I've been watching the Netflix series The Crown over the last week. I'm not interested in the British Royal Family, but I thought I'd give it a try. And I'm glad I did, because the show's depiction of monarchy as an idea is really interesting. First there's the way that the role of monarch swallows up the individuals who are in that role (George VI and Elizabeth II, in this series). The monarch of the United Kingdom doesn't get to have personal opinions or act in certain ways or do certain things (one episode hinges on the prime minister's attempt to keep Elizabeth's husband from being certified as a pilot), at least not without damaging the institution. And that matters because, second, the institution itself is supposed to represent something grand and noble to the people. At Elizabeth's coronation, which was the first to be televised, there is a highly refined and formal set of rituals and symbols that establish her as the monarch. Her uncle David, who abdicated the throne in 1936, watches from France and explains to a guest, who calls the ritual "crazy," that it is, in fact, "perfectly sane." "Who wants transparency when you can have magic?" he says:
Pull away the veil and what are you left with? An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination. But wrap her up like this, anoint her with oil, and hey presto, what do you have? A goddess.
Like most Americans, I find this all very unusual and unfamiliar. We inhabit the rather tiny slice of history in which monarchs in the usual sense are shrunken or nonexistent, and it's easy to imagine that my perspective on this--which amounts to "give me a freaking break"--is the normal human response when it very likely is not. I appreciate the show for giving me some perspective on the lonely, self-effacing burden that even a constitutional monarch with few formal powers has to bear. And also for helping me appreciate the weird, hard-to-explain sense of absence plenty of modern folks living in a republic like ours can feel when it comes to royalty. Do we want to feel that sense of awe when we look at a ruler? Do we want to imagine that someone really is above it all, connected to God, mystically representing the whole nation? We probably do. We haven't, after all, shaken the tendency to elevate ordinary people to a mythical status, or to love or idolize some of our leaders in a way that suggests we want them to be more than they are or were.
This Sunday we celebrate the festival of Christ the King, which asserts the monarchy of Christ over the whole universe. And on this festival, this year, we hear a very curious passage to make this point:
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[ Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
This makes a powerful, unmistakable contrast with the other ways humans have depicted kings and monarchy. Instead of being invested with robes signifying his power, Jesus is stripped and his clothes divided. Instead of being hailed as a ruler, he is mocked as a failed insurgent. Instead of being given a scepter symbolizing the power to administer justice, Jesus is executed by that power. If Christ is a King, it is in a very different way--a way that undercuts everything we say about authority, and all the mystery and magic we wrap that authority in.
But as I read this passage again today and reflected on it with my colleagues from the Eastern Mission Conference, it occurred to me that Jesus does something very characteristic of a king: he grants an appeal to mercy. He, in effect, pardons the thief who is crucified next to him, and who asks very simply "Remember me when you come into your kingdom." Granting an unconditional and irrevocable pardon is a power of a king (the pardon power of our presidents is an interesting holdover from the age of monarchy). And Jesus wields that power from his throne, the cross.
I look forward to hearing this passage all week and again in worship on Sunday. Please join us!
More on this week's readings: "Jeremiah 23:2 contains other wordplays. The same Hebrew verb (p-q-d) denotes both the shepherd’s lack of care for the flock and God’s punishment of the shepherds. (It appears again in verse 4, with the meaning “be missing.”) The NRSV nicely translates the wordplay: “You have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings” (emphasis added). As frequently happens in biblical prophetic literature, God’s punishment is tailored to fit the crime.1 In the same line, the word “evil” sounds a lot like the word “shepherd” in Hebrew (roa‘/ro‘eh). The pun emphasizes how badly Judah’s shepherds/rulers have perverted their authority." J. Blake Couey, Workingpreacher.org
God's Work. Our hands.