When I was young, one of my favorite books was Anna and the King of Siam. I read this tale of the young Englishwoman who taught in the exotic Far East country of Siam, now known as Thailand, over and over and over again.
One of the things that intrigued me the most about this true story was the character of King Chulalongkorn. He was a man of great power, with a vast number of servants ready to do his bidding. Any order that he gave was immediately carried out without question.
He was also a man of great wealth. The walls of his palace were encrusted with jewels; the roofs covered in layers of hammered gold. He wore nothing but the finest silks, woven especially for him.
The king was considered so far superior to other humans that the law dictated that no one’s head could be higher than his. Those who were taller than the king were required to bow their heads in his presence. If the king was on the first floor of the palace, upper floors were cleared so that no one would be above him.
When I grew up, my childhood enchantment with Anna and the King was probably part of the reason I eagerly said yes when the Peace Corps offered me a position in Thailand.
Much had changed in the 150 years or so that separated Anna’s arrival and my own in this Asian land.
Among those changes was the role of the king. He no longer reigned with absolute power, but instead ruled over a constitutional monarchy.
But though his political power was lessened, King Bhumipol, who died last month after serving 70 years on the throne, still carried a mystique and majesty accorded to no elected leader.
His vast wealth was still intact. Retinues of servants still catered to his every wish.
Heads still bowed when he entered a room. Everywhere he went he was surrounded by adoring crowds.
In short, the king of Thailand still embodied everything we stereotypically imagine a king should be.
The role and nature of kings has been on my mind this week because this last Sunday of the church year is traditionally called the Sunday of Christ the King. But the description we hear of kingship today is vastly different from our cultural expectations of royalty.
One of the central themes of Christian theology is the idea of reversal. We find it everywhere in the gospel.
It starts even before Jesus is born. When Mary, a poor, unmarried teenager, learns she is pregnant with the messiah, she sings of God who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly; who fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty.
Time and again, Jesus’ teachings and actions reverse the expectations of his culture and our own. In God’s kingdom, he says, it is the meek, the poor, the persecuted, the grieving who are blessed.
Prostitutes, tax collectors, and outcasts are closer to the kingdom of God than the religious establishment.
To live, one must first die, Jesus teaches. To be great, one must serve.
And today, in the ultimate reversal, we hear not of a king of power and might, of wealth and glory, but of a broken man undergoing torture and humiliation.
We hear not of a king who rules from an ornate throne in an opulent palace, but of one who reigns from a splintered cross set in a garbage heap.
Instead of being robed in fine silk, this king is stripped, then given a battered loincloth to wear.
Instead of wearing a jeweled crown of gold, this king wears a crown of thorns, shoved so violently into his brow that blood streams down his face.
Instead of eating rich foods and the finest drinks, this king is offered sour wine.
Instead of being surrounded by retinues of servants, this king is surrounded by criminals, also condemned to die.
Instead of being greeted with adulation by the public, this king is greeted with taunts and jeers.
“If you are King of the Jews, save yourself!” the soldiers taunt. Even one of the criminals also condemned to death joins in the ridicule.
The only person in this sad scene who recognizes Jesus’ true kingship is the other criminal, also hanging on the cross, hours away from death.
“We are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong,” he says. And then he turns his head to Jesus. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he asks.
And Jesus, who began his earthly ministry by proclaiming good news to the poor and release to the captives, ends it by extending an assurance of blessing to one of society’s wretched outcasts.
“Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise,” he tells the man.
Even hanging in agony on the cross, Jesus offers abundant forgiveness and a gracious salvation.
When we talk about Christ the King, it is easy to slip into triumphalism, glorifying Jesus as the king who reigns in glory, while forgetting the reality of the cross.
“Crown him with many crowns,” we sing on this day, often forgetting that the first crown was one of thorns. “Let angels prostrate fall” before him we sing, often forgetting that in life he was looked down on by common criminals.
I remember reading a letter to the editor that looked forward to the time when Jesus comes to earth again “on a white horse, his eyes like flames of fire, followed by the armies of Heaven.
“This Jesus,” the letter writer said, “is an avenging, glorious, wonderful king.”
It is so much easier to prefer the conqueror to the crucified.
And certainly there is comfort in knowing that Jesus triumphs over the agony and death he faced on earth; comfort in knowing that we share in that victory – that if a thief can be included in Christ’s kingdom, then so can we.
But we should not be so quick to forget the suffering servant, the king crowned with thorns, blood running down his face, left hanging on the cross to die.
Because the kingdom over which Jesus rules today is still the kingdom of reversals, a place where the poor, the sick, the outcast have the places of honor.
Next week is the first Sunday of Advent – a season of reversals. We begin the Church year, yet we read scripture about the end of the world.
We know that Jesus has already come, but we still wait and anticipate the coming of the Messiah’s reign of peace and liberation and joy.
In Advent the darkness is coming to the light and old adversaries are becoming friends. And the king who we await with longing comes to us in a way that the world could not have anticipated – as an innocent and dependent infant, born in a cow’s barn, soon forced to flee as a refugee.
The kingdom this child will usher in will not be won by armies and power and might, but by peace and love and forgiveness, by solidarity with all who suffer and are oppressed and afflicted, by standing up for the most vulnerable in our society.
It is precisely in times such as these, times of fear and hardship and danger around the world, that we most need this great biblical message of reversal.
The Church’s message for us today on the feast of Christ the King is encapsulated in St. Francis of Assisi’s great prayer of peace, a prayer of contradictions and reversals.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.