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Coming Soon: 'The King'

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Solemnity of Christ the King. Fr Euan Marley considers the importance of 'The'.

Back in the Sixties, there were a string of television shows named after the lead character, such as The Saint, The Baron, or The Avengers. What with these shows and groups like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, it seems to be one of the forgotten laws of the Sixties that you were only really cool if your first name was 'The'. My own favourite was 'Man in Suitcase', which only lasted one series. It probably would have done better if it had been called 'The Man in a Suitcase', or even better, 'The Suitcase'.

The titles never seemed to tell you much about what the programme was about. The Baron was American, which seemed to raise problems of constitutional law. The Saint wasn't particularly holy, though my father did explain to me that he was called The Saint because he was a jewel thief. No, I didn't understand that explanation either, but I was quite young.

I often think about these TV shows when I am reading the New Testament. There a lot of characters who have 'The' for their first name. There's 'The Baptist', though he is always called, 'John the Baptist'. There's 'The Twelve', 'The Pharisees' and 'The Sadducees'. I suppose there's 'The hypocrites' but that is stretching it a bit. They do sound a bit like television shows, though I couldn't imagine 'The Baptist' having a flashy car.

Looking for examples of the use of the definite article in the New Testament, it is curious just how prevalent this is. The temple police, the soldiers, the crowd. People are reduced to descriptions, they become labels. This might seem to reduce them to cyphers, but in a strange way it is actually protecting them. Because they are people trapped by their functions, we can speculate about how these people were in themselves. Occasionally the functionaries become startlingly real. The maidservant who recognizes Peter, the soldier at the cross, who proclaims that this man was surely a son of God. The two thieves, the good and the bad, who reveal that they are persons, not symbols in the presence of the Christ.

So what about the greatest of the definite articles of the New Testament, Jesus himself, who is The Christ. The feast is Christ the King. This is not a tautology, since we might well call him Christ the Prophet, or Christ the Priest. All three are contained in the title of Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed one, and the Church could well have had a feast of either of these three.

Yet the feast we have is for the most questionable part of what it means for Jesus to be 'The Christ'. It is questionable because the word 'king' is questioned in the Gospels. It is not quite true that Jesus never calls himself 'The King'. We have Matthew 25:34, from the Last Judgement sequence. 'Then the King will say to those on his right hand?' Yet in John 18:33-37, Jesus says, 'You have said this', translated in some versions, fairly enough, as '"king" is your word'. Today we have Christ on the cross, asked if he is the king, and yet letting the good thief answer for him.

So is he a king? To this we have to answer that if he is anything, he must be The King. He cannot be a king, just as he cannot be a word. He is the Word, he is the Son of Man. If we look for the meaning of who Jesus really is, it must be in something which is unique to him, a uniqueness which is much more than a unique title. It reaches to the depth of his being.

This is why in John 6:15, Jesus retreats to the mountains, when the crowd want to make him king. It is not because he is denying his kingship. Quite the reverse. Kings, like any other leader, rule because the people treat them as leaders. Even dictators need to be accepted by some of their followers, who can coerce the rest. But the kingship of Christ cannot be produced by the consent of others. It belongs to him by nature. More than that, it is kingship which is of its nature unintelligible to us. It is unintelligible because we cannot see the kingdom which explains that kingship. Christ is king, not despite the fact that his kingdom is not here yet but because his kingdom has not yet come. 'My kingdom is not of this world.'

Of all the characters in the Gospel, it is the Good Thief who understands this best. Christ is revealed as King in his kingdom, but he comes into that kingdom by his death on the cross. His kingdom is a new world, a world made up entirely of his sacrifice and love. There is nothing in that world which is not from him, nothing in that world which does not come from his throne, nothing that he has not won by his death on the cross. Only there can we see what it means for Jesus to be The King.



2 Samuel 5:1-3
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:35-43


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