Christ the King
For those who follow the liturgical year, today is officially the last Sunday of the Christian Calendar. Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent and is thus the first Sunday of the new Christian Calendar.
Whoever helped to compile the Christian Liturgical Calendar felt that on the last Sunday of the Christian year, we should go out with a bang, and so the theme that many Christians and Church’s of all denominations, and all around the world will be reflecting on today is the theme of Christ the King. As we have spent the last year focusing on Mark’s Gospel, I would like to use Mark’s Gospel today as the lense through which we explore this theme of Christ the King.
The opening verse of Mark’s Gospel is only 13 words long and yet it has three allusions to royalty, kingship and empire.
It reads simply: The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ, the son of God.
The first allusion to kingship is the word Christ, or Messiah meaning anointed one. The kings of Israel were anointed by oil to set them apart for the office of king. They were thus called God’s anointed one’s.
The second are the words ‘son of God’. Now for centuries as Christians, we have been trained when we hear that term as a statement of Jesus’ divinity. But in the Old Testament, the term son of God was one of the titles given to the kings of Israel. As God’s representative the King was called God’s son, ruling Israel on God’s behalf.
The third word is the word Gospel itself, which is translated as Good News. It was a word used by the Roman Empire’s propaganda machine which would send out messages of Good News throughout the Empire proclaiming the victories of Caesar as he brought peace to the world through military might and domination. The good news of victory.
So here in the first verse of Mark’s Gospel, our expectations are high. This is a story about a new monarch, a new king of Israel, an anointed one. Maybe even a king who will rival Caesar and the Roman Empire.
The second place where the theme of kingship comes up in Mark’s Gospel is in the baptism of Jesus, the moment of his anointing. Whereas as David in the Old Testament was anointed with oil by Samuel in the Old Testament to take over as King instead of Saul, Jesus is anointed by God himself as the Spirit descends upon him. The voice from heaven “This is my son” are words from Psalm 2:7 indicating the choosing of a king. Jesus, God’s chosen ruler. The king designate.
The rest of the Gospel represents Jesus trying to teach his Way to his disciples... but they continually fail to understand it. They know what normal kings should behave like. But Jesus keeps saying strange things like:
- The first will be last, the last will be first.
- If you want to save your life you must lose it.
- If anyone wants to be great in the Kingdom of God he must be least and the slave of all.
- If anyone wants to be great in the kingdom of God he or she needs to become like a little child.
What kind of kingdom is this that Jesus is establishing? What kind of king is this?
In our passage that we read today, we see the moment of coronation and the moment of the enthronement of Jesus. But what a strange coronation it is. What a strange enthronement? The coronation and enthronement scenes of Mark’s Gospel are none other than the mocking, the torture and the crucifixion of Jesus.
The coronation scene starts with the soldiers dressing Jesus up in a purple robe – a sign of royalty. Next, instead of a crown of Gold, it goes on as they twist thorns and briars into the shape of a crown and place it on his head. Next, instead of touching his head with a scepter, a sign of authority and power, they spit at him and strike him over the head with a stick. Instead of bowing with respect they mock him as they fall on their knees pretending to pay homage.
Next on the way to his enthronement, Jesus is offered wine and myrrh. Again, there are royal connotations. Myrrh was used as part of the anointing oil in Israel used for priests and kings.
Then, instead of Jesus being enthroned on a throne in a glorious palace at the heart of the city, Jesus’ enthronement takes place outside the city walls where he is hoisted up on a cross and crucified. A sign is displayed above him with the words: “King of the Jews”. It is the first time in Mark’s Gospel that the word king is explicitly used to describe Jesus.
What kind of a story of kingship is this? What kind of a king is this? What kind of a victory is this? Jesus seems to be the very opposite of a king. Mark’s Gospel turns the whole idea of kingship, power and authority upside down, turning it on its head. So much for being a king to rival Caesar.
And yet, at the end of the enthronement scene there is a twist in the story. We find what some have described as a fascinating switch of allegiance. When Jesus breathes his last, and gives up his spirit, we read that a Roman soldier, whose allegiance was to Caesar (who was known as a ‘son of the gods’), seemingly switches his allegiance. Seeing how Jesus died, the Roman soldier said: “Surely this was the son of God”.
A few months ago I found a really interesting article in the New Statesman dated from September 2016. It was written by Tom Holland, the contemporary British writer and historian, who has done some significant research and writing on Greek and Roman history as well as the history of Islam and Muhammad. He writes that from his early twenties, he had come to view Christianity as a superstition that had nothing left to offer western culture. But the more he studied Greek and Roman history, the less and less he could identify with the callousness and violence of its values in which those at the lowest end of society were regarded as expendable, as being less human and less valuable than those at the top.
He thus came to a surprising discovery about himself, that his own values as a secular western atheist, were not those of the Romans and the Greeks, but deeply and profoundly Christian.
In his article he refers to the passage we read from 1 Corinthians where Paul speaks of Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Greeks, and yet he writes that it is this image and message of Christ crucified that continue to provide many of the underlying values that leave their mark and imprint on contemporary Western secular culture.
Holland concludes that this message of Christ crucified “...is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. [And] ...why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value."
In closing, I would like to refer again to a few lines from the little ancient Chinese book of wisdom called the Tao Te Ching which captures something of the spirit of Christ the king as we find it in Mark’s Gospel:
“The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
The gentlest thing in the world
overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
Teaching without words,
performing without actions:
this is the Master's way.”