Human Purpose and Destiny
The Festival of Christ the King
Significant international conferences are currently being held against the backdrop of seemingly insurmountable global challenges. What questions are being asked and what are appropriate starting points for conversation? Is any attention being given to questions like: what role should government play in human affairs - what is humanity’s goal – wherein does contentment lie – why are we here - what role do we have in the future of the planet – what is the real nature of power and how is it to be exercised?
In previous ages, especially the Hellenistic period, from which Western civilisation is deemed to have emerged, such questions were asked. It is no coincidence this is also the period that witnessed the birth of Christianity. Christianity is, in part, a response to these questions. Why then in today’s western world should Christian thought be either totally ignored, mocked, or attacked with a secularist polemic? I know we Christians have given a very poor account of ourselves this century in behaviour and public thought, but I would venture that what now passes for Christian knowledge in the pub, marketplace, and some university halls, is a misrepresented Sunday School level caricature. It is no wonder that with this caricature, Christianity is easily dismissed.
This weekend, the Christian Church celebrates the conclusion of its current liturgical year in the celebration of the festival of Christ the King. A primary text for this festival is the hymn to Christ or the hymn to the universe in Colossians 1: 15 -20. This is no Sunday School text, it goes to the questions posed in the opening paragraph and responds in a manner that can and should engage contemporary thought and debate, the very thoughts which initially shaped our civilisation.
In a Judaeo Christian world view three mutually accountable roles need to be fulfilled if human life is to peacefully and meaningfully flourish – the roles of prophet, priest, and King. Prophets speaks for righteousness and justice, and conversely speaks against injustice in all its forms. Priests point to life’s vital vertical dimension in a context where life’s horizontal demands seemingly fill all available space. Kings exercise oversight as servants. Whether Australian society gives functional expression to any, or all three, is worth pondering. We have a recent history of thoroughly discouraging prophets (we take them to court), ignoring priests, and removing any vestiture of servant from those who govern.
While it is Christian belief Jesus personifies all three, the third role is the focus of this hymn.
How all three roles are fulfilled will necessarily reflect prevailing human understandings of the universe and the human place within it. We know 21st century understandings are hotly contested, too often narrowly framed economically, rather than explored expansively and relationally.
The Colossian hymn begins with a very bold statement: "Christ is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation…. in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell". The second of the ten commandments forbade the making of images. In counter intuitive fashion, here we are called to celebrate creation and humanity with new eyes as images of divine nature, for through Christ: "in them God has been pleased to dwell".
Seeing with these eyes, attitudes towards the natural order and fellow human beings are transformed. Arrogant racism, featured in the fate of Uyghurs in Xi’s China, or the Rohingya in the military junta’s Myanmar, is also a feature of right-wing governments everywhere and residually part of Australia’s colonial heritage. Theocracy as observed in modern Israel is inherently racist. Racism extinguishes the divine image. Observing the divine image in others made Mother Theresa and Desmond Tutu two of the worlds (few) most respected human beings. They had thoroughly absorbed the rhythm of this hymn.
The hymn describes the universe as a single body. That is to say: macrocosm and microcosm correspond to each other in their relationship. That which is true of the whole must be true of every individual part and that which is true of every individual part must find its expression in the whole. Plato conceived the cosmos as a living being with a soul. In Greek thought each part, or individual, is connected to the divine through fullness (pleroma) of the whole. Personification of the natural order has been revisited in recent times by James Lovelock and his Gaia theory in response to the environmental crisis.
This hymn declares Christ to be that ʹpleromaʹ or fullness. The depth of thought and understanding that resides here might as well be ignored, for it is a stumbling block to the strident individualism and nationalism which pervades human life and its 21st century economic theories.
The hymn concludes with a linkage between creation and redemption. It does not need much concentrated observation to recognise brokenness in the human condition and a void in rhythms necessary to sustain the natural order. Surely it was not meant to be this way? Creation or new life occurs when that which hurts, breaks, or destroys, is overcome by that which redeems and gives life. The hymn celebrates redemption in the death and resurrection of Jesus, who, embodying all humanity and the whole natural order, is redemption’s first fruits.
This is the thing. Life as God intends is to be celebrated now, not simply anticipated when the world passes away. Sadly, human investment, individually and nationally, is seldom orientated to redemption. There are myriads of examples. We lock children up (mainly first nation children) rather than invest in their education and rehabilitation. We are reluctant to reform harmful gambling practice because the income is relied upon by government. We refuse to prioritise the planet’s future because of short-term economic self-interest. The adage ʹthere is no gain without painʹ could be reworded: there can be no creation without redemption.
Thinking of engaging with Christianity as a way of life? Enter some of the greatest art, music and architecture ever imagined. Share the company of extraordinarily grace filled lives. But above all find in its sacred writings engagement with questions which should be asked and travel its paths in response.
Christ is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation…
All things have been created through him and for him…
In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…
Through him God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself.