November 24th, 2019
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I don’t know the reason why, but it seems that for every boy the tools of war are inherently cool. My parents wouldn’t let me have toy guns growing up, so I fashioned them out of sticks. But I watched Star Wars and Ladyhawke at an impressionable age, and so my favorite weapons were medieval. I wanted to play knights rather than cowboys, goblins and necromancers rather than bandits and varmints, and anyway, sticks make better swords than guns. When I got my allowance, the first things I bought were a G.I. Joe and, when I could finally go about without my parents watching my every move, a toy pistol. I also bought a book somehow, I can’t remember where, perhaps at a Waldenbooks, called Arms and Armor. It’s a beautiful book, made entirely of photographs of the history of arms from the Roman era to the advent of firearms, with brief explanations of them. I could tell you the difference between a gauntlet and a greave, jousting armor and battle armor. And then, when I first came to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I went over the Arms and Armor section, and there in front of me I saw all the weapons and tools of war I had grown up memorizing and studying—the actual things, not just the photographs. It was breathtaking. So of course, when the Museum put on its special exhibit The Last Knight, I went. I went to see the armor, in all its glory.
All the cool armor is there, all of it from the last gasp of the middle ages, just before what scholars call the Early Modern Era, or what laypeople call the Reformation. When you think of a knight in shining armor, you think of Maximillian I and his shining steel plate. And the thrust, if you pardon the pun, of the exhibit is a typical post-modern take on the artifacts: armor as propaganda. Maximillian I was the founder of the Habsburg line. His armor was given out as rewards, gifts, payments—it had a fluted style, which both made it fancy and stronger, unlike some of the other armors in the world. He employed the best craftsmen and used the best materials. He truly and epically nerded out on battle strategy, tournament strategy, and marrying your kids into other powerful geopolitical positions strategy. He even briefly considered becoming pope during one of the upheavals of the era. The Hapsburgs, or the Holy Roman Emperors, as some people might call them, became some of the most powerful kings of the 16th and 17th centuries. And he never stopped promoting himself. One person at the exhibit said it was like walking through someone’s Instagram account. But it failed to ask the question—why do little boys that love armor grow up and continue to love the tools of war? Why do grown men love guns? Why did the propaganda work? Why does it still work today? Why do little boys like violence? Why do we first think of power as violence?
When Jesus was crucified, the Romans hoped that the horror of a slow death by suffocation and exposure would keep the rest of the population in line. I suppose that by crucifying two criminals along with him, they hoped that the population would stop committing crimes. For much of human history, the city gates were decorated with these sights: decapitated heads, limbs, corpses. As James Cone, the late theologian pointed out, the crucifixion was a lynching. It was an act intended to terrorize and subjugate the population. Violence, and its power, are never more present than in the deliberate acts of terror. Violence, terror, war, horror—our world considers these to be power.
We are still in their thrall—all the highest grossing movies seem to focus on a single theme: violence will solve your problems. We don’t have enough money to spend our schools, universal health care is too expensive, but we can sink trillions of dollars into the military, on projects the military doesn’t want. We spend months training our police in lethal force, but just days in deescalation. We don’t think much on it, but in the past three years we’ve had world leaders threaten each other with nuclear weapons, which unleash power the Romans or Maximillian couldn’t even begin to believe, for what seemed to be reasons of propaganda and self-promotion, of securing power in their own countries rather than defense from a foreign threat.
In human life, violence, or the constraint of it, is the order of the day. And it is a striking reading for us to see that Jesus, whom we call the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Messiah, the Anointed of God, to see him strung up like a common criminal, mocked and scorned, dying like everyone else, suffering violence, but responding in kind. A translation of Scripture renders the Lord of Hosts and the God of the Angel Armies, and Jesus had them at his disposal. But he didn’t call out to them, or command them. You’ll remember that was one of Satan’s temptations. Instead, suffered death and took his stand with criminals.
I read that Maximillian left instructions for his burial. He wanted his teeth pulled out of his corpse, his bodily mutilated, his grave covered in ashes and dust. I believe he wrote this will at the height of his powers. He had a violent fall from a horse, and spent the last part of his life in constant pain and traveled everywhere in a coffin. Perhaps, after a lifetime of war and alliance-making, of wedding off children to gain territory and influence, he found himself trapped by the emptiness of his pursuit of power and riches. He spent his whole life trying to exemplify the chivalric ideal of a Christian prince, and forgot that the prince of God first gave up every pomp and died the death of an outcast. Or, perhaps it was one more attempt at propaganda, a public display of penitence, of having the cake of worldly fame and wealth and eating the cake of heaven, too.
But you cannot take on Christ like an emperor takes on an ermine mantle. Christ is not an adornment. Christian is not a modifier of something else, whether you’re an emperor, a rock musician, a Senator, or a football player. Faith will not make you a better rapper, or whatever it is you wish to be. If we follow Christ, we will see that we will find something else instead. A Christian is something you become when you, too, receive a cross and find yourself among the criminals, just as Christ did. Today we celebrate Christ the King—the one who reigns over all things, the one coming at the end of time, the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through whom God reconciles all things. In Christ, God’s power was made perfect through weakness, and even death dies to Christ. Maximillian tried to buy his way out of veil of history, and in some sense succeeded. But in death Christ offers us something else: life itself, poured out and given for us. As the theologian John Behr says, “…now that Christ is with God, and all authority on heaven and on earth has been given to him, there is no place or time where he cannot be or cannot work; he is present, even now, to those who turn to him, as the victim of their owns sins, and as such, the one who is able to forgive them and bring them into the life of God.” We do not worship a memory, but the living God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
We hear this story of the crucifixion every year. But when we read this story, where do we find ourselves? Do we see ourselves in the crowd, jeering at the disappointing Messiah, the failed preacher? Or do we see ourselves like the criminal did, as victims of our own sins: “And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds…Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” I think forces us to see ourselves in the place of that criminal. We have a lot of ways of trying steer out of that—our social station, like Maximillian’s, might lead us to shun the shame of repentance and the pathetic plea of that dying man, for instance, or our stubborn insistence in our own righteousness. But there are two righteous people in in this story, Jesus, the innocent victim, and the repentant criminal made righteous by the grace of Christ. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
We don’t call Christ a King because of his glorious armor, his valiance in battle, or even his cosmic power. We call him King and Lord because he takes the side of the criminal, humbles himself and conforms himself to our lowliness, and fills all chasms of division. We call him King and Lord because of his gracious forgiveness, his boundless mercy, the grace that calls life into being. All that we know about kingship, all that we know about the rule of God and God’s reign, we find in the cross.
There is no cross at the gates of this city. So instead we turn to this table, where broken body of Christ comes to us again, in common bread and in wine and in the Word that says that Christ is for you. At this table the brokenness of our lives, the estrangement of one life from another, Christ reconciles into one bread, one story. And through his cross and resurrection he takes our lives, our stories, and weaves them into the song of God. We have no need of self-aggrandizement, or the relentless propaganda of our selves to the word. God knows us, and God invites us to paradise. All our lives can be transformed simply by saying, as one criminal to another: Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.