November 24, 2019 – The Reign of Christ
There are a lot of ways to die. Natural causes, accident, illness, violence; at home or abroad; old or young. We may speak of bad deaths and good ones, though it seems to me that I have not heard that much talked about and have come across it rather in old writings; perhaps now a good death might be a relatively painless one, surrounded by family, at the end of many, many decades, and a bad one painful or alone or younger than seems right.
But there are deaths, also, that we don’t talk about, even more than we don’t talk about death much at all, not in the bright light of antibiotics and professional morticians. I mean the deaths that make us feel in some way ashamed, even if we do not desire to feel this way: because a person was in a place they oughtn’t have gone, with people they oughtn’t have known, doing something they oughtn’t have done, being someone they oughtn’t have been, at least according to the common-denominator values of the society in which we live. People die this way and their deaths are not spoken of, or spoken of in part, with certain details omitted. There was the AIDS crisis, whispers and blame. There are opioids now, and methamphetamines, the scorn and disgust. There are the murders of trans people, particularly trans women of color, which some of us remembered and mourned this week, but which go largely unreported, or reported with names and identities they did not claim. There are the murders of sex workers, targeted for violence because their killers know they are not considered as valuable as other people. There are persons incarcerated in jails and prisons, subject to the whims and cruelties of their jailers and the bleak years of social death. And on, and on, and on. People die all the time in ways that are colored by shame, that are difficult to grieve openly or uncomplicatedly because they are understood, widely if wrongly, to be some kind of indictment of the person who died.
Jesus died that way.
It is easy now, after two thousand years of recontextualization of the crucifixion, to see the thieves crucified on either side of him as primarily ironic devices, meant to underscore the goodness of the man hanging between them. Certainly they do do that, with dialogue even. But he was crucified between thieves because crucifixion was what the real dregs of society—slaves, defeated revolutionaries, army deserters—got: public humiliation alongside physical suffering. “And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him.” Roman citizens and foreign nobility were never crucified unless the removal of their high status was part of their sentence. It was not a hero’s death. Crucifixion was a shameful way to die, difficult to grieve openly or uncomplicatedly because it was understood, widely if wrongly, to be an indictment of the person who died.
The Roman emperor Constantine outlawed crucifixion in 337 out of veneration of Jesus, which I imagine fast-tracked the separation of Jesus’ death from the kind of shame that we feel in our guts. Yet even so the world has not run short of shame; in this sense we can say that people are yet crucified every day, dying in some way that is cut off from social dignity, caught between life-and-death injustice and the necessity a society feels, we feel, for some group of people we can call bad, some class whose fate cannot lay claim to our sympathies or trouble our sense of the rightness of the world.
Jesus dies that way, ignominious, not just overlooked but turned away from. What does it mean to call that kind of dead man a king?
The two kernels of the idea of a king are glory and autocracy. Take a moment to consider what a king is and I imagine you’ll find them both knocking about in your mind, even if you believe one is truer than the other: Kings rule by fiat, they are powerful, their word is law, they squeeze everything they can from their subjects to increase their own wealth and power; kings are glorious, beautiful, worthy of praise and adoration. It is obvious to everyone now and was then and in between that this man dead on a cross is no king, not beautiful or glorious, not powerful or domineering. And yet we have called him “king” and “lord” from the very beginning.
We have done this not because his death is easy to brush aside, but because what God has done in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is enter into the world to grab it by the foundation and upend it, because what God has always been doing is choosing the unchosen, showing mercy to the unworthy, blessing the poor, rejoicing with the mourning, feasting with the starving, declaring something where there was nothing. Our scriptures tell us over and over, in the stories of the patriarchs and the cries of the prophets and Christ’s own words and the testimony of those who came to believe in him not that God has neatly gotten rid of everything that is grievous, painful, unjust, and shameful, but rather that until all things are made new grief, pain, injustice, and shame are where God is. In Jesus Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, Paul says in Colossians. In Jesus Christ we see the very face of God. In Christ’s words we hear God speak, in Christ’s healing we feel God heal, in Christ’s death God gives the divine life for the world, takes the worst of suffering and shame up and makes of them, not nothing, but the truest glory, takes up death and makes out of it everlasting life. There is no greater beauty and nothing more worthy of our adoration than this, the death that shattered death like a china plate on a tile floor, the shame showed us that what the world spits on is the place where God is, in all the beauty of heaven.
The world is full of crosses, you may have heard, and it is: and everywhere there are crosses, there is the glory of God. It is hard for us to see it. It was hard for the weepers at the foot of the Cross to see it, too, because of the pain and the ugliness of it, the unfairness, the shame. Yet it is visible to us through the empty tomb, the breakfast on the shore, the fire at Pentecost, the light on the road to Damascus: Where God is, the shame and rejection of the world is turned to a realer brilliance, because God is there. “The world is full of crosses” is not only a sigh of grief at the wrongness and violence of the world, though it is that. It is a murmur of wonder that in the statistics that make us shake our heads, the desolate places where we do not wish to go, the strongholds of death that pull in too many, beneath the altars to power and control, there the glory of God is found because that is where God has always chosen to be. If we have no king but Christ, if Jesus of Nazareth is the one by whom we measure beauty, dignity, worth, then we find those things not in any lovely thing, not in any high office, not in any wise and erudite person, but in those who pour themselves out for others, those whose lives are taken from them unjustly, those from whom we are taught to avert our gaze. If we claim as our Head the one who died and rose, there is no way of being in the world besides one that refuses death and works always, always, always for life.
To say that Christ is our King, that no one can claim our loyalty or our obedience but him, has always been a statement with worldly political ramifications. Caesars knew that, and threw our foremothers and forefathers in the faith to the lions because of it; Pope Pius XI knew it when he instituted the forerunner of today’s celebration, the Feast of Christ the King, in 1925, in Fascist Italy. Our worldly authority is somewhat more diffuse now, but it’s very clear that we are still ruled: by ideas of decency and decorum from within, governing bodies and police batons without. Even we, the proudly kingless, learn our values somewhere; we may not bow the knee, but we take direction. From where? What rules you without your conscious assent? What teaches you what is beautiful, what is glorious, what is worthy? Because something will.
Something taught the soldiers that it was right to put the human bodies on the wood, as something teaches us today that it is right to put human bodies in cages. Something taught the bystanders that this was something worth watching, as something taught white folks for years that a lynching was an event to bring kids to.
Something taught the thieves crucified with Jesus that they deserved to be there. Something taught them that anyone there, themselves included, was a fraud and a criminal. The first thief learned the lesson well, throwing at Jesus the mockery that would have followed him, too, with the details changed. And we who suffer, who are forced to the margins and under the wheel of progress learn the same, throwing our spite not at the power that hurts us but at other hurt people, the ones we learn to despise as we despise ourselves. Even the second thief never questioned the justice of the system that placed him on his cross. Something teaches us that there is no beauty or worth in other people, or in ourselves. And that is not God.
If Jesus is our Lord, if Christ is our King, then we have no other. If Jesus is our Lord and Christ is our King, no other king, no other lord, no other power, no other authority has any claim to legitimacy or claim on us. The Kingship of Christ is the very thing that exposes the utter emptiness of the kings that set themselves over us, the lords we find for ourselves. And—and—and—this King, this Lord, looks at the ones who do evil to him and purposes to forgive them; in the unbearable moment he turns his face to the suffering and says “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Today the Church ends its year; it begins again with Advent, the looking toward the helpless baby who changes everything. May the grace of this one in whom we find our life enable us to follow him; may our eyes behold his beauty in those places where the world denies it; may it be so. Amen.