How to Win the War

How to Win the War

Solemnity of Christ the King. Fr John O’Connor wonders why the powerful want to be powerful.

It is possible to win all the battles and yet in a certain sense lose the war. I’ve come to see this, but it has taken me a long time.

I remember as a teenager causing a family row because I wanted to watch a film that no one else wanted to see. I got my way, and sort of enjoyed the film. But, even safe in the bosom of a loving family, there was a price to pay, the aftermath of a small family dispute. Was all the fuss and bother worth it? The film was good, but I can barely remember it now. Memories of the dispute remain, however, much stronger. Like so many trivial battles, when one is caught up in the whirl of it, it seems so important. But once one takes a step back, the victory seems so very small.

It is easy to think of dominant people as victorious. They get what they want pretty much all the time. Lives are carefully constructed for personal convenience. But this hides the price that usually has to be paid. The price is love, whether the ability to love or the condition of being loved. People tend to avoid those who always insist on their way; family members visit out of a sense of duty. And even if dearly loved, there is not the same trust, the same desire to be in their company, that there would have been otherwise. That counts as a loss, a serious loss. It is a loss that is usually not recognised. After all, haven’t they got everything they want? But it is possible to win all the battles and yet lose the war. There is a kind of loss in the midst of all the victories, victories that in the end of the day rarely amount to much.

In the meeting of Pilate and Jesus, we have the encounter of the representative of Imperial Rome with Christ the Universal King. To speak of Christ as Universal King is, among many other things, to be reminded that while there is a kind of kingship that is built on power and domination, true kingship, that of Christ, is not like that. But unless we flesh that out in some way it can all too easily come across as a cliché, and fail to communicate the profound truth at its centre.

A good way to enter into the mystery of the nature of the Kingship of Christ is to reflect as best we can on the nature of power as it actually works in reality. Think about our own lives, or, more dramatically, about the lives of some of the important figures of history. Did their finery or the deference shown them really give true peace or happiness? Or was it more an attempt to quieten never-ending desires? To ask questions like these is not to adopt a strategy to make us feel better about our meagre state. It is to ask challenging questions about what is important to us, where our priorities should be, and what it is to be truly human.

So the Feast of Christ as Universal King is, among other things, a reminder of a deep truth about our lives, about where true happiness is to be found and where it is not to be found. When Christ says that his kingdom is not of this world, he is not only telling us that to put our trust in power and domination is emptiness and folly, he is also presenting us with an alternative. The alternative is love. That may sound trite, and it can be presented as trite, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Of course, this is something that is not always easy to see. It can be so much easier to acknowledge the Kingship of Christ in our daily lives more on our lips than deep in our hearts. I suspect most of us are like that at times, if we’re honest about it.

But when we take a step back from our lives, when we reflect and pray, isn’t there a a sense deep down about where true happiness is to be found and where it is not to be found? It may be a sense that the rough and tumble of life may try to drown out, that we may even try to extinguish, but it is a sense that refuses to go away.

It refuses to go away because it speaks of a profound reality about God’s plan for us. We may not always perceive it, but if we reflect on what true victory and power really are, as revealed in the loving Kingship of Christ, we can see that there is a kind of victory that makes such complete sense that we might well wonder why we so often fail to see it.

Readings: Daniel 7:13-14 | Revelation 1:5-8 |John 18:33-37

Fr John O'Connor is Regent of Studies of the English Province and Regent of Blackfriars, Oxford.