A sermon preached on Christ the King, 2011
In Victor’s Hugo’s famous novel, Les Miserables, there is a well known scene where Jean Valjean, the central character of the book, encounters the saintly bishop of Digne. The outline of the story will be familiar to many of you. Jean Valjean is a man imprisoned for four years merely for stealing bread, but because of other circumstances ends up in prison for much longer.
Released from prison, he cannot get a room because his papers indicate that he was a prisoner, but the saintly Bishop of Digne gives him food and a bed for the night. Instead of treating him with suspicion, the bishop gets his sister to take out the silver cutlery because they have a guest. They all go to bed. Jean Valjean, unused to sleeping on a mattress, gets up early and steals the silver cutlery.
The next day Jean Valjean is picked up by the police, who find the silverware in his bag and rightly presume that he stole it, so they bring back him to the Bishop. Instead of confirming the suspicions of the police, the bishop, to Jean Valjean’s great surprise, responds with: “So here you are! I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave the candlesticks as well? They are also silver.” And he hands over the candlesticks to Jean Valjean, who is then released.
But before Jean Valjean goes off on his way, the bishop manages to say to him: “you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from harsh thoughts and the spirit of damnation, and I give it to God.” The bishop is no fool. He saw a damaged man, hardened, desensitised, even dangerous, and did his bit to bring him to God, to bring salvation and redemption to him.
Even though released, Jean Valjean was in still a kind of prison, and the bishop visited him, as Christ asks of all of us. But the bishop also sets him free. A man who was used to being treated with brutality and who looked at others from that perspective, was now treated with love, and that changed him.
Thinking of today’s gospel, that of the final judgement, and of the gospels for this feast on other years, I was reminded of this scene from Les Miserables. There is a certain sense a majesty, a largeness of soul, and a greatness, in the generosity and compassion of the bishop. The word ‘majesty’ is, of course, appropriate for today’s feast of Christ the Universal King, because it is a word to address Kings and Queens.
But there is something a little strange going on here. By certain standards, the self-abasement of allowing a criminal to profit at your expense would to be taken as far from majesty. Much more than that, it seems downright strange to speak of the kingship of someone who died naked on a cross.
Many of the great thinkers of the past thought that if one were to possess qualities such as majesty one had to be in a position to exercise greatness, greatness understood as from a position of superiority, of power. When the Greek philosopher, Plato, living about 400 years before Christ, wrote about the completely just man “They will say that our just man will be scourged, racked, fettered, will have his eyes burned out, and at last, after all manner of suffering, will be crucified,” he was in many respects very much out of step with his contemporaries.
But Plato’s remarkable words would have particular resonance for Christians, even being seen by some as a prophesy of the life and death of Christ 400 years or so before his birth. But again, for people before Christ, the common view was very much that any openness to self-abasement was weakness, absence of majesty. And openness to the shame and disgrace of death on a cross was shame and disgrace itself. Nothing could be further from majesty.
That we have far less difficulty in making sense of the view, that there can be self-abasement with majesty, is shown by how easily we take on board the idea that the character of the Bishop in Victor Hugo’s novel could be an example of majesty. It’s not an obviously religious book. And many people who are not religious would probably not have any problem with this either.
What this suggests is that Christian insights have helped form our culture and the values of our society, even if proclaims itself to be secular. That is, it is very possible that Christian insights help shape how many people in our society think, whether they are Christian or not, whether they are religious or not. Western secular society has many Christian roots. Whether we are prepared to acknowledge that is another matter.
But saying how easily we take certain Christian ideas in our stride, so much so that we may even lose sight of their Christian origins, may be why we so easily lose sight of how radical they are. After all, for many generations such Christian ways of seeing things would have seemed very strange.
There is something genuinely strange about speaking of Jesus Christ Universal King when he is naked and dying in the horror that was Golgotha. There is something genuinely strange in saying that it is there we see the majesty of God revealed most clearly.
But this is the majesty and kingship of God that are not shown in spite of self-abasement, but through self-abasement freely given, in the self-abasement that showed the depth of his love, the love of one, who even in the midst of his own suffering, reaches out to a criminal, bringing redemption to a hardened heart.
In the gospel text for the Solemnity of Christ the Universal King this year we have the Son of Man, who comes in his glory with his angels, who judges the nations, who judges all peoples. But seen through the radical lens of Christian revelation, this is the same majesty present on the cross, present in the resurrection, present at the end of days. And seen through the radical lens of Christian revelation, we see that it is a majesty founded on self-giving love, judging us in love by our love.
That the majesty of God is in love, that the Universal Kingship of Christ is founded on love, is a message the world need constant telling. This simple, but strange, message needs to be preached to the men and women of today, just as it did when the dark clouds of facism and communism were rolling over Europe, when Pope Pius XI instituted this feast of the universal Church in 1925.
It is only when we see what true Kingship is, what true majesty is, that we see the world by the light of Christ, a light in which the potentates of the world look like pale and paltry imitations, and that a Universal King can judge the nations, even though he wore a crown of thorns.