The Glory of the Lord
by John Wijngaards, The Tablet 19 November 1988, pp. 1334-1335
A friend of mine who is not even a member of Greenpeace or the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament feds deeply disturbed about the imagery power ascribed to Christ. One of the decisive reasons why he recently became a Christian was Christianity’s adhesion to “love” as the supreme principle. But “if God is love, why all these violent images of kingship, might, reigning in power?” he asked me. “The searching Christ attracts me, the powerful Christ repels me.”
It is not easy to get the picture of the “God-man” right. Our grandparents divinised him to such an extent as to lessen the human character of his knowledge, feelings and behaviour. Their Jesus could not fear, entertain doubt, be surprised. Their Jesus lacked that most human of all qualities: the need to grope one’s way and to search. And so, by their devotion, he was robbed of the ability to learn, that mark of intelligence and leadership.
Today more than ever before, Christians are conscious of Jesus’s humanity. The controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ may be seen as an unfortunate commercial outgrowth of what is basically a sound reappraisal. Instinctively we distrust people who know it all, who are unwilling to change their minds, who cannot see their own blind spots and have ready-made solutions for all problems. Such people, as history has proved time and again, spell disaster in positions of authority. The question is: what category of leader do we put Christ into?
Quas Primas. The encyclical of Pius XI that accompanied the institution of the feast of Christ the King in 1925, attributes to him all authority on earth, whether secular or spiritual in character, whether political, moral or religious. He is called “the nations’ universal king”. He is hailed as the supreme lawgiver and ultimate judge. “His rule will never end; every people, tribe and nation will serve him for ever. … It is the will of Almighty God to unite the entire universe under his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, as king of heaven and earth.”
This imagery, undoubtedly correct when understood in its biblical context, runs the risk in a predominantly non-Christian world of becoming meaningless jargon or else, interpreted by contemporary standards of kingship, fatally flawed.
Ignoring Pius XI’s caution that Christ’s kingdom is primarily spiritual and that he does not interfere in temporal government, theologians sometimes give the impression that Christ, the Risen Lord, has assumed active control of a global kingdom. In the Gospel, we are told, he left us a blueprint for social, political and religious reform. Seated high on his throne in heaven, he sees with unshrouded clarity the perfect answer to every human problem. What needs to be done is for all to accept his rule and put his laws into practice. It is the failure of nations and individuals to do so that has created the chaos and suffering we witness. But surety this cannot be right.
If Christ on his throne above were to exercise this kind of rule, he could not, without incurring personal blame, watch the exploitation of millions of his subjects. The accusation of heartlessness laid at the feet of the Architect God who allows earthquakes, hurricanes and floods could then well be extended to Christ who, as supreme commander, tolerates genocide, nuclear bombs and totalitarian states. Christ, however, disclaims earthly king- ship.
“My kingdom does not belong to this world”, he tells Pilate. “Yes, I am a king. But I was born and came into this world with no other purpose than to reveal the truth” (John 18:36-37). The truth in Johan- nine terms was the reality of his Father’s love, which Christ revealed by giving his life for us (John 15:13). There is no trace of domination here: only concern, readiness to wash the disciples’ feet, the solidarity of a good shepherd who dies for his sheep.
What then does Christ’s kingship mean? One day, at the completion of time, when the Father “will put all things under his feet” (1 Cor. 15,28), Christ’s universal role will be plainly recognised. Until that moment he will rule not through external commands but through us, his followers. For Christ’s kingship is an enabling king- ship that makes all of us participate in his royal power.
In Scripture, Christ’s “authority” is closely related to his “glory”: which is seen in his ability to make God’s love visible. The Father entrusts Christ with all authority so that his fullness, the fullness of love, may fill the body of the faithful (Eph. 1:21-23). Christ’s royal power becomes a reality in this world by the love radiated in the lives of his followers.
To understand this biblical image of “glory” we could profitably turn to the Far East, where we find an unusual concept of splendour. In India great men, whether statesmen, scholars or saints, acquire tehja, “glory”, by concentrating on themselves quantities of supernatural power. By meditation, self-discipline and contact with the Eternal, reserves of inner strength are heaped up which radiate from the individual in almost visible form.
Biblically speaking, Christ passes on a similar kind of power to us, making us share in his glory. “To those who believed in him he gave the power to become children of God” (John 1:12). “Now 1 am coming to you, Father”, Christ prayed. “I am no longer in the world, but they are. My glory will be shown through them” (John 17:9-10). I gave them the same glory you gave me” (John 17:22) As in the Asian concept, Christian “glory” combines an inner fullness with visible effects in the outside world.
Christ, indeed, is King of Kings; not as an emperor lording it over obedient vassals, but as the one who fills us with royal power. Following the model of leadership he set, we will, each in our own area of responsibility, reveal the love of God and explore the best response to ever-changing situations. In this way the rule of Christ will be active in every sphere of human life. A businessman will strive to create wealth in such a way that the whole of society benefits from it. An engineer will design new technology to make a safer and healthier world. Nurses and social workers will bring healing and support. Reporters and editors will be guardians of truth. Everyone in his own family will seek to create an ambience where young and old can grow in freedom to be true to each other and themselves. The kingdom will thus be extended since each person will realise it in his or her own surroundings.
Building the kingdom
There need be nothing very dramatic or spectacular about this, most of the time. Christ said that his kingdom would grow like yeast mixed in with dough or wheat that grows at night while the farmer sleeps. But there will be occasions when we will be called upon to do great things in our own world: an act of exceptional generosity, a breakthrough in social relations, a deed of friendship that saves a life, the courageous establishment of a new structure or technological advance. In granting us the power to make our own valuable contribution to the building of his kingdom, Christ shows his genuine leadership as King of Kings. And he gives us full credit for it. At the Last Supper he announced: “I tell you the truth: whoever believes in me will do things I do — yes, he or she will do even greater things than I have done. For I am going to my Father” (John 14:12).
The surprising thing is that this decentralised reality of Christ’s kingship, by which he enables us to share his initiative, reveals his divinity more decisively than the triumphalistic image of his reigning from a throne in heaven. For his true “glory” is shown not in moments of triumph but in being lifted up on the cross (John 12:27-33). Christ is not a human leader who anxiously needs to defend his authority by a show of strength. The image of God who is love, he reveals his kingship by giving and sharing. In our search and toil, it is his Spirit that groans “until we with our whole being are set free to become truly God’s children” (Rom. 8:23).
In Quas Primas, Pius XI stated that human princes and magistrates should realise that they rule “not by their own right, but by the mandate and in the place of the Divine King”. Their subjects should know this too. Even if their rulers are unworthy, “they will not on that account refuse obedience since they see reflected in them the authority of Christ, God and man”. Being a product of his time, the Pope may, perhaps, be excused for entertaining such archaic, “upstairs-downstairs” feudal notions. The main point he wanted to make remains valid.
Christ’s kingship poses a question for all who by their position can improve or damage people’s wellbeing: will they recognise the king of love on Calvary? And for all of us: wall we be such that others can see him in us?