Monday, November 23, 2009

Christ the King - Lucy Gardner

Tutor in Christian Doctrine, Lucy Gardner, preached at the Solemn Mass of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King. The picture above is of the Volto Santo in the Cathedral at Lucca, Italy.

Our house at the moment is busy with “Warhammer 40k”. John has just spent a large amount of money on a beginner’s set and Dorothy has treated herself to a smaller box as well. Now, as some of you will know, “Warhammer” is a fantasy war game, in which the fearless armies of rival empires, alongside rabble bands of pirates and mercenaries, battle it out against each other for power, dominion and survival. “Warhammer 40k” is the futuristic version, set in the 41st millennium – so plenty of opportunity for fantasy.

Shopping for this game and learning something of how to play it have set me thinking about two things which seem to be very much “of this world” as we know it. They are: buying and selling, and the struggle for power.

In “Warhammer” the noise and chaos of battle are artificially reduced to an orderly procession of turns. Goodies and baddies do have different characteristics, different tricks and different options, but ultimately they are constrained to behave according to a fundamental rhythm of moving, attacking, defending and wounding. In real life, of course, the struggle for power is much less tidy. What rules and conventions of engagement there are will be repeatedly broken, and the identification of goodies and baddies seems always less certain.

How often are we let down by our friends and families, by politicians, colleagues and even Church leaders and fellow Christians? How often are we let down by those we thought were “on our side” adopting apparently underhand tactics? How often do those we thought were bad turn out to have good motives, or to have used fair means? And how often do we let ourselves down as we realise our fight for the good turns out to hurt others and ourselves? Even when we are trying to establish the rules of engagement in these encounters we can often find we have resorted to the will for power. In the real world, somehow all of us are compromised, as we struggle for what we believe is right, as we struggle to keep hold of what we think should be ours, as we struggle to assert ourselves and our views, and as we struggle to find the right way to conduct our struggles over and against each other.

So much for the struggle for power. The business of buying and selling, on the other hand, seems at first glance to present itself as one way of perhaps avoiding these struggles. Surely fair prices can be agreed, a system of exchange can be created, the promise of a means for acquiring what we want is held out to us, perhaps even by giving what we don’t really want or need, without doing damage to each other. But even if any of this is sometimes true, there are certainly limits to the acceptable realm for this manner of exchange – just think of the phrase “to sell your soul”; here money – or its surrogate – has overreached its legitimate authority. On further reflection, it seems that money can become, indeed probably always was, part of the struggle for power. On further reflection, we realise that we can’t always buy what we want, and that we can’t – or shouldn’t – put a price on the things we value most, and that, unlike in fantasy war games, there does not seem to be a fair and level distribution of power or money in this world, a fact which seems to produce and feed the feelings of rivalry and the experience of opposition which are played out in both the struggle for power and in the processes of buying and selling.

But is it really true that all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely? And is it really true that money is itself evil? We human beings always seem to hope for something else, for something better: we long for good monarchs, fair judges, just teachers, honest dealers, wise benefactors. Our imaginations and fantasies are full of quests for them, just as our real life politics seems to be always in search of them.

It is of course the joyful message of the Christian faith that these great longings are not groundless, that these deep desires are not foolish and that they will not be left forever unfulfilled: they are met in the One whom we celebrate today, and everyday: Christ the King. His Kingdom, he tells us as he told Pilate, is not “from this world”; it does not belong to or rise up from the struggle for power, nor does it belong to the realm of buying and selling. Christ’s Kingship is not “from the world”; if it were, his followers would rise up and struggle for him, to prevent him from being handed over; if it were, he would engage with the devil on the devil’s terms, he would look to secure his Kingship by means of some barter or other.

But Christ refuses to grasp or defend his kingdom by the exercise of worldly powers. In him we see an alternative way for power to behave and an alternative system of exchange. Christ’s Kingship, his power, as Daniel and John were both given to see for us, does not belong to “this world”; it belongs “in heaven”; it comes from his Father, the Ancient of Days, who is in heaven. It is absolute and it does not corrupt him. Christ does not have to struggle with the Father or the Spirit for his power, nor does he have to buy it or sell anything for it; he does not have to barter for it; he does not have to give something in exchange for it.

And when it comes to the cosmic struggle with the devil, Christ shows us another means of engagement. His is absolute power, the eternal gift of the Father. Christ’s Kingship is not built on the struggle for power, nor on the ability to buy loyalty and good will, it is built on, in, by and through the power of the Father, which the Father gives to and yet still shares with the Son and the Spirit. Christ’s power, his Kingship, brings with it, you see, the wonderful power of giving and sharing. The Father’s gift to the Son is not given on the condition of a return, and yet it does elicit a return, for in response the Son chooses to keep giving: he gives himself over to the Father’s will; he gives himself into human form; he gives himself into human hands, again and again and again; he gives himself over to the demonic powers, he gives himself over to death, rather than resisting them on their terms, and in so doing he gives back to the Father everything that the Father has given him.

This Kingship then brings with it an economy so different from ours that the word “economy” itself seems tired and unsuited to the purpose. This King refuses resistance and holds out giving instead; this King brooks no compromise, and offers full sharing in its place. To follow this King is to join in his giving himself to the Father and to others, in the power of the Spirit. The lives of his followers should follow the pattern of his. For, unless we join him in this, unless we give ourselves to him and in his service, we shall remain forever subject to the demons of the struggle for power and the enslavement enacted in buying and selling, even within the churches.

But finally, what of the buying of souls? We have learnt, not least following Christ, that we should not buy and sell people. We really should not buy and sell souls – to do so would indeed be “to sell our souls”. And yet, I wonder, might I buy a soul? Sometimes I am tempted to want to. I don’t mean, “what if I could buy someone?” but, “what if I could buy for myself a new soul, a pristine, unused one, not one stolen from or intended for someone else, but nevertheless a fresh start for me?” What if I could buy a new me? Is this not also a deep desire within us?

Well, fond wish though that may be, there probably are no spare souls lying around as candidates, and in any case the very act of buying one would seem to contaminate the whole project from the start. And yet, strange as it may seem, John’s vision reminds us that even this desire is met in Christ. I do not need to buy myself a new soul, because I have already been “bought”; my soul has been given a fresh start, washed clean, transformed, freed from my sins by Christ’s blood.

At Baptism we become united to Christ in such a way that it becomes him who lives in us. Our souls are refreshed with the gift of powerful, living water. This terrible King’s equally terrible gift to us is nothing other than himself. The rest of our lives are to be spent learning to live in his Kingship, refusing the compromising struggle for power for its own sake and for our own advancement, in favour of the advancement of God’s good power for the good of all in the world, and exchanging the sapping economy of give and take, for the wonderful life-giving economy of give and share, sharing all God’s bounteous gifts to the world, most chiefly God’s gift of God’s self in Christ’s gift of himself to the Father and to the world, in the power of the Spirit.

Christ the King will live forever; may all those whom he loves do so with him.