SUNDAY NEXT BEFORE ADVENT
Mark 15.2 Pilate asked him,
"Are you the king of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "That's what you
very few kings and queens left in the world. Those who remain are mostly
figureheads. They exercise their monarchy with varying degrees of pomp and
ceremony. They open this event, launch that ship, and confer this or that
One or two real monarchs still reign. In
one African country it is Parliament, not the king, which has only nominal
power. He takes his many wives whether or not they like being taken. He
has just appointed some of his relatives to Parliament, no doubt to ensure
and strengthen his grip on power.
But such cases are rare. They are seen
as distortions in the normal fabric of good government - aberrations which
will disappear as the natural democratic order of things inevitably
It seems strange in such a world to be
celebrating the kingship of Jesus of Nazareth. But it hasn't always seemed
strange. Until a few centuries ago monarchy was a normal form of
government. Even when it had been stripped of its power, it retained
enormous influence. Kings and queens were honoured, respected and
frequently adored by masses of ordinary people a mere hundred years ago.
But today kings and queens are mostly
characters in fairy tales. So it is
from the deep past that we now dredge up the image of kingship to apply to
Jesus. Going back to the earliest days of Christianity, all four gospels
imply that even if Jesus wasn't actually a king, he should be thought of
So goes traditional teaching. And
because the king image is a quite startling mismatch with ordinary life
today, it is often attacked as redundant. This way of understanding Jesus,
say its detractors, is positively dangerous because it is irrelevant.
Their conclusions are debatable, if only
because so many still value the image. We tend to forget that one-fifth of
the world's population still sometimes use the image when they think about
Jesus the Jewish peasant.
debate is a tragic red herring. The
real problem is not which image, but whether or not we can change our
One can imagine what might happen if,
for example, the following was prayed at the Eucharist:
O eternal God, who elected Jesus our
beloved President to be Chairperson of your heavenly Cabinet; help him
to know the will of his people, and to dutifully do what they want.
Guard him against mistakes so that he is not voted out of office. And
may the opposition never get the upper hand. Amen.
This prayer seems bizarre - but it helps
make the point that if we are to be forever chained to ancient images,
four serious problems arise:
Creativity cannot flourish in chains. And
if there ever was a time when Christian creativity was needed, the
21st century is it.
The charisma of Jesus the man is obscured
by an image almost empty of emotive power.
In the modern mind this ancient image
portrays not growth and maturity but infantile dependence or even
If Christians use the image, they become
schizophrenic, relating to the world one way in their daily lives and
in another on Sundays.
It's hard to know what to do about the problem,
however. This is because the Church has reified many such images over the
centuries. Ways of imagining Jesus, of filling in the gaps, of giving
meaning to his life have been turned into idols. Man-made pictures and
symbols have been made into absolutes.
We are urged to honour, revere and obey Jesus because he is a king -
albeit of a heavenly kingdom. We're not told, as we should be constantly,
that these images are there merely to help us. They are not in themselves
anything real. Nor are they essentially important. Far from it. They can,
and sometimes must, be discarded without a backward glance.
It may be that until the Church stops trying to preserve its heritage at
all costs, it will remain as irrelevant as the images it attempts to pass
off as real.