Faith Matters

Martin Henry: God wishes to share the truth of Jesus with us for ever

Jesus, in his life and death, turns worldly ideas about power on their head, says Fr Martin Henry

Caravaggio's Ecce Homo, from 1605, depicts the scene from John 19 in which Pontius Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd with the words 'Behold the man', or 'Ecce homo'. Jesus turns worldly ideas of power on their head, says Martin Henry
Martin Henry

THE Solemnity of Christ the King is celebrated on the final Sunday in the liturgical calendar - November 25 this year - giving it a kind of definitive, 'last word' significance.

Yet it is often maintained nowadays that notions of kingship don't really mean much to anyone any more.

Whatever monarchs are left, in the western world at least, play a largely ceremonial role in the lives of their various nations, whereas in the days of Jesus and his first followers, kings were still politically and militarily powerful and significant figures.

That is, no doubt, true. But no matter how much things have changed since the time of Jesus, the world is still full of powerful political and military leaders, whose behaviour has enormous influence on the lives of other people.

These leaders may not call themselves 'kings' any more, but the enormous power they wield is tangible enough.

And it's in the context of this kind of power - the power that can literally decide between life and death - that what is meant by the kingship of Christ has to be understood.

Today it is frequently argued that religion should be kept out of secular affairs, especially politics, and should be confined entirely to the individual's relationship with God.

But in the trial of Jesus, we see the central figure of our religion right in the middle of politics, being questioned by a powerful political figure, in the person of Pilate, the Roman governor of Judaea, and being questioned about matters of such practical, down-to-earth, political importance that they eventually lead to his death.

Pilate, like all rulers, was interested in power and in the status and security he thought it gave him, and that's why he couldn't but be interested in someone like Jesus who seemed to exercise a great fascination over large numbers of people.

Pilate, at the end of Jesus' life, just like King Herod at the start of it, was worried about Jesus.

People like Jesus, who attract numerous followers, even if they've no interest themselves in exercising political power, are inevitably a political force to be reckoned with in the eyes of those who do hold political power and don't wish to lose it.

Pilate, like all people seriously interested in power, could, in other words, detect a threat to his power almost instinctively, and that's why he took Jesus seriously.

But what Pilate doesn't seem to have understood quite so instinctively was the difference that Jesus tried to get him to see and appreciate between the kind of power that he, Pilate himself, exercised, and the kind of power that Jesus was interested in.

Jesus talked about the power of truth, which, unlike other forms of power, does not need to be exercised: it just has to be recognised, acknowledged and respected, because it is the very reality of God.

It can be either 'listened to', as Jesus, according to the Evangelist John, intimates in his conversation with Pilate, or it can be ignored.

And listening to God's truth is primarily not about trying to perceive or grasp some very difficult and obscure mystery beyond this world.

Jesus' crown wasn't a crown of jewels but a crown of thorns. He didn't take his seat on a throne of gold or sapphire, but was finally nailed to a cross

It's about how we live in the obscurity of this world, where the demands of truth will always make themselves heard and felt, even if we don't always see clearly what the ultimate source or the ultimate goal or end of truth is.

But there are countless occasions in human life when we are faced with choices between doing what we know is right and true, and betraying that awareness.

That's why Jesus doesn't speak about escaping from the demands of this world or invite his followers to escape from this world into another one.

Rather, he speaks about being born and coming into the world precisely for the purpose of bearing witness to the truth in the here and now, in this world.

The power he represented, the power of truth, the power and reality of God - that power made him a king, but a king of a different kind from the kings and rulers of this world.

His crown wasn't a crown of jewels but a crown of thorns. He didn't take his seat on a throne of gold or sapphire, but was finally nailed to a cross.

The Cross was his throne, the price he paid for being the truth in a world of corruption and lies.

Jesus' kingship represents, in other words, the reversal of the normal values we tend to find in this world.

In these final days of the Church's year, we are reminded that the ultimate things, the last things, the things that really matter here on earth, the things that will finally endure, the things that are ultimately real and true, are not political or military or economic power or success for their own sake, but God, who revealed truth to the world in Jesus Christ and wishes to share that truth with us for ever.

This is a truth that is different from any purely human, self-assertive power; it is a truth that human power can certainly try to destroy and eliminate and suppress, but it will never succeed, because the power and reality of truth, like Jesus, will always rise triumphant from the dead.

  • Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor

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