Despite the enormous national grief we witnessed in Thailand upon the death of King Bhumibol after an extraordinary reign of 70 years and, more distantly, the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Queen Elizabeth, I suspect we are slightly uneasy with royalty today. Especially those who draw upon their title or status, who are aloof or claim privilege, who are cocooned from us and lack the common touch. The reality of history has dimmed any ideal vision of kingship.
But in spite of that, at their best, kings are queens were wise lawmakers and protectors of the rights of those who were the weakest, the poorest — defenders of those whose claims were most threatened, those who were on the edge of the kingdom, who had no one else to take up their cause.
This last week of the Church year, we celebrated the Feast of Christ the King. In so doing, we need to remember those ideals when we use the image of “King” in finding our relationship with Jesus – and the expectation it brings.
When we look to the authors of the gospels to find allusions to Jesus’ kingship, we are immediately confronted by paradox and ambiguity. At his birth, the Magi seek the “infant King of the Jews” — and where do they find him? In an obscure village, sharing a stable with animals, amid muck and manure, and (in Luke’s gospel) in the company of those lowest on the social scale, those outcast shepherds. When Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time, the crowds acclaim him with “Blessings on the king who comes” — and he is riding on a humble donkey. Even when at last he suffers a scandalous and ignominious death in the company of thieves, the title ‘King of the Jews’ is sarcastically nailed to the cross with him.
Clearly, Jesus is recognised as King, but how differently is that kingship lived out and experienced. It is set, if you like, in a court of common folk, of ordinary people, of the least ones. It is a kingdom or reign of God, as Jesus told Pilate, “the like of which this world knows not”.
It is a novel kingdom, to say the least. Because the rule and right order that Jesus establishes is not based on what we think are just deserts or human schemes of justice, but on need. Jesus ushers in God’s kingdom by introducing a reign of compassion — an order of things that gives food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, homes to the stranger and street people, clothes to those who need them, a healing presence to the sick, and practical friendship and encouragement to the unfree. It is really a call to participate in the very work of redemption – what Ignatius liked to describe as working alongside Christ in the plan of redemption – in struggling against everything that limits us, that makes people less truly human.
Jesus told us in the Gospels that the kingdom of God is with us now, it is “among you”. So we don’t have to wait for the passport of death to enter it. It exists in the present moment and has its fulfilment in the end times. That means working in service of the king now to make this a kingdom worthy of his ideals and aspirations.
Ignatius, being a man of his times, makes use of this metaphor of the King in his Spiritual Exercises. Here he invites the retreatant to consider what king or leader in this world would the retreatant be inspired by and rally around for a noble cause. Then, of course, Ignatius transitions to Christ the King, who wishes to win over and transform the whole world. As one Jesuit educator, Robert Starratt, expressed it for our schools, the call of the King is
the challenge to oppose in our culture the forces of dehumanization and depersonalization, of greed and tyranny, of mindless apathy, of a propagandized and plasticized consciousness, of the dealers in death technology — to oppose these forces with the consciousness of human dignity, with the goodness of Christ’s reconciling action in history, with the discovery of community, trust, and solidarity, with the courage to work for peace and justice and for the liberation of the human spirit.
And the school is the perfect place to begin to extend this kingdom – a place of truth, care, right-relationships and outreach.
Of course we know Jesus’ kingdom is never complete in the here and now. At this present moment, the reign of God is particularly struggling to find its expression in many parts of our world and even in this land. There is a tide of nationalism, isolationism and protectionism which is becoming manifest in many nations across the globe. The roots of it are understandable. Many people feel threatened. Many feel a loss. But in such times, as hard a question as it is, we have to ask ourselves: Are we building God’s kingdom, or protecting our kingdom? There is a clear distinction.
It seems we have a lot still to do to establish this Kingdom of God. Otherwise our King may find it hard to recognise it when he comes. But come he will. Perhaps precisely because it is in need of reform, he will come.
Anglican poet R S Thomas beautifully captures what this place might be like in The Kingdom:
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.