Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
RCL – Proper 29 C - Christ the King – Sunday 21 November 2010
Then one of the elders said to me: … “Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered…”
And I saw…a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.
Well, it’s official. Prince William, second in line to the British throne and probable future King, has announced his engagement to Ms. Kate Middleton of Bucklebury, soon to Princess Catherine. It’s the stuff of dreams, isn’t it?
How well I remember the wedding of Charles and Diana thirty years ago…. Getting up at some ridiculous hour, watching the pageantry and parades and processions and the protocol, noting carefully the liturgy and music, checking out the vestments, and sharing in some mysterious yet vital way in a sense of history and romance come close to home, even if it was only on a 13” television set. It was, in so many senses of the word, an archetypal moment, capturing the world’s imagination and psyche. It was also a religious moment, especially for those of us who are Anglicans as well as Anglophiles.
Some of you may remember Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie’s address to the couple, how he reminded them and us that there is an old Christian tradition that sees every couple, especially on their wedding day, as sovereigns of creation. He reminded them and us that, to this day in the wedding ceremony of the Eastern Orthodox churches, crowns are held over the bride and groom as symbols and reminders of the hidden glory and immense dignity that are intrinsic to marriage and indeed to any human relationship, human partnership, human loving… how it reflects and recapitulates Christ’s love for us, his Church.
There has, of course, been a lot of news coverage of the engagement, and it has ranged from the reasoned to the absurd. Among the best and most thought provoking was by Fr. Matt Malone, a Jesuit, in his blog (for America magazine) posted on November 19. Let me share a good part of it with you.
One of the amusing effects of this week's announcement that Britain's Prince William is going to marry his long-time girlfriend, Kate Middleton, is that every copy of the blue dress that Kate was wearing at their photo-op has disappeared. The shops here in London say that they sold out of the dresses within 24 hours of the latest event-of-the-century announcement. People understand why, of course, at least intuitively: everybody wants to be somebody and the somebody that everybody who's anybody wants to be this week is either partner in Britain's new royal couple.I’d like to reflect with you about this in terms of today’s feast: Christ the King.
For more than thirty years, however, a dedicated and growing group of scholars have been working on a theory that explains this kind of phenomenon more explicitly. These folks, a menagerie of cultural and literary critics, theologians, philosophers and sympathizers, are followers of Rene Girard, the French-American cultural critic, now easing his way into retirement after a successful teaching career at Stanford, among other places. Girard practically stumbled into an idea a few years back that he calls Mimetic Theory. The details are still being worked out…but the basic gist of the theory can be grasped by any ten-year-old, let alone the frenetic adults who were shaking down the racks at Harrod's this week.
The theory has three pillars:
First, Girard discovered, all desire is mimetic. Human beings copy one another, not just in terms of language, but in terms of what we want (apart from basic biological needs). The key here is that, strictly speaking, there are no desires that are your own. You get them all from others. Second, human conflict happens when the desires of multiple people converge on the same object. This is called mimetic rivalry and involves both objects we can see (that dress) and those we can't, such as a transcendent state of well-being (happiness). Third, this mimetic rivalry can plunge a whole community or society into crisis and this crisis is resolved through what Girard calls 'the scapegoat mechanism:' One person, then another, and then a whole group of people point the finger of suspicion at one individual, the sacrificial victim, who is then expelled or destroyed. This restores order to the community. …
Admittedly, that is all pretty bad news: we are, by nature, not really free and worse, we are prone to pretty brutal forms of violence. Well, maybe we suspected all of that anyway. The good news, however, is that according to Girard, there is a way out of all of this: the Gospel. In the words of one Girardian… Michael Kirwan, S.J.: "the gospel is the biblical spirit that exposes the truth of violent origins, takes the side of the victim and works toward the overcoming of scapegoating as a viable means of social formation." In other words, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus subvert the whole ghastly enterprise.
Our image of kings and kingship has varied widely from ancient biblical times on. I think, first, for example, of warrior kings like David or Shaka Zulu or traditional tribal rulers like the Ghanaian Asahantehene. I think of absolute monarchs like the Pharaoh of Egypt or aesthetes ike Louis XIV or that English mensch Henry VIII or even—it can happen—Prince Charles with his Camilla.
When we think king, what do we think? Wealth, power, subjects, privilege, deference and pride of place, certainly. We think gold and jewels and ceremony and the ability to do pretty much what you want. We think armies and wars of succession. We think beauty and occasionally wisdom maybe even a holiness that allows power and wealth and privilege to be used—albeit rarely—for the common good. We think authority. We think Shakespeare.
And it is this complex image—kingship—that we ascribe today to our Lord Jesus Christ… an image rich in overtones and promise and peril. It is an image that seeks to assure us in this world of injustice and poverty, of suffering and sin that these will not be the final truths. It both reassures and warns us that there is a judgment, that is, a right ordering or reordering that surpasses and corrects present reality, both our own and that of the collective. It speaks of a word—a final word, an eternal word—that is true and right and noble.
One of the most powerful ways of expressing this hope, this longing, this belief, this promise has been visually. Consider, for example, the Eastern Christian icon of Christ seated in glory, seated in judgment, seated on the clouds of heaven, book in hand, surrounded by angels, making all things new. It is the icon of righteous and effective power and liberating judgment. It is—rightly read—a promise of true restorative justice.
But in the canon of Eastern Christian iconography there is in fact only one icon that goes by the title “King of Glory”. We have a copy of it in our crypt, down below. And it is, on the surface at least, radically different from the icon of Christ seated in judgment.
Jesus Christ Extreme Humility from a tryptich of icons
by William Hart McNichols
by William Hart McNichols
It is in fact this…the icon know also as “Extreme Humility”
“Who is the King of Glory?” the psalmist asks (Ps. 24:8).
The King of Glory is none other than Christ crucified, head bowed, eyes closed, defeated, seated not on a throne but in his tomb. Humiliated to the utmost. And yet for us this is the King of Glory. As St. Paul says, cutting to the heart of the mystery of Jesus Christ and the mystery of our faith: “My power is made perfect, is completed and fulfilled, is known, in weakness.” And though we may resist it to our dying day, we must never forget that what is true of Jesus Christ and of St. Paul, is true of each one of us here today, is true of our institutions, is true of our world.
William Hart McNichols, S.J., himself a master iconographer, says of this icon:
“One could ponder almost any image of Christ, from his impoverished birth to his awful death and find humility. How do we begin to look again at the gospel of Jesus, totally in terms of his humility? This is exactly what this icon is asking us to do, from the point of view of a life completely poured out, wasted, emptied, we look again at everything.”
"This was not the Messiah Israel had hoped for, prayed for in the centuries of advent before. She, like us, wanted a leader who would embody power and destroy all enemies, the Lion of Judah who would smash them with the “iron rod.” What a terrible realization that the enemy was and is sin, that the iron rod was and is the Cross."
If Rene Girard is right in saying that all desire is mimetic, that is, copied, borrowed, learned…then we must be very careful as to what images of Christ the King we as church hold out for our admiration and veneration. The king seated in judgment is quite exciting and filled with hope and promise, especially for the wretched of the earth. The battle imagery is of Christ the Victor, and we may need that. But we will also and always need this as well if our desiring and dealings are to be life giving and redemptive… the image of Christ, the King of Glory, in extreme and utmost humility.
“This image of Extreme Humility exposes and then begs to convert our lust for vengeance and power, our “culture of death” with its accompanying desire for wars and leaders of war. We along with Israel, and then ages of Christians after, call out for the Lion of Judah. Through the infinite mercy of God we are given the Lamb.”
The secret, of course, is that these are both the same icon. Identical. Different, but not different, as a Zen master might say. Or as Scripture tells us.
"Then one of the elders said to me: … “Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered…”
And I saw…a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered."
The Lion and the Lamb are one.