November 23, 2008
Today is the Feast of Christ the King, which always falls on the last Sunday of our liturgical year. Next Sunday we begin a new year with the season of Advent. As we look back over the last year and forward into the next, we pause to celebrate Christ as our King, our God in human form, our Savior, our Way.
But what kind of king is this? All too often he has been portrayed as a powerful king seated on a throne in gold-plated cathedrals, a conquering monarch who demands obedience and does not tolerate competition or disloyalty. But this is not who Jesus himself claimed to be. It is not how he acted. It is not the Jesus of the gospel appointed for this day.
Remember when this king was born outdoors in a stable, into a poor family? Remember when he rode into Jerusalem among the crowds, seated not on a horse with banners flapping and trumpets blaring, but on a humble donkey, with the common people cheering and waving palm branches? Remember on the night before he was arrested, he tenderly washed his disciples feet, saying that he didn’t consider them his servants, but his friends, and that he was, in fact, their servant? Remember when his humiliating death on the cross was later called his “glorification?” What kind of glory, what kind of king is this?
He is the kind of king who is disguised as the least among us, the one whom everyone sees right through, as if he were invisible. This king is your waiter at the restaurant, the woman who cleans your hotel room, the child in foster care, the man sleeping under the bridge. He is the kind of king that says that his followers, like him, will feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and care for the prisoner.
It is easy enough to point to the kinds of things that the friends of this king ought to be doing. Jesus lists examples of servant ministry in the gospel today. What is not so easy is to have the heart of a servant. What is not so easy is to be moved towards humble and selfless service not because we think we should – which never seems to take us very far - but because it is natural for us, because we want to.
Some seem to be born with this. They learn it from an early age because their parents model it. For many others, it doesn’t come so naturally. We have to learn it. And we learn this not out of duty; rather, it comes to us along the way, as we mature spiritually, as we become more the person that our servant God created us to be.
Maturing spiritually isn’t really all that different from maturing emotionally, and a big part of this is developing a healthy, secure identity. A weak ego will always be fearful, defending its imagined rights and preferences, hoping to come out on top. A weak self doesn’t have room for others; it can’t afford to be generous; it is too busy protecting and building itself up. A healthy ego isn’t concerned about such things. It can afford to be humble, to serve others.
Sometimes we think that to develop a healthy ego, all we have to do is list our good qualities and accomplishments and then toast ourselves in the mirror, using Stuart Smalley’s Daily Affirmation “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”
Strengthening our sense of self as people of faith is really paradoxical, because it means that we lose the self. “Deny yourself,” Jesus said; “those who lose themselves for my sake will find themselves.” “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” “It is no longer I who live but Christ in me,” wrote St. Paul.
For us, security is found when we learn that it never was about us, about how good or bad we are. Security is found when we learn how to ask for guidance, try our best, admit our mistakes, and detach from the results of our efforts, leaving it all in the hands of God. Security is found when we are willing to empty ourselves and be a vehicle for whatever the Spirit might do through us. Security is found when we are not concerned about getting what we want, but rather hoping for an outcome that serves God’s purposes, for the benefit of all.
This is a secure Christian ego, an ego that is empty enough to be filled with God. This is when we have a strong sense of self, knowing that we are a vessel of the Spirit, able to serve others naturally, from the heart.
The way into this security, unless we were lucky enough to be born into it, is directly through our fear – because it is fear, learned through hard experience, that weakens our ego, that tells us that we must fight for what we want, that we are no good unless we can prove it through success and the esteem of others, that something terrible will happen if we don’t get our way, that others who are different from us are a threat to us, that there isn’t enough to go around, so instead of serving others, we’d better serve ourselves, because no one else will.
The spiritual path takes us through these fears. The path to glory is not upwards, but downwards, through our darkness. The way of the cross is the way of life. We are called to go downwards, right through the things we are afraid of, holding them up to the light of God, admitting our powerlessness over them, getting help so we don’t have to walk this path alone, coming eventually to the root of our fears, to the place of emptiness.
This is the Holy of Holies in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, where only the High Priest could go once a year, a fearsome place that was, astonishingly, an empty room. As we go through our fears into our own Holy of Holies, standing empty before God, we discover a fullness and a strength that is not our own, a sense of self that is no-self. We find that it never was about us; it is about God’s goodness and power.
I speak in metaphors, because I find it impossible to explain. All I know is that it works. When we face into our fear of being inadequate, vulnerable, different, or not in control of our own future, when we do this in the presence of a loving God and wise friends along the way, emptiness is no longer a threat. It is filled with the light of God. We can stand empty-handed before God, trusting that the invisible power of the Spirit will never disappoint us. And we are led into new life that is not of our own making.
A mark of that new life is servanthood. Because with the fearful and weak ego out of the way, we are free to do our best, to fail, to be unattached to the results of our efforts, to take ourselves lightly, because we know that it isn’t about us at all. It is about being a vehicle that God can use for the greater good of all. Without a self to build up or protect, there is nothing in the way of serving God’s world.
This is the glory that Jesus spoke of. This is the kingly power that he exercised. This is true freedom and peace, a peace that all the success and affirmation and security of the world can never give. It is the majesty and splendor of becoming nothing, so that God can be all. This is our natural state because it reflects the character of the One in whose image we are made, God himself.
Keep in mind that every day, the Creator of heaven and earth, the Almighty and Eternal Holy One, empties himself of heavenly glory and power in order to come down to us, to serve us in concrete and personal ways. Every day, we pray for patience, for insight, for healing, and the Creator of All makes himself small enough and loving enough to hear us, to be gentle with us, to nudge us forward into the light.
What humility! What self-denial! What an accessible king! God empties himself, coming to us every day as a servant, ready to help us in whatever way we need, just as Jesus washed his friends’ feet and dwelt among the lowly, like an invisible man.
This is God’s glory, and it is ours, too, as we learn to walk the way of the cross, as we move through our fears and lose the fragile self along the way. It is then that we find ourselves as God made us, with the heart of a servant; for it is God’s own heart that beats in our breast.