One of my favorite images in Christian iconography is that of a crucifix bearing the image of Christus Rex, that is Christ the King. It is a striking image. Whether the cross itself is plain or ornate, the figure of Christ is singular. He is dressed in priestly vestments, usually including an alb, cincture, stole and maniple covered by a chasuble. Upon his head, he bears a crown, not of thorns, but of gold. The gloriously clad figure, however, is nailed through his hands and feet into the hard wood of the cross. It is an incongruous image.
What did it mean for Christ to give himself over to the cross? The theology, as with the image described above, seems contradictory. If, indeed, Christ is the “King of Glory”, what could that have to do with the suffering of the Cross. Yet, the early followers of Christ came to see that Christ’s giving of himself and his suffering on the cross did not contradict the reign of God, but rather affirmed that reign in that it showed what the reign of God is really about, how the reign of God is expressed and how the reign of God comes among us. It is not through power and authority. It is not through compulsion. Rather it comes through love, suffering and self-sacrifice. This is what God is like. If we wish to see what God is like, look to the cross. If we wish to witness the very essence of deity, we need only look to the absolute self-giving love of Christ on the cross. It is why the early Church Fathers spoke of Christ “reigning from the tree”. It is why the writer of the Gospel of St. John can describe this death on the cross as “glory”, for in Christ’s death we see the unique and singular eternal glory of God, manifested in the self-giving love of Christ. As Christ is of the same substance as the Father and the Holy Spirit, we are witnesses to the self-giving love of the Triune God.
All to often we think of the cross only in terms of a “single event” in salvation history. Often we are told to see the cross as the supposed triumph of the world that had to somehow be set right, or be reversed, by the Resurrection, the next “single event”. The incongruous image of a king nailed to a cross is to remind us that this is the victory of God’s self-giving love. It is the victory of God’s power, of God’s reign. More than that, it is the manner in which God reigns.
Yet, we need to think about this. The cross is a place of suffering. The cross is a place of unanswered questions. “Why did God allow this to happen?” “Why should a good person suffer?” “Is this really how God would show himself?” They are the very same questions that many of us carry with us in our lives today…
If, however, we believe the nature of God to be revealed in the death of Christ, we might have an answer. The answer is that in the suffering of the world, God himself suffers. Now, theologians like to speak of the “impassible” nature of God. That is, that the absolute perfection of God can never be reduced, or injured, or made less. The corollary to this is that God is not thwarted or frustrated in his purposes. So, in what way can God suffer? He does not suffer from the frustration of unanswered questions or thwarted plans, but he shares and takes upon himself the suffering of those whom he loves, those with whom he is intimate. He suffers in his self-giving love that is, at one and the same time, sacrificial and victorious. God’s sovereignty is rooted in a self-giving, pain-bearing, love. That was the case when Christ hung upon the cross, and that is the case today, for God does not measure his love in single events set in a distant past.
In the Book of Revelation the writer records, “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne…” Here again is the place of sovereignty and of suffering. Here again, in eternity, is sacrificial self-giving. There is a pattern here. Our suffering is known by the one who has suffered, yet rules. This is the very heart of God.
Many want a faith that provides simple and straight forward answers. “Why are my prayers not answered?” “Why am I suffering this or that in my life?” “Why does God seem silent?” I have many of the same questions, but I’ve come to believe that we already have an answer. Note that I did not say “answers”, but “an answer”. Ultimately, the answer to all our prayers is singular – it is a King nailed to a cross; it is a slain Lamb upon a throne. It is a God who loves us and understands our suffering and takes it to himself. It is a God who is intimate with us in our love and self-sacrifice, because love and self-sacrifice are at the core of his very nature; it is the way in which we share his heart.
In recent weeks, there has been much discussion of church leadership, good and bad. In reflecting upon it, I wonder if we ask the wrong questions of those who seek leadership. We are prone to want those who are “successful” with a proven track record. I’m beginning to wonder if we need to ask them about suffering and failure. The pattern for leadership in the church is closely linked to the image of Christus Rex. If you wish to lead, suffering and self-sacrificing love will be the order of the day. If you wish to rule, you must be the servant of all. If you wish to be a shepherd you must lay down your life for the sheep. It is not about the charismatic or celebrity leader. It is about those who have known suffering and failure and in that suffering and failure have found the heart of God.
All of this is the paradox of faith. It is living through dying. It is finding light in the darkness. It is finding an answer in the questions.
It is a King who reigns from a Cross.