On the eve of a battle in the year 312, Constantine had a vision. He saw a cross in the sky and he heard God say, “By this, conquer!”
Armed with this vision, Constantine went to battle and won. He converted to Christianity and then declared Christianity the sole religion of the Roman Empire. Overnight Christians went from being a persecuted minority to a persecuting majority. The Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire, now backed by God. The pope wielded the Cross and the King wielded the Sword. The two became inextricably linked.
This provided the political and theological architecture for the next 1,700 years of Christendom. Sadly, it still underwrites some of the worst atrocities done in the name of God. (See Constantine’s Sword by James Carroll).
Perhaps this is why I have mixed feelings about this, the last Sunday of the liturgical year. It’s called “Christ the King Sunday” and it is a relatively recent development in the life of the Church. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. (Pope Pius was also the first “sovereign” over Vatican City, which was declared an independent state on February 11, 1929).
What could be more fitting than to end the liturgical year with a celebration of Christ as king? After all, isn’t Jesus the “King of Kings?” And didn’t he come to reveal the “Kingdom of God?” Why then is Jesus so reluctant to accept the title of king in this week’s passage and why am I so uneasy with it?
I cannot shake the fact that the only title Jesus uses to refer to himself in the Gospels is the “The Son of Man,” which literally means, “the human one.” It shows up 87 times in the New Testament.
Weirdly, no one else throughout the New Testament refers to Jesus as the “Son of Man.” The Apostle Paul doesn’t use the title and neither do any New Testament writers except on three occasions (Acts 7:56, Rev. 1:13, and 14:14). None of the church creeds use it and theologians throughout the centuries used it sparingly.
Why do we systematically avoid the one title Jesus so freely used? Yes, Jesus is Lord, Savior, Messiah and King of Kings. He is Son of God and more, but given the way Jesus inverted the meaning of these titles perhaps we would be better off calling him un-lord, un-savior, un-messiah and un-king.
As C.S. Lewis points out so beautifully, the Incarnation leaves all previous ideas of God in ruins.
Images of the Holy easily become holy images – sacrosanct. My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great Iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.
And this is precisely what happens with Jesus before Pilot. He shatters all expectations of God as king. The un-king reveals an un-kingdom.
When Pilot asks Jesus if he is king, Jesus replies with a question of his own, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” And then without claiming kingship directly Jesus goes on to describe his kingdom, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” Jesus’ reply is genius. He not only exposes the violence that underwrites the kingdoms of this world, he also offers the world’s first non-violent monarchy in return.
I wonder how differently things might have been had Constantine known the Prince of Peace? Perhaps the cross in the sky would not have been received as an invitation to conquer through violence, but as invitation to beat swords into plowshares and call forth peace. Only then will we understand what it means to be human—fully human, like the Son of Man, who is God.