Ars Praedicandi: Feast of Christ the King (B), Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

There seems to be a consensus
that the homily is not an opportunity
for the preacher’s self-disclosure
or the peddling of some personal agenda.

There are even particular instructions
from bishops and even popes
that the ambo is not to be a bully pulpit
particularly when it comes to political passions.

While I generally agree with those perspectives,
it is also clear that preachers remain themselves
when they approach any pulpit
and cannot help but reveal, at least implicitly,
their social and political,
religious and personal beliefs in the preaching act.

The task, therefore, seems to be one of self-awareness:
the preacher being aware of his or her
prejudices, preferences and personal bugaboos
and admit them when necessary.

In that spirit of full disclosure
I have to admit that I am not a great fan of this feast
and find it at least perplexing if not problematic.

This is not an ancient feast of the Church
and only came into existence in the 1920’s,
a time of troubling nationalism after World War II
and a period when popes were battling the Italian government
about the independence of papal territories
and the pope’s claim to be an autonomous ruler.

Thus, the feast originated as a not-too-subtle jab
at then-existing kings, dictators, and political strongmen,
ritualizing that they were not the final arbiters of power
and that their sovereignty paled
in comparison to that of Christ.

So this feast made political sense back in the day,
but what is its significance in 2021,
especially in 21st century U.S. –
a country that originated with the utter rejection monarchy?

In the words of one blogger, the idea of the kingship of Christ
might have meant something in the political climate
90 years ago,
but now it’s like celebrating Christ the CEO Sunday.

Last spring I was teaching an online course
about preaching with the sciences.
One group of students [1] was assigned Christ the King Sunday
and offered me some help in reassessing this feast
by considering the science behind our imaginations,
specifically the process known as mental synthesis.

According to this theory, our brain takes familiar images or ideas,
places them in dialogue with other familiar images/ideas
and reassembles this combination in new ways.

Thus, our brains develop a concept of a dolphin
by encoding various characteristics of dolphins in our brains
as a collection, an assembly of neurons

We also have an ensemble of neurons
for a concept like a pineapple
with its own array of images and characteristics
that together comprise a complete mental image.

The theory of mental synthesis holds
that if we simultaneously activate the neuronal ensemble
for both dolphin and pineapple
we can perceive these two ensembles together
as a single image
and can imagine something as absurd as
a dolphin balancing a pineapple on its nose. [3]

It is this ability that allows the human brain
to create a seemingly endless array of novel images
that we have never experienced or physical perceived:
from zebras on surfboards to tennis in space,
from Dolphins juggling pineapples to Jesus trying on kingship

However, for this to make any spiritual difference in our lives
it is necessary for the prefrontal cortex in the brain
to secure a mutual and ethical alliance with faith
wherever that is located in our fragile being.

One blogger underscores that necessity by noting this dilemma:

If we are going to celebrate a king here today at least it could be one who will wipe out all the racists and those who do violence to women and those who hurt children and everyone who is more interested in protecting the wealth of the rich than protecting the wellbeing of the poor. I want Christ to be a king who can wipe out Isis and Al Qaeda and Boko Haram and the people who cancelled [my favorite TV series]. But considering the number of bombings and shootings and hate crimes toward trans people that are daily events, then if Christ is my king he’s doing a lousy job of smiting my enemies.

But the problem is (she continues) that when that vengeance seeking and violent part of me calls out to have a king who would destroy my enemies I inevitably would be the one that same king would have to destroy … since God is the God of all and I too am someone’s enemy. And where does that leave us?

Good question!

In today’s gospel, Jesus declares that his kingdom
is not of this world,
is not like those established by czars and dictators,
political power peddlers and strong men,
not rooted in violence but founded in love.

This kingdom requires not just an exercise in mental synthesis,
but a plunge into what Walter Brueggemann called
a prophetic imagination:
a political, economic, and social subversion that would value
peace-making instead of warmongering,
liberation not exploitation,
sacrifice rather than subjugation,
mercy not vengeance,
care for the vulnerable instead of privileges for the powerful,
generosity instead of greed,
humility rather than hubris,
and embrace rather than exclusion.

Now subversion is ordinarily not how most of us think of Christianity
or even Catholicism.

We’re taught to be good citizens,
to listen to authority,
to follow the laws of church and country,
and to be good team players “on earth as it is in heaven.”

It might be surprising to learn, however,
that in our origins Christians were often accused of sedition,
the same charge that got Jesus killed.
Followers of Jesus regularly rejected Caesar
as some kind of deity-emperor
and were regularly executed for their beliefs.

A former professor Robert Wilken
wrote an eye-opening little book:
The Christians as the Romans Saw Them [2]
in which he documents how Christians were dubbed
haters of mankind,
people who shirked their civic duty,
had great disregard for tradition,
and were dismissed as a fringe organization.

Now you might be asking yourself:
so is the crazy priest actually using the homily
to invite us into seditious, anarchistic, insurrectionist action?

In a word “no.”
However, I do think Jesus Christ, especially as revealed in this feast,
is inviting us to the subversive side of Christianity,
something often papered over, even lost
as Christianity and U.S. citizenship
increasingly are less perceived
as two distinctive ensembles of neurons
that can imaginatively be brought together
and appear like an all too common, even banal neural fusion
sapped of the edginess
that got our founder crucified.

Years ago I had a wonderful colleague
who taught with me in a doctoral program in ministry
who was a huge fan of children’s books.

At first, I was a little taken aback by this.
She was so no-nonsense, experienced, practical,
and sometimes scandalously honest
that I thought this completely out of character.

But then I came to understand what Connie instinctively knew:
many children’s books are quite subversive.

Classics like The Red Balloon (1956)
are almost forerunners of all of those John Hughes movies
(remember The Breakfast Club?)
that confirm that adults are often quite wrong,
certainly not all-knowing,
and sometimes abusive.

Everybody knows the 1930 classic
The Little Engine that Could,
but if you read it closely
the engine that breaks down in the beginning
and the only engines that appear compassionate
are both girls.
while the other engines who refuse to help –
the new passenger engine,
the powerful freight engine,
and the rusty old engine – are all male!
An early manifesto for girl power?

Think of how subversive is the classic
The Story of Ferdinand (1936),
which casts a strong and mighty bull
as a flower sniffing pacifist
whose refusal to fight saves his and multiple other lives.

And then there’s the beloved Dr. Seuss
who once admitted in an interview: “I’m subversive as hell!”
While trying to avoid sledgehammer morals in his books,
he tackled serious issues and left no doubt
about his disdain for corporate greed,
materialism,
and authoritarianism.

His Yertle the Turtle (1950) is almost a call to revolution
after turtles in a nice little pond
are happy and content
until their self-appointed and delusional king
announces he is “ruler of all that I see.”
The problem is that he doesn’t see enough
so he orders the turtles to pile on top of each other,
progressing from a 9-turtle throne
to a 200-turtle throne,
to a 5,607-turtle throne
until Mack, a little guy at the bottom of the stack,
burps and topples the whole turtle stack
and frees all turtles from stacking oppression.

In his story The Lorax,
Seuss lambasts the greed of the Once-ler
who chopped won every single Truffula tree,
polluting air and water
in order to keep on “biggering and biggering”

In the end, even the Once-ler comes to his senses,
telling a little boy:
“unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

In the spirit of Mack the turtle
maybe it is time for Catholic Christians metaphorically
again to burb,
to care a whole awful lot,
about God’s reign as revealed in our subversive Jesus.
Otherwise “nothing is going to get better. It’s not”

We pray it will, as we embrace the revolutionary vision
of God’s shocking and loving plan
for all of humanity
through Christ our Lord.


[1] Carl Gales, Derek Nguyen, and Hot Huta Simatupang

[2] Robert Louis Wilken, The Christians as the Romans saw them, 2nd ed.  (New Haven-London: Yale University Press, 2003).

2 comments

  1. If a preacher wants to reflect on Year B’s Gospels in summation, the preacher could do worse than to reach back to the opening verse of the Gospel assigned to the Second Sunday of Advent and tie it to the Gospel for this Sunday that touches on the nature of Jesus’ kingdom. The very first verse of the Gospel of Mark, which was proclaimed on the Second Sunday of Advent in Year B, encapsulates the entire Gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”
    While it may be something of a commonplace that St Mark invented the gospel as a literary form in this verse, I am not sure that is quite the case. What is the case is that he utterly repurposed the form in this verse and work. In the Hellenistic world, if I remember my history correctly, when a general or king won a great victory, the “good news” was announced throughout the realm; the “good news” was the victor’s propaganda. In Mark’s Gospel, however, the “good news” is that the ultimate battle – with sin, diabolical evil and Death its very self – is cosmic in breadth and depth, and the victory of the Victor and King is Jesus Christ the Son of God, trampling down Death by death, with his holy cross and holy wounds as his battle standard and throne.
    Jesus in Mark’s Gospel may be likened to a divine meteor (I thank Deacon Fritz Bauerschmidt for that metaphor, IIRC) hurled with the greatest force and urgency (hence the “immediately” themes in this Gospel) into a creation seething with sin, Death and diabolical evil – to heal it. The mission of this Jesus is an immense struggle that is only very dimly perceived by his disciples; dimness of perception is a recurring theme in the Gospel of Mark, which ultimately offers good news – Hope – for people for whom life in *this* world – Caesar’s kingdom, as it were – is a struggle without ceasing.

  2. Footonotes 2 and 3 seems to be reversed, and there is no citation for #3.

    Another terrific contribution to this column!!

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