Sunday, November 24, 2013

Christ The King?

Christ the King?
“Today you will be with me in paradise.”
                -Luke 23:43
Says Jesus to the thief who defends him as they hang on the cross.  I try to imagine such a conversation. It is the scripture for what has become called Christ the King Sunday. In the conversation between Jesus and the thief on the cross I hear echoes of Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower.

"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief,
"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."
"No reason to get excited," the thief, he kindly spoke,
"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the cold distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

I will not presume to know what Dylan has in mind, but the pieces fit in an odd sort of way, and he did study wholly writ. The elements of Luke’s portrayal of the last moments of Jesus on the cross could be like this.

Christ the King? It is a modern feast of the churches. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI as a supposed bulwark against a perceived creeping secularism. Another example of what happens when the church employs novelty to impose its world view – a world view which may or may not conform with that of the young man in Israel whose vision she hopes to live and enshrine. I grow increasingly leery of such attempts by the Church. Take Christmas for instance. Not until around the mid-fourth century does it appear on a calendar on its present date, December 25 – the time of pagan celebrations Sol Invictus and Saturnalia. Whether or not the Church intentionally meant to “Christianize” these older holidays, the result has morphed into a post-Dickens orgy of commercialized consumer driven capitalism without which many businesses would not survive today. Despite many attempts to take this pagan-like orgy out of Christmas who among us really thinks Christmas bears any resemblance to what Jesus was thinking that day on the cross he talks to the thief about paradise?

An odd metaphor to be sure, Christ the King. After all it is Pilate who orders these very words to be nailed upon the cross beneath his feet. Or very nearly. “The King of the Jews,” he ordered. We can still see the sneer on his face and hear his laughter at what he no doubt thought was at once a clever joke and menacing warning to all and any who may be tempted to continue what this upstart from Galilee had begun.

We may not know a lot about this Galilean, but what we do know is that unlike other kings, he had no army, no land holdings, no possessions, no money to speak of (relying on the generosity of others to support him and his followers), he wrote no books, issued no proclamations, and, according to tradition, “emptied himself taking the form of a common slave.”

What he did possess was a vision that things could be different – very different – which today’s gospel from Luke describes as “paradise,” an interesting word which appears to be of Persian (Iranian) origin, imported into the Greek pardiso of the New Testament.  Interesting in that it is often used to describe a walled or enclosed garden or park. I cannot help but wonder if Jesus knew of one known simply as The Buddha, the Awakened One, who lived some five or six hundred year earlier in what has become known as the Axial Age. The Buddha, who upon his awakening is said to have been tempted by the demon Mara to turn his back on the world and depart to some eternal nirvana – a total escape from the world of suffering. “No one will possibly understand what you have just understood,” taunted Mara. The Buddha thought about it and then declined. “There are those who will understand,” he is reported to have said. He then committed himself to some 40 or 50 years of living with and teaching those who desired to understand. Like any movement, these followers divided into several groups, some who sought individual deliverance from the world of suffering, and those who like The Buddha himself tip-toed up to the edge of nirvana but elected to stay just this side to nurture others along the way.

The story is told of four fellow travelers crossing a wilderness when they come upon a wall. One climbs to the top, looks in, and scrambles over the wall. So does the second one and the third – all three scramble over to the other side. The fourth climbs the wall, looks and sees – a walled in paradise of trees and flowers, rivers, streams, lakes, abundant fruits – beauty and abundance as far as the eye could see. This one climbed down and returned to this world saying, “There are those who will understand. I will not climb over the wall myself until even the grass is enlightened.”

Major trade routes, from east and west, north and south,  all criss-crossed through the middle east of Jesus. No fantastic tales of a young Jesus traveling to India or China is necessary to imagine that with all the travelers making their way through ancient Israel that tales such as this one were common place.

Perhaps this is what he had in mind as he spoke to the thief – as women and barefoot servants were making their way for one last moment with the one who had shared with them a vision of another kind of world; as princes keep their view from afar and businessmen drink his wine. More than a victorious king on a cross I hear in these ancient words of Luke the commitment to the end to return, to use this last possible moment before his dying breath not to miss the opportunity to offer the experience of Awakening to one last person who reaches out seeking to understand. He empties himself one last time, taking the form of a servant – serving his last earthly companion until three days later he too climbs down from the wall to continue an eternity of selfless service to others, until one day even the grass understands.
Outside in the cold distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.”

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