Here are some words I shared with our friends at Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley today.
When we read “Christ,” we usually understand the word to be a name. That is not a misunderstanding. As a title, in its literal usage, “Christ” means “the anointed one” and implies his consecration as a tribal king. But does “Jesus Christ” really mean “Jesus the King”?
Now, we are not living in an age of kings; almost all of the few remaining monarchies are constitutional democracies, ruled and governed by public servants whom the sovereign citizens elect to legislative and executive offices. At some point in the history of Israel, high priests were also anointed, but we are not living in an age of priests; only Iran and the Vatican are ruled by religious authorities.
This evolution of human societies from kingly or priestly rule began with the resurrection of Jesus himself. The New Testament, in many passages, seems to be using “Christ” as if it were the last name of Jesus, and not a Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, Mashiach, the title of Israel’s anointed king. The change of meaning of the title Christ-Messiah took place on Calvary. “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”, said one of the men crucified with Jesus; some guilty bystanders said, “Come down from the cross, if you are the Messiah.”
Jesus did not come down from the cross. Better yet, he rose from the tomb. Note that he bettered their request, answering it with a fulfillment the askers could not imagine. In a passage in John, we read that Jesus went and hid himself, knowing that the crowd following him wanted to make him a king. The crowd could not do it then, nor can we do it now, because Jesus, as his Abba willed, wants to be better than a king for us.
If we read the Bible as a whole, we can see that what is called “the fulfillment of prophecy” is the betterment of prophecy. On the one hand, we see the unity of the Testaments; on the other, we see that what is promised is never enough. God wants us to have more and better than what is promised, or what we understand to have been promised. God wants us not only to believe and to hope, but to hope against hope and to be ready for the astonishing fulfillment that God means to give us.
We do not have a king to reign and rule over us and to lead us in battle. Of course, a monarch today, a king or queen like Elizabeth Windsor is probably better than any of her predecessors who did so rule and lead. We Americans, like the Italians and the citizens of other republics, feel we are ultimately better off without a king or queen. But we are still dealing with human power and the internal and external conflicts this power entails. Jesus bests all the monarchies and republics by ruling from the throne of his cross, and by leading us forth from death to life in the resurrection.
By the way, today’s gospel reading ends with a prophecy on the lips of Jesus: he says to one of those crucified with him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus had to say it this way, to make himself understood, but he meant to best his own prophecy, by bestowing on the man a crown identical to his own, that is, the crown of sharing in the divine nature. Not just Paradise, but Godhood; not just resurrection, but divinization.
Yes, not even just rising from the dead is enough for God, or for us. If it were enough, we should have to call the serpent in the garden of Eden a prophet, when it said, “Eat that fruit, and you will become like God!” No, “like God” is not what God ultimately means. When Jesus told his disciples, at the last supper, to take and eat and drink, he gave them not just edible things but the whole reality of his own being: body, blood, soul, and divinity. The promise of the eucharistic signs is bested by the reality they signify and convey. Let us eat and drink them now, ready to be astonished at what they will do in us.