Pope Benedict XVI brought new Catholic churchmen, including New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, into the elite club of cardinals who will elect his successor in a ceremony that took into account evidence the 84-year-old is slowing down. In all, 22 churchmen got their red hats Saturday, including the archbishops of Prague, Toronto, Florence, Utrecht and Hong Kong as well as the heads of several Vatican offices.
The papal ceremony of bringing cardinals reminds me of the movie, "King Arthur," that came out on the big screens over ten years ago.
The movie places Arthur's story around that time -- between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Dark Ages -- a chaotic era where clans and rogue knights scrambled to grab land and power in the absence of a central government.
Into the fray comes a Roman officer named Arthur Castus, who commanded an outpost defending Hadrian's Wall in northern Britain. With the fall of the empire, Arthur and his band of warriors form the "Knights of the Round Table" to restore order and justice to the land.
Gone are the mystical trappings that usually surround the legend, replaced with the stark reality of life in the early part of the first millennium. Even the other characters within the legend get a new profile. Merlin is here but without the mysterious magic, and Guinevere is no damsel in distress but a warrior princess wielding a bow and arrows.
But while truth and legend diverge, what remains the same, both in the movies and in real life, is our fascination with royalty and the idea that one man, one king, can rule justly and powerfully. Seems that whether it's the fifth century or the first or the 21st, people are looking for a hero to save the day and lead the way. But somehow the fantasy is always greater than the reality.
But human memories are short. Fast-forward to the first century, where John's account of the feeding of the 5,000 takes place. Messianic expectation was running high as the people looked for a hero to unite them and throw off the yoke of Roman oppression. Into this climate of chaos and hope comes Jesus, who does and says things that lead the people to believe that he is the one who will come riding to their rescue. There were lots of pretenders to the throne running around first-century Israel, gathering people in the desert in the manner of Moses, promising liberation from the Roman slave-masters. The people tended to move from one to the other, until their promises dried up like so much desert sand. Jesus seemed spot on, to be the real deal -- one who would fill their bellies as well as their national dreams.
John tells us that the people's response to this massive feeding was to try and make him king "by force" (6:15). But Jesus refuses the crown and slips off by himself into the wilderness. If anyone deserved it and could deliver the goods it was he. But while heroic warrior-kings make for good stories and blockbuster movies, the kind of kingdom Jesus was bringing in would redefine once and for all what true royal power was about.
Bottom line: Jesus believed that power was only truly useful if it was given away. The papal ceremony of giving the red hats to the elite club of cardinals displays the great legacy of Jesus and King Arthur.
The greatest legacy of King Arthur has much less to do with castles, wizards and magic kingdoms. What's often overlooked in the story is that Arthur is a king who intentionally shares his royalty. Arthur wields a different kind of power than the magical sword of legend -- it is the power of shared leadership, bringing together a diverse group of people around a circular table to symbolize that "for men to be men they must first be equal."
Jesus, however, was the original once and future king, gathering together a motley crew of disciples, teaching them, training them, empowering them, and inviting them to give up their own royal fantasies and be agents of the kingdom. Unlike the earthly kings before and after him, Jesus truly had the power to be a hero, a victor, a symbol of ultimate royal authority.
But rather than choose the roar of the crowd, he chooses a cross for his coronation.
Rather than be waited on hand and foot, he instead washes the feet of his subjects. His power is perfected in being freely given away, empowering others with God's incredible grace.
Better for us that we recognize that our true allegiance is not in allegiance pope but to the King of Kings -- a king whose power is realized in his people, not just for them. We're not called to be passive, pining for Camelot or the shores of heaven, but to do the work of the kingdom, following the example of Christ, using the power of the Holy Spirit to lead others in the way of peace, salvation and hope.
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