November 21, 2010


The King and His Kingdom: an excerpt from You Crown the Year with Your Goodness: Sermons Throughout the Liturgical Year (Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ignatius Insight)

When asked, "What have you done?" Jesus replies, "My kingship is not of this world. " He leaves much unsaid. He does not say that he has done nothing, nothing in this world. For he came into this world for the express purpose of doing something, something in it. His deeds are performed in this world. And they are intended for this world. The world is to see and apprehend the testimony he gives in it. We need to realize the whole tension that lies between, on the one hand, the words "not of this world" and, on the other hand, the expression "for this I was born, and for this I have come into the world" . He is not someone who happens to find himself in the world and, oppressed by its narrow confines, strives to extricate himself from it. He is not someone who flees the world. He is not a Buddhist. For him, the world is not the starting point of his yearning transcendence toward some higher life; on the contrary: "For this I have come into the world." The world is the destination of a movement, a journey. He comes from outside and from above in order to show the world something, in order to proclaim something of which it is unaware, something that is not simply a confirmation of its longing for escape. He came because he had something to do on this earth, something the Jews would gladly have exploited for political ends, something Pilate is at pains to understand and evaluate in political terms, but something that, as Jesus says, "is not of this world".

He illustrates this by referring to the fact that his servants did not fight to prevent his being arrested by the Jews. In fact his arrest did include a pusillanimous scene of political theology, namely, Peter's sword stroke, which ridiculously managed only to shear off an ear and was immediately disavowed by Jesus. For this political theology on Peter's part put him willy-nilly in solidarity with the pseudoreligious views of those Jews who wanted no other Messiah but a political one.

No. "My kingship is not of this world." And yet, Jesus has come to this world. He came to his Father's kingdom, the kingdom of God, whose King he is. He says this just once, here, as he appears before the court and faces death. His enthronement as King will be complete on the Cross, when the famous inscription is placed over his head in the three languages of the world of that time. So that everyone will understand. And now the assertion is categorical: "King of the Jews", not—as the Jews would have liked—"he called himself the King of the Jews". No. Truly King of the Jews. "For this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth." Thus, royally, he bears witness.

How strangely he speaks. What has this being a king to do with bearing witness to the truth? The two are identical. And they coincide with the assertion that "my kingship is not of this world". Why? Because the truth is that "God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son", finally and decisively, on the Cross, when he took the world's guilt upon himself and, as the Lamb, the scapegoat, bore it away. It is in carrying this guilt that he bears witness to the truth. The truth of divine love. It is the only credible testimony to this love. The world is an ocean of suffering and injustice—how can God say that he loves it?! The whole idea is laughable! But on the Cross there is no laughing; God shows that he and his love are serious: he hands over his Son. And the Son shows that he and his testimony are serious: he cries out as he undergoes that forsakenness by God that belongs to sinners. This is the most extreme, most high-profile solution imaginable, and God has carried it through. That is why, on the Cross, the world that is opposed to God and mocks God is vanquished. "Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." And so he says, "Yes, I am a King." Not a king within the vanquished world but a King who sits on a throne exalted high above it. Exalted by the Cross. And naturally the vanquished world belongs to this kingdom, although the kingdom is not of this world.

Jesus does not permit the world he has conquered for God on the Cross to continue to exist as it was. He implants God's rule in it. In men's hearts. Divine love has become "at home" on the earth through him. In the hearts of the poor, of children, of the merciful, the gentle, the persecuted, in pure hearts. In canonized saints and many other saints. They do exist. Together they constitute a kingdom, and now and then we actually see or feel some small piece of this kingdom. Everyone knows that they are not interested in world conquest; they cannot even organize themselves to form a significant power in the world's terms. They have no plan to change the world so that, in subsequent generations, the greatest possible number of people may experience the greatest possible happiness. Their plan concerns the present: now, today, here, in the immediate surroundings, something of the love of God is to become reality. Some suffering is to be soothed, something of the bliss of self-giving is to be experienced. For God's love is selfless, and it can only take effect in the world when the world has accepted something of the spirit of selflessness, of giving for no reward.

One might think that this message from God comes from so far away and from such a height that man is incapable of grasping it. Christianity seems to be a teaching that is not for this world. Not realistic enough. But Jesus ends with these words: "For this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." Everyone. Not only the person who has studied theology, not even the person who has learned his catechism or has merely listened to a sermon. Everyone. This King has a way of making himself understood to everyone. Perhaps it is that, on the basis of the Cross, every human suffering has acquired a new hue, a special quality that comes from the Cross and lends wings to his voice. It is true, however, that only those who are of the truth will hear it. Anyone who, somehow or other, perhaps unconsciously, bears within him something of the mystery of divine love knows that ultimately only loving can give a meaning to existence. Everyone can hear this voice. Christians have no monopoly here; they only have a special task, namely, to carry out into the world, quite explicitly and deliberately, the testimony they have heard and experienced in their own lives. They need not be surprised to find, in many places in this world, already existing traces of the truth they are openly proclaiming. Often these traces are so clear that they put Christians to shame. For the world in its totality already belongs to the kingdom of God, which is not part of this world. The passing world in which we live is part of that vaster, abiding kingdom in which God lives, who is all in all.

....and while the film is required to be too discursive for its own good and the whole horcrux shtick is a MacGuffin too far, it was still worthwhile viewing. In some sense the Harry we get here is a kind of inverted Christ. The central theme of the film might be said to be Harry having to deal with the selfless love and sacrifice that others make for him. Or, as Ron points out, not just for him but for everyone they love. Because if Harry loses then everyone loses.

In this vein, there have been periodic tussles over whether the series is Christian or pagan or whatever. And in this film there's a scene that is somewhat jarring at first but on further thought makes perfect sense. Harry and Hermione travel to the village where Harry's parents were murdered by Voldemort. It's Christmas Eve, which they only realize when they hear a hymn emanating from the local church. Looking out over the attached graveyard, Harry asks Hermione if his parents would be there. She replies that she thinks they would be. So the two search for the graves.

Obviously there's something odd about the idea that a witch and a wizard would repose in consecrated ground. But given that the two died that Harry, the hope of the world, might live and evil be defeated it hardly seems odd at all.

N.B. Hadn't been to a movie theater in awful long time and it was shocking how inferior the quality of the film onscreen is to watching tv in HD. But one cool thing: the folks from VINS were there with a Great Horned Owl.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 21, 2010 6:19 AM
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