Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert James Magliula, OHC
Christ the King , Year C - Sunday November 20, 2016
In our readings today on this festival of the Reign of Christ, we’re reminded of just how much our concerns and behaviors over the last twenty-five hundred years remain the same. Jeremiah expresses his longing and demand for integrity in those who govern. His reference to shepherds is essentially political. King David, the great Shepherd of his people, became associated with kingship. Jeremiah, like all of us, worried about who would be running the country. His opinion of those who might was not very high. “You have scattered my flock and driven them away, and have not attended to them.” He makes a pledge to the people on behalf of God, who is the ultimate Shepherd, to bring them home from exile. He depicts a mysterious vision concerning a righteous Branch of David, who will reign, deal wisely, and do justice for the people.
In our Epistle, Paul struggles to find the words that will express the glory of Christ as Lord. The Letter to the Colossians begins as a prayer for strength and grace. It quickly becomes a lyrical hymn to the glory of Christ. Paul is trying to find language for which there is no language. He strives for the loftiest he can muster, which sets up a startling paradox with today’s Gospel. If our Epistle is filled with blinding light and splendor, our Gospel has us standing under a darkened sky in horror as the Christ, who is worshipped by all creation, hangs naked on an obscene cross.
Luke holds up for us the image of an utterly vulnerable Jesus dying on the cross surrounded by his enemies. This paradox is at the heart of what we mean by Incarnation and kenosis. The mystery of Incarnation is his choosing to enter human flesh and share it with us. The mystery of kenosis, a self-emptying by the Lord of all, is a giving over of all power, all beauty, all glory.
How ironic it is, here in the land of mass incarceration and execution, that it is a convicted criminal, undergoing public execution, who is the one to attribute kingship to Jesus. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He doesn’t preface his request with royal titles, but addresses him only as “Jesus”. The speaking of that name evokes a world of meaning and hope. The name means “God will save”. In that gruesome scene where we see no hint of a kingdom, he doesn’t ask to be rescued, but to be remembered. He’s able to recognize the salvation that intrudes into the absolute moment where no one is saved from suffering and death, which is also the moment when salvation breaks through. Jesus’ last words to another human being were words of promise. When he says, “Today you will be with me in paradise”, he is not referring to a 24-hour period of time, but that moment when God’s salvation fractures time. The leaders, the soldiers, the first criminal, and the mob all live in ordinary time where the powers of violence determine events, and death is the last word; but this criminal already lives in the reign of Christ. What does this scene say to us about how we are to live into today?
René Girard developed a sociological and philosophical explanation for how and why the pattern of scapegoating is so prevalent in some form in every culture. Leviticus 16 contains a brilliant ritualization of it. On the Day of Atonement, a priest lays hands on a goat, placing all the sins of the Jewish people from the previous year onto it. Then the goat is beaten with reeds and thorns and driven out into the desert. The people go home rejoicing, just as European Christians did after burning a heretic at the stake, or American whites did after the lynching of black men. Centuries ago Blaise Pascal wrote, “People never do evil so completely and so cheerfully as when they do it with a religious conviction.” Whenever the “sinner” is excluded, our ego is delighted and feels relieved and safe. It sort of works, but only for a while. Usually the illusion only deepens and becomes repetitive—because scapegoating did not really work to eliminate the perceived evil in the first place.
If our ego is still in charge, we will find a disposable person or group on which to project our problems. People who haven’t come to at least a minimal awareness of their own dark side will always find someone else to hate or fear. Unfortunately, hatred and exclusivity hold a group together much more quickly and easily than love and inclusivity. We saw this at play before the election and we see it today.
Jesus came to radically undo scapegoating. He became the scapegoat to reveal the universal lie of scapegoating. The Gospel is a highly subversive document. It painstakingly illustrates how the systems of both church and state conspired to condemn Jesus. Throughout most of history, church and state have sought scapegoats to carry their own shame and guilt. So Jesus became the sinned-against one to reveal the nature ofscapegoating.
He refused to transmit his pain to others. He says from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”. Scapegoating largely operates in the unconscious. People think they are doing a holy or patriotic duty. This is why inner work, shadow work, and honest self-knowledge are all essential to any healthy religion. The vast majority of violence in history has been sacralized violence. Convinced that God is on our side, our violence becomes necessary and even redemptive. But there is no such thing as redemptive violence. Violence doesn’t save; it only destroys in both short and long term. What is set before us this morning is how Jesus replaced the myth of redemptive violence with the truth of redemptive suffering. He showed us how to hold the pain and let it transform us, rather than pass it on to others. We embrace suffering as one vital form of participating in the mystery of the Incarnate One and the healing of the world. Spiritually speaking, no one else is our problem. We are our own problem. Until we own that truth about ourselves, as that criminal did, there can be no reconciliation, no reign of God in our lives.
This is a challenging notion for many of us. We would rather have Jesus say that God loves the people we like and who are like us. We want to be the judge and arbitrator of God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy. On the cross Jesus shares the victimization of humanity and it’s here that he experiences his own resurrection. He neither plays the victim nor creates victims. That’s the model offered to his followers. The work that describes this total dynamic of being given to and giving back with total vulnerability on each side is forgiveness. To forgive we have to be able to see ourselves, then the other person, at least momentarily, as a whole person, an image of God, containing holiness and horror at the same time. Only by acknowledging our own capacity for evil, can we honestly name and resist what is evil outside of us. Jesus consistently denounced evil and took action to address it, not at the expense of the other, but for the benefit of all. Forgiveness encompasses two thirds of Jesus’ teaching, and his death reflects its cost. What we human beings want is resurrection without death, answers without doubt, light without darkness, the conclusion without the process. We flee from the naked, self-emptying Jesus on the cross, the vulnerable one, who knows how to relate to all of creation.
Our Trinitarian theology says that spiritual power is circular, not hierarchical. It’s shared and shareable; it’s already entirely for us and grounded within us. God’s Spirit is planted within each of us. The Trinity reveals that God’s power is not domination, threat, or coercion. Richard Rohr writes that “All divine power is shared power—a giving away, a letting go, an infinity of trust and mutuality”.
Standing before the crucified Jesus we recognize that he became what all of us fear: nakedness, exposure, vulnerability, and failure. He became it to free us from our fear of it. He became what we do to one another and ourselves in order to free us from the lie of punishing each other and ourselves. He became the Crucified so we would stop crucifying. Jesus’ invitation to us from the cross is that we stop killing what we should love, and hating what could transform us. +Amen.