When Pontius Pilate asked Jesus (Jn. 18:37-38) whether he was really a king, Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
It sounds as if Jesus is “changing the subject.” What does “testifying to the truth” have to do with being a king?
Plato theorized that the only hope for having a good and just kingdom would be having a philosopher king. Historically, the candidates for being called a philosopher king are few: Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A.D.), Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, who was not very kind to Christians (Justin Martyr died under his rule); and Frederick the Great (1712-1786), who was biased against Catholics and Jews.
Kings or politicians dedicated to the truth would, in any case, be welcome. But many or most politicians would agree with Pilate’s response, “What is truth?” – forerunners of pragmatism, situation ethics, and political correctness. Shades of Machiavelli.
Otto von Bismarck famously said, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best.” Thus many politicians and diplomats pride themselves on their discretion, in divulging just enough of the truth to get elected and/or keep their jobs; and many princes of the Church think they are doing a service to God and the faithful by downplaying doctrine in favor of “pastoral” adjustments.
But Christ the King, who spoke truth to power – especially truths about the Kingdom of God, heaven (and how to get there), sin, and hell – is (admittedly) a difficult model to imitate. Few now even try. Secular and ecclesiastical leaders everywhere are having trouble with the truth – whether to ignore it, modify it, try to approximate it, or simply declare it and accept the consequences.
If that is the truth about “kings,” what can we say about “queens”? We Catholics call Mary our Queen. But that requires no little explanation. She was largely silent and (to the eyes of the world) undistinguished, unlike so many queens who try to make themselves be seen as benevolent national figureheads. When a woman in the crowd once called out to Jesus, “blessed is the womb that bore thee” (Lk. 11:27), Jesus seemed, again, to “change the subject,” and talked about the blessed as those who “keep the word of God.”
Certainly, because of her Immaculate Conception, Mary must have had virtues and gifts beyond compare. But any use of these gifts during Jesus’ lifetime must have been private, not public. Her motto seemed to be, like John the Baptist, “he must increase; I must decrease.”
It is a paradox of Christianity that sufferings become the sources of the greatest glory. The renewed body of Christ after his Resurrection still bears the wounds; and these are special sources of His glory, His spiritual identifiers. This is a harbinger of the fact that the particular sufferings of saints in the afterlife will be insignias of special glory – not only external wounds, beheadings, tortures, etc. but also internal sufferings – including sicknesses and disabilities accepted with resignation to God’s will.
What was Mary’s signal suffering? In the case of Mary, it has to do with her Immaculate Heart.
At the Presentation of Jesus (which we just celebrated Friday), Mary and Joseph brought into the Temple the child who was to be the Savior that Israel had been expecting for centuries, the Son of the Most High described by Gabriel at the Annunciation. (Luke 1:32) But Simeon prophesies that this child would be a “sign of contradiction,” bringing about the rise and fall of many; and that “a sword” would pierce Mary’s soul.
This prophecy was just the beginning of Mary’s sufferings. The “sword” was not meant metaphorically. Just as medical science tells us that hearts can actually be “broken” by sorrows and even cause death, this doting Mother who was bringing the final hope of redemption and salvation into the world, would feel an almost intolerable pang at these words – not just a short sense of immense sorrow, not something that would just disappear with time and the joys of life.
No doubt she experienced grief even more than those who suffer and die of a “broken heart.” She and Joseph had to flee to Egypt, to escape Herod’s attempt to slaughter the prophesied “King of the Jews.”
After their return from those unfamiliar, hostile, and largely pagan surroundings, domestic life, possibly in an extended family, caring for the incarnate Son of God in the midst of unbelieving “brothers” (Jn. 7:5) – were formidable tests for Mary’s patience and faith.
Later, Mary’s distress at losing track of the twelve-year-old Jesus for three days before discovering Him in the Temple must have brought grief that can only be understood by those parents who have lost children at one time or another and went through panicky searches to find them.
Finally, no analogy to our own experiences can help us to imagine the grief of Mary at the trial and sentencing of her Son, the King of the Jews, tortured and executed by persons who knew not what they were doing: committing an unfathomable deicide.
We talk about Mary’s “sorrows” as she witnessed the Crucifixion, claimed the body, and buried her dead son. But “sorrow” is too tame a word. Surely her grief, knowing that people were rejecting their divine Savior, must have been tantamount to a broken heart, miraculously kept alive while experiencing the pangs of death. That was her crown as Queen.
We Christians are committed to a King who was victorious, but whose glory is manifested in wounds suffered for revealing unwelcome truths to mankind; and we have a Virgin Queen Mother whose Immaculate Heart, once weighed down with secret, unbearable anguish, has now been glorified as an unfailing source of compassion and mercy with the King. And, as old Simeon predicted, all so that the thoughts of many hearts, “may be revealed.”
*Image: The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple by Fra Angelico, c. 1440 [Museo Nazionale di San Marco, Florence]