The festival of Christ the King calls to mind the question posed at Epiphany, when the infant Jesus receives the homage of those who had travelled from a distant country. What king is this, whose kingship is asserted over you and me, and what kind of kingdom? Before whom, and why, shall I kneel?
We are people suspicious of extraordinary power, and with reason. An icon for our times was the lone student in front of the tanks in Tienanmen Square. People suspicious of power are bound to be people suspicious of God.
Arguably Jesus only taught on one theme – the nature of the kingdom, the kingship, and the power of heaven. From the sermon on the mount to the healing of the sick, from the wedding feast to the woman caught in adultery, from playing with children to dying on the cross, nothing else seemed as important to him. It was not the kingship that people expected – or perhaps wanted. The student in front of the tanks wants a power which will overcome the tanks; instead Christ kneels to wash his feet. (Except this is not ‘instead’: this is the power says the Christ, and it will overcome the tanks.)
So we kneel because he knelt first, to wash our feet. To show us respect. To say we are worth it. Including the one who will reject him. That is the human level of the interaction.And if we kneel before the man, we may or may not see something more. We may see who the man is. ‘Autumn Storms’ quoted the rejoinder of God to the righteous Job, who questioned God’s morality. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Are you my equal? Job answers, see I am of small account, what shall I answer you? But Jesus answers, before Abraham was, I am (Job 38: 4, 40: 4 and John 8: 58).
Henri Nouwen sees a different aspect of God in a famous picture of someone kneeling before a figure of authority - Rembrandt’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’. The younger son who has returned kneels, ragged, in front of his aged father clad in a broad red cloak. Other figures look on. In the final part of his book of the same title, Nouwen sees motherly as well as fatherly elements in this painting of the kingdom of heaven, and writes (pp 100-102):
As I now look again at Rembrandt’s old man bending over his returning son and touching his shoulders with his hands, I begin to see not only a father who ‘clasps his son in his arms’, but also a mother who caresses her child, surrounds him with the warmth of her body and holds him against the womb from which he sprang. Thus the ‘return of the prodigal son’ becomes the return to God’s womb, the return to the very origins of being …
Now I understand better also the enormous stillness of this portrait of God. There is no sentimentality here, no romanticism, no simplistic tale with a happy ending. What I see here is God as mother, receiving back into her womb the one whom she made in her own image. The near-blind eyes, the hands, the cloak, the bent-over body, they all call forth the divine maternal love, marked by grief, desire, hope and endless waiting.
The mystery, indeed, is that God in her infinite compassion has linked herself for eternity with the life of her children. She has freely chosen to become dependent on her creatures, whom she has gifted with freedom. This choice causes her grief when they leave; this choice brings her gladness when they return. But her joy will not be complete until all who have received life from her have returned home and gather round the table prepared for them.