In a pivotal moment of Israel’s history, the people agitate for a king. Their motivation is telling: “Give us a king to govern us like other nations!” (1Sam 8:5) So much for Israel’s distinctive vocation to be a contrast society, a light to the nations. Now they merely yearn to be like all the others.
And the Lord’s response to a distraught Samuel is equally telling and terribly poignant: “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” (1Sam 8:7)
This haunting refrain of rejection is repeated in countless variations through subsequent centuries. It culminates in the stark apostasy: “we have no king but Caesar!” (Jn 19:15)
Yet, through the centuries, the titulus affixed to the instrument of torture unwittingly proclaims the scandal and folly (and, in John’s vision, the glory) of God: “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.” (Jn 19:19)
However often heard, the proclamation continues to astonish and confound. A perennial scandal and folly to Jews and Greeks alike. . . .and to us. Yet as Fleming Rutledge, in her monumental study, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, rightly attests: “The crucifixion is the touchstone of Christian authenticity, the unique feature by which everything else, including the resurrection, is given its true significance.”
Preachers and theologians once frequently intoned Paul’s stirring words: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, it is Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:19-20) My impression is that they are less cited today. If so, this would serve to confirm Rutledge’s view that a contemporary Gnosticism, in its many guises, marginalizes the Cross and the sacrifice the Cross incarnates.
But in honesty, one ought not to presume that citation necessarily betokened appropriation. Even when dutifully cited, preachers and listeners (many of us, much of the time) often let the words languish in the shadowland of the merely notional.
I have long contended that crucial to the preacher’s task is fostering the passage from what Newman calls the “notional” to the “real.” Preacher, pastor, theologian, in the different contexts in which they minister, are called to be “mystagogues:” promoting a deeper appropriation of the mystery that Paul calls: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Col 1:27) But the “Christ in us” is ever the crucified and risen Savior. And the ultimate aim, as Paul states, is to present everyone mature in Christ (Col 1:28), conformed to the Crucified.
Certainly such “mystagogy,” as Pope Francis recently reminded us, remains a precious inheritance from the fathers of the Church. Despite the difference in cultural contexts, we continue to learn from their homilies. For their constant concern is “aggiornamento:” what does the challenge of the Gospel mean for us today?
Reading “the signs of the times” in light of the Gospel, therefore, is no innovation of the Second Vatican Council. It is the constant preoccupation of faithful and creative pastors throughout the history of the Church. Perhaps what their contemporary successors need to heed more diligently, however, is the defining stipulation: in light of the Gospel.
In this regard, no better exemplar can be found than Blessed John Henry Newman. His sermons discerningly probe the attitudes and dispositions, the actions and omissions of their hearers. And the norm of discernment is always Jesus Christ crucified.
In “The Cross of Christ the Measure of the World,” Newman’s melodic prose both enchants and challenges his Victorian congregation:
Christ’s Cross has put its due value upon every thing which we see, upon all fortunes, all advantages, all ranks, all dignities, all pleasures. . . .It has set a price upon the excitements, the rivalries, the hopes, the fears, the desires, the efforts, the triumphs of mortal man. It has given a meaning to the various, shifting courses, the trials, the temptations, the sufferings of his earthly state. . . .It has taught us how to live, how to use this world, what to expect, what to desire, what to hope. It is the tone into which all the strains of this world’s music are ultimately to be resolved.
A familiar liturgical trope speaks of the cross as the throne from which Christ reigns as King. But if this apprehension is to be real and not merely notional, then, as Newman urges, we must work to dethrone and put to death those usurping idolatries that occupy our hearts.
We need to take seriously Paul’s conviction that Christians “not be conformed to this world” (Rom 12:2), without fear of being bullied and dismissed as “culture warriors.” And we need to take with utmost seriousness the ongoing transformation of heart and mind this entails.
Baptismal regeneration cannot be (if it ever was) a once in a lifetime event, but must become a daily occurrence and commitment. We must be confirmed witnesses to Christ the King in a culture where sexual abuse of children and women is rampant, and consumption-driven Black Fridays multiply. Witnesses in a culture where few seem scandalized by expending hundreds of millions of dollars on a painting, prized more for its brand than its beauty, and perversely sold as: “Salvator Mundi!”
The Apostle Peter reminds the early Christians of the true price of salvation. “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.” (1 Peter 1:18-19) And his fellow Apostle concurs and draws the consequence: “You were bought with a price – so glorify God in your body!” (1Cor 6:20)
To the extent that we realize this, to the extent that it permeates our imagination and is embodied in our lives, our dispositions and our actions, to that extent will Jesus Christ, in truth, be our King, the King God gives.