[typos now corrected – mea culpa!]
Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So observed Lord Acton in 1887. While pithy truisms like this are often too neat to be adequate to reality, nevertheless, Lord Acton has pinpointed a genuine and enduring phenomenon in any human society, namely: the greater the power, the greater the temptation and the capacity to abuse it.
Abuse of power has at least one consistent outcome. It oppresses and makes prisoners of people. Global examples, both now and throughout history, come easily to mind. Yet more insidious is the mundane, local abuse of power. There is the abuse of power by the clever over the not so clever, demeaning and patronising them. There is the tyranny of the strong over the weak, learned all too often from childhood. And there is the tyranny of the favoured over the unfavoured, secure as the favoured are that those who favour them will bolster them. There is even the tyranny of the professional victim, whose constant cry of “foul” becomes a weapon to make genuine victims of those whose only crime is perhaps to have stood up to them. In all these and other examples, those who suffer the abuse of power become imprisoned, constrained and put down by what is essentially the law of the jungle. Sadly, we too often see this manifested in religion, in the Church, in parishes and religious communities. This should not really surprise us as the Church is made up of fallen men and women: after all, only our Lord and his Blessed Mother were sinless.
Ultimately all abuse of power, all sin in fact, stems from putting self and self-interest first, and others, including God, last. So it behoves religious people especially to ask of themselves: do I really serve God and his Church first, or do I serve self first?
Christ, our King, is the one who manifests and embodies power at its best and most noble, divine power exercised by human hands in the service of God’s will and for the good of all. It is power characterised by those two seeming opposites: justice and mercy. True power, the power that comes untainted from God, is a power that does not imprison but liberates. Christ, to whom all divine power over humanity has been given, used that power to triumph over sin and death, that human tendency to self-destruction, by submitting to humanity’s abuse of power and free will, by sacrificing himself to it. It is this sacrifice which is symbolised by the Cross. By this sacrifice of the Cross, this seeming defeat, Christ revealed his true divine power, his victory, crowned by the resurrection, liberating humanity from the prison of sinful self-obsession. The Cross is his throne.
The key to understanding this paradox lies in what we might call Christ’s motto as King: I have come to serve, not to be served. He took the form of a slave, one without power, that we might all be delivered from the imprisonment we impose on others, and on ourselves. Indeed the more we oppress others the greater the possibility that we will make prisoners of ourselves for eternity, in a confinement far more dreadful than any which earth can produce.
The feast of Christ the King marks the end of the liturgical year and acts an an entrée into Advent, when we focus more particularly on Christ’s second coming as King in judgement. Though that day is veiled in mystery we do have an insight into its character from the mouth of the King himself, as we heard in today’s gospel passage (Matt 25: 31-46). The criterion of judgement he reveals lies in what we put first in our actions: others or ourselves. In other words the criterion is the Cross, the great act of self-forgetfulness and other-centredness. The concrete examples he gives show us how we can use our freedom and its power, either to help others or to spurn them, to uplift others or to oppress them. Truly this gospel today should frighten us: for what we do to others, or help to be done to others, is done to Christ. Do we raise him up or strike him down, in others? On Judgement Day will we be found to have crowned our King with the laurels of charity, or with the thorns of our self-centredness?
Let us pray at this Mass for the grace so to use our freedom and the power that comes with it as tools with which God might build up his kingdom here and now, and that we might thus be a part of it. For if we are building our own kingdoms, which only imprison others and ourselves, they will fall, and great will be the fall of them. But if we are found to have been building up his Kingdom, then Scripture makes us this promise: we shall reign with Him.