed by borders, flags, constitutions and armies. It is to enter in through the narrow gate of divine love into a fellowship with the God of Israel which both puts us in our “proper place” as servants of one another and custodians of creation, and yet also exalts us by that service to the glory of the resurrected Lord, drawing us by grace into the eternal dance of self-emptying love that is and will remain sovereign over all.