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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Bending toward the Most High (Christ the King, Year B)

"Not like those of this world..." (Really???)
I saw one like a "son of man" coming on the clouds of heaven.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! (Psalm 118, gospel verse, quoted in Mark 11:9)
For this I was born and for this I came into the world: to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who hears the truth hears my voice.

The other night at our "Forgiving Victim" session, one of the participants asked me privately about the saying of Jesus in John's gospel that "no one comes to the Father except through me." He was taught, as many of us have been at one time or another, that this was a kind of exclusive claim that Jesus made, that only an explicit claim of salvation through Jesus could save a person. I told him that a more inclusive way of hearing it, following, I suppose, the "anonymous Christian" thinking of the masterful Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, was from the other perspective: that in God's sight, whoever comes toward God comes through Jesus, the forgiving victim. In other words, since Jesus and God are one with the Holy Spirit, whatever moves anyone, whether they specifically know Jesus or not, to occupy the place of shame without fear or desire for retribution, that is, with love, that person is the forgiving victim, and takes part in God's work of saving the world through the peaceful, reconciling life of Christ. It is, in fact, the mystical body of Christ, but one that is controlled not by the juridical manifestation of the church's baptism, but by the universal, benevolent will of God for the happiness and joy of the world.

I think that a similar hermeneutic might be applied to what Jesus tells Pilate at the end of the marvelously ironic confrontation of empires that takes place in today's gospels, between one emperor who seems have the power of life and death and uses it for death, and one who actually has that power and uses it for life by going to his death. When John's Jesus says to Pilate, "Everyone who hears the truth hears my voice," he's saying that truth is one, and that his truth, the truth of the reign of God, the truth of the overriding reality of love and life and human intercommunion, is what anyone who acts on behalf of love and life and unity hears. The way, the truth, and the life are one in Christ. Since the life of Christ in the human race is the Holy Spirit, we do not control that life in any way. We may celebrate its apparent working through our sacraments, but the approach of God from within our structures of brutality and death in a way that completely subverts them is not under our control. To the prophets, in fact, the mountain themselves prepare the way, the wilderness obeys the herald that calls out to lower mountains and raise valleys. Even Persians, says Isaiah, can serve as the right hand of God.

Another quick thought about the gospel verse, taken from Mark 11 but quoting Psalm 118, and referencing another wonderful insight gleaned from Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice, James Alison's "introduction to Christianity." Much more of the scriptures, particularly the gospels, allude to the Jewish rites of atonement than I was ever exposed to in other approaches to scripture, and Alison makes the point (I assume based on the work of other scholars) that Psalm 118 is a cultic psalm from the atonement liturgy. We tend, because the close connection between the death and resurrection of Jesus occurring by tradition around the Passover to associate Psalm 118 with passover and Easter events. But the approach of the high priest out of the Holy of Holies, a reconstruction of the Second Temple based on oral traditions about Solomon's Temple cult that survived the Babylonian captivity, was a liturgical instantiation of the approach of YHWH from heaven, sacrificing himself on behalf of his people through the two identical sacrificial goats, coming to loving keep the covenant and be at-one with Israel in the atonement rite. "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" is a cry that echoes the moment in the rite when the high priest comes out of the Holy of Holies wearing the gleaming white and gold vesture with the tiara with the tetragrammaton emblazoned in gold on his head, and pronouncing, for the only time in the year that the Name was ever said aloud, the name that God spoke to Moses when the freedom march out of Egypt was announced.

Over the years (nearly three now, with this blog) I've said a lot echoing the themes of scripture scholars who have been telling us for decades now about the "Jesus versus empire" theme that runs through the Christian scriptures. The post referenced below, "Thy Kingdom (not of this world) Come," has my thoughts about the confrontation of Jesus and Pilate, and the clash of their ideologies about kings and empires. There are times when I think it's time to retire this kind of language, because even when we use the terminology of empire and power with all the irony we can muster in the image of a crucified rabbi who washes the feet of his own students, we still, with our mimetic tendency and seemingly innate desire to lord it over other people, hear the words "empire" and "power" as virtues to be imitated rather than terms to be redefined. There are times when it seems like irony turned back on itself, when the ultimate "triumph" of Christianity over all the other religions and non-religions, at whatever cost, is the outcome of the preaching on these feasts of Christ the King, with their intentionally non-regal imagery that equates kingship with participation in service (year A), non-violence (year B), and forgiveness (year C). All we hear is: King. Rule. Power. Glory.

Maybe it's just me! The many apocalyptic images of the "son of man" that originate in the book of Daniel and are picked up in the book of Revelation (see today's readings, for instance, with the reference to "coming in the clouds" and in the gospels are read in a far too fundamentalist way by most of us, who see the "divine cleanup" of the mess on earth less with the hope-filled anguish of the conquered nation from which they originated than with the manifest destiny of the economic imperialism of modern first world nations. But I suppose that the reason I have faith that ultimately we'll come around is that we can't abandon the scripture, which in where revelation is treasured, and the memory of Jesus, who is the revelation of God made flesh. In him there is no violence and no competitive desire to rule. The scripture will continue to put the lie to all attempts to make it serve any human agenda of subjugation, oppression, and the manifest destiny of any religion, nation, or economic system.

But we need to keep telling the story, and living the story. We need to continue to gather on Sunday, and from my experience, that may be the biggest danger we face as a people right now. We've blown it, I think, by telling the wrong story for a while, or by imagining that other kinds of Sunday experiences are as important as gathering for the word and eucharist, in some form or another, but explicitly for that reason. There is reason for hope, there is no question about that. There is a voice from the church catholic that resists the persecution of aliens, the victimization of the poor, the rejection of refugees and exiles, the enthronement of a god who judges and punishes when that god is nothing but an extension of our own bloodlust for retribution and victory. I know that the arc of history bends toward love, on a path prepared by Christ and the gospel. It is an arc that bends down from heaven to a manger, to foot-washing, to the cross. And it bends, ultimately, toward the God Who Bows, bends below all things, toward the Most High.

Other blog posts on Christ the King (and similar topics)

No King but Caesar (Year C)
Cleaning Up Our Mess (Year A)
To You Who Bow (SongStories post)
Thy Kingdom (not of this world) Come (Jesus before Pilate in John's gospel)
Christ the King, and What Can I Do About It? (Year A)

What we're singing Sunday:

Entrance: Psalm 122: The Road to Jerusalem
Kyrie: Kendzia/Daigle
Gloria: Mass of St. Ann (Bolduc)
Psalm 97: The Lord Is King
Presentation of gifts: To You Who Bow
(alternate): Only This I Want
Communion: Heart of a Shepherd (Gelineau/Cooney)
Sending forth: Soon and Very Soon