Ars Praedicandi: Ed Foley on Christ the King

Christ the King, Cycle B
Old St. Patrick’s, November 25th, 2018, 11:15
Edward Foley, Capuchin

Theoretically this is supposed to be a climactic feast
the glorious end of the liturgical year
a festive transition from Ordinary time to Advent time
a solemnity of theological import
and deep devotion

Unfortunately, however,
there are significant cultural problems with this feast
and its reception

Admittedly U.S. citizens
are some of the most avid royal watchers in the world
We get up at most ungodly of hours to watch the weddings
of British princes
We gobble up palace gossip and scandals
and obsess over the newest fashion or hairstyle
sported by the Duchess of Sussex

Yet deep in our DNA is an anti-monarchical strand
As a nation we were born
by severing the political umbilical cord from King George
The anti-royal instinct emerged after George Washington
was elected president
There were no models for addressing elected president
John Adams suggested calling him “Your Highness”
Scoffing at the suggestion as too aristocratic
some suggested His Elective Highness as more appropriate

“Most Illustrious & Excellent President,” shouted one Senator
“His Majesty the President!” another called out.
Fed up with the arguing, a third senator barked,
“Why not call him George IV?”
After days of debate, one congressman reminded colleagues
that the recently drafted Constitution prohibited titles
resulting in the Republican simplicity of “Mr. President” [1]

Traditionally we balk at imperious leaders
the most famous national example being Richard Nixon
whose time in office
historian Arthur Schlesinger deemed
an imperial presidency …
and one that came to a crashing halt with Watergate.

Rather than imperious leaders
we like our politicians pressing the flesh
kissing babies
rolling up their sleeves like ordinary working folk
even if they are multi-millionaires
and only do it when the cameras are rolling
during election season

In some ways, we would like our Jesus the same way
and so maybe at a bit of a cultural disadvantage
attempting to celebrate divine monarchy
as something more than a liturgical fashion statement

There are deeper challenges in this feast, however,
beyond its title and royal texts

For one, today’s gospel interprets the feast
through the lens of the Christian Black Friday …
or what we traditionally call “Good Friday”
for today’s exchange between Jesus and Pilate
occurs just a few hours before the Christ is executed

Today’s gospel provides both a revelatory
and highly problematic lens for interpreting this feast

Jesus’ kingship is revealed in the context of a death sentence
and interpreted through a dialogue
with the arch-villain Pilate
who may actually be a more enlightened official
than we often give him credit for

While the only thing we often remember about Pilate
is his handwashing
and protecting is own political hide
he reveals himself as a very astute politician first
recognizing Jesus’ kingship

Notice that he does not deem this “fake news”
but insists “so you are a king”
and Jesus affirms his kingship
but a kingship not of this world
but one that speaks truth to this world

And it is that perplexing combination
of speaking truth without seeking power
of announcing God’s reign without wanting to reign

That initially befuddles
and ultimately scuttles Pilates astute instincts
as he retreats into self-preservation
and opts for hand washing over heart opening

In his 1991 book “The Canadians”
Andrew Malcolm writes about
the fascinating domicile of Cecille Bechard.

She is “A Canadian who visits the United States several dozen times a day; when she goes to the refrigerator or to the backdoor or to make tea for instance.  To read and sleep, she stays in Canada.  And she eats there too, as she sits at the north end of her kitchen table.  Mrs. Bechard’s home is in Quebec and Maine at the same time.”

Located in the eastern’ part of Canada it sits on the United States‐Canadian border. The 3,986.8mile frontier, drawn in 1842, cuts through the kitchen wall and across the sink, splits the salt and pepper shakers, just misses the stove and passes through the other wall to sever the Nadeau family’s clothesline and cut off the candy counter in Alfred Sirois’s general store.

In the late 1970’s when Malcolm first published this tale
in the New York Times
he concluded:

Almost anywhere else in the world Mrs. Bechard might need a passport to take a bath. The Canadian‐American border is different, for it seems to unite rather than divide. [2]

Unfortunately over the past few
that assessment no longer holds
and it is not clear whether there has been a recent attempt
to install a wall down the center of Mrs. Bechard’s home
or deploy U.S. troops in her living room
to protect the Northern border of the U.S.
by stringing razor wire behind her couch

On the other hand, Mrs. Bechard’s home
and that of her neighbors
provides an interesting analogy for understanding Jesus’ words
about the relationship between this world and the next

Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern world
exhorted the baptized to be citizens of two cities [no. 43]
to discharge our earthly duties conscientiously
and in response to the Gospel spirit …

It is not enough, they say, to wait for the next life
and so shirk our earthly responsibilities

This magisterial teaching further suggests
that the split between the faith which many profess
and their daily lives – deserves to be counted
among the most serious errors of our age

But here’s the seasonal dilemma
how do we speak truth in this world
without resorting to the strong arm tactics
for twisting truth
that we have become so adept at?

How do we speak truth, especially to power
while maintaining the Jesus demeanor
and not resorting to rhetorical, or political
or even physical violence?

A few years ago, Dan Schmidt hatched an intriguing idea for a book
The publication Letters to Me: Conversations with a Younger Self [3]
are a collection of missives that more mature people
have addressed to younger versions of themselves

One of them, by C. Christopher Smith
Is entitled “The violence of Impatience”
In part it reads:

I praise God often for the passion for truth and justice that you have…. I am concerned, however, that in your zeal for these true and excellent ends, you have become inattentive to the ways in which you pursue these ends… .

I know that you are not a violent person, and indeed that … violence grieve[s] you immensely, but I worry that your formation by the powers of the Western world has blinded you to the violence that is borne of impatience. Western culture in the fast-food era and the age of internet technology is a culture of impatience…

There are all sorts of violence that are rooted in our impatience: violence to our own beings as we push ourselves to go faster and faster, violence to other humans as we lash out when they are not doing as we wish, violence toward the creation as a whole as our impatient need for speed demands a massive consumption of … energy.

The sort of violence of impatience, however, that I perceive in you stems from a desire to see others of different perspectives transformed immediately, rather than engaging them personally and entering into the circumstances and sufferings that have forged their perspective. This impatience gradually escalates the tone of our rhetoric; it heightens our rage and moves us further from reconciliation.

Insulting rhetoric
a discourse of diminishment
an oratory of dismissal
and a speech of degradation
too often leads to a societal grammar of violence
verbal assaults
that contribute to an environment
in which the ensuing physical assault
seems increasingly acceptable

and so we are a society
with too many wounded and walking dead
even as we mourn those whose lives
were literally cut short
whether in a Consulate in Istanbul, thousands of miles away
or an ER room only a few miles from this place.

As we prepare to make the advent turn
and journey into a literally and metaphorically darkening world
that longs for the light of a peaceful child
this reorientating feast calls us
to be of the world but not from the world
to speak truth to the world that is not born of the world
to offer a vision of the world that is ultimately not worldly

Over 40 years ago, poet and prophet Frederick Buechner
penned what has now become a Christian classic

It’s subtitle is The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale
It’s title: Telling the truth

Early in the first chapter Buechner writes

To preach the Gospel is not just to tell the truth
But to tell the truth in love
And to tell the truth in love means to tell it
With concern not only for the truth that is being told
But with concern also for the people
It is being told too

So it is crucial to keep them in mind
The hearers of the tragic, the comic, the fairy-tale truth …

What is going on inside them
What is happening behind their faces …
As they strain to hear the truth if it is told

[the believer] must always try to feel what it is like
To live inside the skin of [others …]
To hear the truth as they hear it. [4]

Music: Each Winter as the year Grows Older

And if we dare inhabit the skin of another
just as God dared to don the flesh of human kind
then the spirit promises us

That though the year grows older
and though the air grows colder
that though the voice of reason
be rashly charged with treason
that though brash calls for war
the gift of peace ignore

Yet still God’s holy reign
will dawn upon our pain
and the ragamuffin king
who embraced death’s horrid sting
the only son of God
who gently this earth trod
will assuredly hold sway
on this and every day
that we would dare to bring
allegiance to this gentle, noble, outcast, humble king

forever and ever.

Each Winter as the year Grows Older, vss. 1-3-5


Endnotes
[1] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/harlow-giles-unger/how-his-highness-presidents-day_b_4784011.html

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/1979/05/17/archives/along-canadas-border-almost-a-third-country-something-amicable.html

[3] Lexington CY: CreateSpace Independent Publishers, 2012.

[4] San Francisco, 1977, p. 8.

One comment

  1. Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King in 1925 as a Catholic response to the nationalism of the Great War that killed 20,000,000 people with no purpose and no benefit. He blamed the secularism that produced “the seeds of discord sown far and wide; those bitter enmities and rivalries between nations, which still hinder so much the cause of peace; that insatiable greed which is so often hidden under a pretense of public spirit and patriotism, and gives rise to so many private quarrels; a blind and immoderate selfishness, making people seek nothing but their own comfort and advantage, and measure everything by these; no peace in the home, because people have forgotten or neglect their duty; the unity and stability of the family undermined; society in a word, shaken to its foundations and on the way to ruin.” Pope Pius XI hoped that the feast of the Kingship of Christ would hasten the return of society to its loving savior. He did not live to see the even greater and more widespread carnage of World War II, less than fifteen years after he created this feast.

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