Today is the Feast of Christ the King and our scripture readings provide us with three provocative symbols through which we might interpret this kingship: Christ the Good Shepherd; the Christ crucified; and the Cosmic Christ. These images taken together evoke a richly textured understanding of authority or rule in its personal, political, and cosmological dimensions. It is an understanding that is quite different from the usual connotations of kingship.
Children of the American Revolution that we are, we tend to associate kings with tyranny. Even the kings and emperors in the Bible are often depicted as corrupt, arbitrary, unjust, and merciless. They wreak havoc and suffering, making the world a cruel and chaotic place. Of the kings of Israel and Judah, only David, Solomon, and the lesser-known reformer, Josiah, get very good marks, and even they had their moments. The Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great is remembered favorably for allowing the exiled Jews to return to Israel. The rest are pretty much a disaster, from Pharaoh to Herod. Both our democratic and biblical traditions are suspicious of kingship.
And yet, it is precisely because of these failed kings that the hope for a different kind of king, a reliable source of authority, is continually renewed. “Kingship” or “Royalty,” to use a more gender-neutral term, is an archetype of our longing for personal integration, political justice, and cosmic order. This gets expressed in the hope for the Messiah, the Anointed One, a king aligned with God’s purposes in creation and in history. This messianic hope is often projected onto various leaders, generally to our great disappointment.
To proclaim Jesus as our King, as the fulfillment of this messianic hope, is to affirm a quite different source of authority for our lives. Allegiance to Christ the King represents a decision for integrity, compassion, and beauty as our touchstones of authority, an authority that is internalized rather than projected on to others. The proclamation of Christ as King is a way of claiming our own royal identity as we become conformed to the image of Christ within us.
The shepherd and the sheep is a frequent biblical metaphor for the relationship between king and people, prominently in the Psalms, Ezekiel, and in today’s passage from Jeremiah. It is a metaphor that Jesus uses in his parables; in John’s Gospel, Jesus himself becomes the parable: “I am the Good Shepherd.” It is an image of intimacy, care and protection. The shepherd risks his life to protect the sheep from the wolves.
As a political metaphor, the shepherd-king cares for the whole political body, establishing justice among all the parts of the realm. Such a king does not fleece the flock: using his authority, not for the benefit of himself, but for the common good. The poor and vulnerable are protected from the predations of wealthy and powerful interests. It is an image of integrity.
Such integrity extends to the personal level, to the correspondence between our actions and our values, and to the integration of all the aspects of our inner life with awareness and appreciation. Those parts of the self that are vulnerable and marginalized, the shadow side that we would rather not acknowledge but whose energies we nevertheless often exploit unconsciously, are also given their due. We make a place for our demons without allowing them to consume us, much as the wise shepherd respects the wolf without sacrificing his flock to it.
On the cosmic level, the shepherd-king brings personal and political life into harmony with the creative energies of the universe in their ever- renewing pattern of life, death, and resurrection. Integrity means participation in this sustainable pattern of life, being in the flow of it rather than trying to dominate or exploit it. Christ the Good Shepherd is an image of royal integrity in which “all things hold together.”
The Crucified Christ may seem like a strange image of royalty. Kings are supposed to be in control. They put other people to death, punishing the wicked. This king is crucified in between two criminals. He is identified with the wicked; indeed, he teaches love of enemies in imitation of God, who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. There is no integrity, no integration, without compassion.
Justice alone can not ensure integrity. Justice divides between good and evil, worthy and undeserving, criminal and victim. It may punish or compensate but it does not heal. Only forgiveness can heal. Only forgiveness can reconcile and make one again what has been broken apart.
Christ crucified, the innocent victim who identifies with outcasts and criminals, reveals his royalty when he prays, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Here is a wisdom that sees the ignorance and blindness underlying evil, the chain of causes and conditions that give rise to suffering. Here is a power that is greater than the coercive power of the state. Compassion accomplishes what violence could never do: the forgiveness of sin that makes new life possible; the bringing of evil to light in such a way that it can be healed.
In the rite of Holy Baptism, we recognize the reality of evil in its personal, political and cosmic dimensions when we renounce Satan, the evil powers of this world, and the sinful desires that draw us from the love of God. In turning instead to Christ, we choose to combat evil with a power that refuses to mirror evil’s coercive violence: the power of compassion, the willingness to become vulnerable to the suffering evil causes so that it can be redeemed by the power of reconciling love.
Christ crucified is the icon of kingly power: the vulnerability of love that absorbs evil in the flow of compassion. Whenever the crucified-king confronts evil in its spiritual, institutional, or psychological dimension, he transfigures it through self-giving love. Integrity is maintained through compassion at all levels of our being; nothing is excluded. Everything is changed. This is the royal power of Christ crucified at work in all things – from deep ecology to restorative justice to self-acceptance.
Such royal compassion is so large, so inclusive, that it gives rise to yet another image of kingship: the Cosmic Christ.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
The power of compassion that sustains integrity, holding all things together, is a creative power. Integrity constitutes a universe; a creation, rather than chaos.
Here, we can only stand in awe. The universe is full of wonder; and it is beautiful. The Cosmic Christ is a royal image because it evokes the aspect of kingship as display, as transcendence, as that which commands our attention: in this sense, beauty is another touchstone of archetypal royalty. “For the soul, then, beauty is not defined as pleasantness of form but rather as the quality in things that invites absorption and contemplation.”
This is the beauty of a well-designed city that invites long walks and unplanned encounters. This is the beauty of hearing an arresting piece of music during which time seems to stand still. This is the beauty of the interior life, our capacity to continually be surprised – maybe even shocked and appalled – by what our soul is saying to us. Beauty is the form that mystery takes whenever pleasure, or wonder, or even suffering has the capacity to draw us deeper into engagement with life, holding us in the present moment, moving us to imagine possibilities we might never have seen otherwise. The power of compassion that integrates our experience, that holds all things together, is always a thing of beauty and, as such, an emblem of royalty.
Integrity, compassion, and beauty: these are the touchstones of royalty revealed in the various images of Christ the King. In the words of St. Paul, it is an image that mirrors Christ in us, the hope of glory. There is an archetypal royalty in which each soul participates. We signify this in the rite of Holy Baptism when we anoint the newly baptized with oil of chrism, marking them as Christ’s own forever, as sharers in his royal identity.
The kingship if Christ is not something that is coming in such a way that it can be observed, as if people could say it is here or there. For the kingship of Christ is within you and among you. It already is your birthright. The messianic hope for a different kind of king (or queen) is being fulfilled as you become conformed more and more to the image of Christ in you.