As many of you know, my father was born and raised in Brazil. He immigrated to this country when he was in his twenties, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen when he was about forty. Being Brazilian, of course, he knew nothing about that quintessential American pastime—baseball. I, on the other hand, was raised in the suburbs of Chicago, so, despite my Brazilian ancestry, I was keenly interested in baseball. When my dad, being the dutiful father that he was, took me to my first big league ball game, he brought along a news magazine to keep him occupied! There’s a certain subtlety and relaxed sophistication to the game of baseball that causes those who are not brought up on it to find it boring. When you’re raised on soccer, a baseball game must seem like nothing’s going on most of the time. That isn’t true, of course, but it seems that way. Until you reach a certain threshold of knowledge and experience, baseball can be both confusing and dull. But when you cross that threshold, a baseball game becomes a work of performance art, always a potential masterpiece in the making, a thing of beauty and a source of joy.
I cannot help but reflect that there is a similar dynamic at work in the liturgy of the church, the worship of Almighty God. There are those who attend church—certainly the majority of our “Christmas and Easter” friends, but even many who attend more frequently—for whom the liturgy is like a baseball game for my Brazilian father fifty years ago. There are those for whom being in church is something to be endured—patiently much of the time, but often with a good bit of fidgeting and even resentment. Their minds are not challenged by the mystery of the gospel, their hearts are not uplifted in praise to the God of all creation, and their wills are not moved to obedience and sacrifice in the cause of Christ. Our response to being present at Christian worship is commensurate with our experience of the living God. Experience shapes perception
Imagine for a moment that you work for the newspaper, The Daily Planet, and one of your colleagues is a reporter named Clark Kent. You’re likely to think of him as a nice enough guy, a good reporter, good-looking, perhaps, and a decent human being. But if I were to suggest that you should be in awe of Clark Kent, respectfully silent in his presence, because he’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, you would think I’d gone round the bend. And your opinion of my suggestion would be based on your experience of Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter.
Two of our readings from scripture today lead us to perceive our Lord Jesus in the same light in which a reporter for The Daily Planet might perceive Clark Kent. Jeremiah describes a wise and righteous king whom the Lord will raise up to rule over his people. The church has always understood this passage to be a foreshadowing of the coming of Christ. But the king that Jeremiah describes is not a conquering hero, not overflowing with machismo, not enthroned in royal splendor. Rather, this righteous king rules over his people with the gentle care of a shepherd. Talk about a mild-mannered profession! A shepherd-king is not likely to evoke a sense of awe and wonder.
The reading from Luke’s gospel is even less flattering. Jesus hangs on the cross, in abject weakness. The guards and the soldiers and the temple authorities are mocking his claim to kingship as he hangs there bleeding to death. Every indication is that they will indeed have the last laugh. This scene is poignant, and it may evoke pity. But taken by itself, it does not present us with a picture of the kind of king we would want to pay homage to. Experience shapes perception, and the experience of a mild-mannered shepherd king, and a young man dying in weakness on a cross, does not lead us to a perception of Jesus Christ as a king worthy of our adoration and worship. We are like the foreigner who finds baseball confusing and dull. We have not crossed the necessary threshold of knowledge and experience.
The epistle reading appointed for this last Sunday of the Christian year comes at the mystery of the kingship of Christ from an entirely different direction. Listen to the words of St Paul to the Colossians:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent.
This is no docile shepherd, no dying figure on a cross. This is the Lord of the universe, the be-all and end-all of everything that is. This is Ultimate Reality.
So why aren’t we shaking in our boots?
We remain unmoved because it seems so far away. If the portrait of Christ painted in the letter to the Colossians were the only one I had, my attachment and devotion to him would be about as profound as that which I feel toward the manufacturer of my iPhone. It is intricately designed, with a great deal of sophistication that is beyond my comprehension. But one of these days it will break or wear out, and be beyond repair. It will then be unceremoniously thrown away, and the person or persons who made it will neither mourn nor even know of the demise of their handiwork. If our perception of Christ is like our perception of a cell phone maker, it is no wonder that our minds and hearts and wills are left cold and unmoved by worship. We have not yet experienced an object of worship that is worthy of free-flowing praise and adoration. It is only when we combine the images of Jeremiah’s shepherd-king, and Luke’s dying savior, with Paul’s pre-eminent cosmic Lord of all creation, that we begin to get a clue. It is when we bring those visions into coherence and focus that we leap over that threshold of perception that moves us from boredom and confusion into wonder and awe.
And the clue that makes this movement possible is this: it is precisely through—not in spite of, but through—his suffering servanthood that the cosmic Christ demonstrates his worthiness of our praise and adoration and thanks. This is the mind-bending, heart-warming, action-inducing paradox of the gospel. This is the mystery which, if embraced, will make regular worshipers out of Christmas and Easter churchgoers, and devoted followers of Christ out of complacent pew-warmers. There is no illustration that can do justice to this paradoxical mystery of divine kingship revealed through suffering servanthood. But there are any number of telltale traces in our experience; it’s as if Christ our servant-king has left markers all over the place which, if we will observe them, will lead us to him. In the early 1980s, when Great Britain mounted a successful military campaign to oust Argentine forces from the Falkland islands, many were impressed that the Queen’s own blood was on the line, in the person of her son, Prince Andrew, who was the pilot of a Royal Navy helicopter. More recently, one of the Queen’s grandsons was for a brief while in harm’s way as a member of the British military in Afghanistan. The sight of royalty putting its own neck on the block is ennobling, and stirs the spirit. It is a marker that points us to Christ the king who was obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
Every Holy week, on Maundy Thursday, the Bishop of Rome, spiritual father to a billion Christians, humbles himself to wash the feet of twelve members of the congregation in St Peter’s Basilica. Of course, the pope is himself waited on hand and foot the rest of the year, but his actions on Maundy Thursday nevertheless are a marker that points us to Christ the King, in all things pre-eminent, in whom and through whom all things were created, but who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself, taking the form of a servant. When we follow these and other markers that God, in his mercy, has left in our path, we come to know Christ the King. We cross that vital threshold of knowledge and experience that elevate us from grudging observers of worship to full-throated participants.
In time, my father learned the game of baseball. At the meal following his funeral, we all wore Cubs hats specifically in his honor, because he had become a true fan of both the Cubs and the game of baseball. And if my Brazilian father can become a baseball fan, that, to me, is a sign of abundant hope that, even as we are here today in the very courts of the Most High God, the scales can be lifted from our eyes and we can catch such of glimpse of his glory that our hearts will burn within us and our voices will shout with praise to Christ, who is our tender shepherd, and our crucified savior, and our heavenly king. All hail the power of Jesus’ name, who alone is worthy to be crowned with many crowns. Alleluia and Amen.