Power and Weakness
Solemnity of Christ the King. Fr Matthew Jarvis compares the power of God with human notions of political power.
CS Lewis once observed that there are two opposing reasons to believe in democracy. Some believe that all people are fundamentally good, so you can trust anyone to govern and it’s fairer if you give many the chance. Others believe that all people are fundamentally corrupt, so you cannot trust anyone to govern, and it’s safer to spread the responsibilities. Both views agree that democracy is the best form of government, or at least (as Churchill would have it) the least bad form of government that we’ve tried so far. Lewis considered the second view more realistic and more Christian, partly because of the doctrine of original sin, but also because generally ‘power corrupts’.
How does our view of human power affect our understanding of the Kingship of Christ? Lord Acton added wryly that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’: does this mean God is an absolute tyrant? Not if we think back a few weeks to the Collect of the 26th Sunday, which began with this beautiful address: ‘O God, who manifest your almighty power above all by pardoning and showing mercy’. We believe that God is almighty, yes, but his power is pure goodness and mercy. That’s why we heard in our second reading, ‘He loves us and has washed away our sins with his blood’ (Rev 1:5). God forgave our sins through the death of Christ on the cross, the greatest sign of his love. His power, as he revealed to Saint Paul, is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:19).
And so, in today’s gospel, we see Jesus in his complete weakness before Pilate. He has told Peter to put his sword away, refusing to call legions of angels to his side (Mt 26:52-54). (If you want to read of angels’ warfare, I recommend Milton’s Paradise Lost, Bk 6.) Christ chooses to be weak before Pilate. ‘My kingdom is not of this world … my kingdom is not from here’ (Jn 18:36). Christ’s only crown is one of thorns, his throne will be a cross. And yet, before Pilate, he wonderfully manifests his divine power, his complete lack of fear. There was a play about the Passion which placed Christ centre-stage and all the action revolved around him: he was somehow in control even in his weakness, even as the victim. It is not only at the end of time, when Christ returns ‘coming on the clouds of heaven’, but even now that ‘his sovereignty is an eternal sovereignty’ (Dan 7:13-14). We know, in the light of the cross, that Jesus is already showing his almighty power before Pilate by this great act of patient forgiveness, bearing witness to the truth.
Pilate nearly released Christ, but hesitated when he feared it would not go down well with Caesar. Herod was earlier gripped by the same fear. But the kingship of Christ is of another order. As the Epiphany hymn says, ‘He takes not earthly realms away, who gives the realms that never decay.’ There are two levels here, divine and human, and there is no inherent conflict between them – at least when things are put in their right order. ‘Fear God, honour the Emperor’, writes St Peter (1 Pet 2:17) – and the order matters. When the voice of truth is listened to, we discover that God does not take away our political responsibilities, but increases them. When we live according to the truth, we live in the kingdom of Christ. We learn that God is no absolute tyrant, but a loving and merciful Father.
It is perhaps significant that the feast of Christ the King always falls in the month of November, when we pray for the dead. Christ is the ‘First-born from the dead, the Ruler of the kings of the earth’ (Rev 1:5). ‘For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living’ (Rom 14:9). Even the dead benefit from the kingship of Christ. So, in today’s Collect, we prayed with great hope that God would ‘restore all things in Christ’ (cf Eph 1:10, a favourite motto of Pope St Pius X). Let us cooperate with the restoration of the world in Christ by living according to the truth, which is the only path to complete freedom, under whatever political regime we happen to live in this world.