This week we celebrate two feast days: today is “Christ the King” Sunday, where we reflect on God’s claim of dominion in our lives, with our Gospel reading the dramatic courtroom confrontation between Pilate and Jesus. Thursday is Thanksgiving, our great American celebration day, with the dramatic confrontation over whether to have that second piece of pie before shopping or watching the Hokies and the Cavaliers vie for the Old Dominion cup. At first blush these have only one thing in common: both serve as gateways that mark the kickoff of the countdown to Christmas. Yet, as is always the case when we encounter Jesus in the Gospel, nothing is quite as it appears. The feasts of Christ the King and Thanksgiving are indeed two sides of the same coin, but it’s not the coin that it seems to be at first.
I have a confession to make: Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of them all, secular or sacred. Don’t tell the Bishop or my professors. I love Thanksgiving. I grew up in a huge New York City-based Irish-Italian Catholic family rooted in Queens—there are twenty six of us in my generation of the family, not counting spouses. My family in Connecticut would all pile into the station wagon to see them all—and if I were still going, I’d still be at the kid table, loving every minute of it.
What does Thanksgiving mean? What claims does it make on our lives? Before seminary, I was a political science professor, teaching American politics and constitutional law. We were taught to observe a national tradition to peel back the layers of meaning and symbolism to understand what’s really happening. What does tradition say about what a people think is important? And what are the unique traditions of the week? Football? Shopping? Menu? Pilgrim’s pageant? Parade? The date—the last Thursday in November?
Let’s carve it up: football and shopping? 1930s. Menu and the Pilgrim’s pageant narrative? Surprisingly, mid 19th century, Civil War to be exact. Abraham Lincoln popularized magazine articles promoting both in reviving the tradition of the Thanksgiving proclamation as a national holiday in the fall of 1863, at the same time he was thinking his way through the writing of the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln sought to revive the annual custom as a means of bringing the nation together, and the themes in his Thanksgiving proclamation helped define his immortal words at the opening of the Gettysburg cemetery soon after.
But Lincoln wasn’t creating, he was resurrecting a tradition begun by George Washington at the first official Thanksgiving in the United States—in 1789. The key to unlocking what this is of all things the parade in New York City on the last Thursday in November. Thanksgiving is a great example of something whose meaning was so obvious and clearly understood that it wasn’t written down, whose meaning becomes lost over time. Washington set aside the last Thursday in November to commemorate the day six years earlier the British evacuation of New York City, marking the final end of the War. In a carefully orchestrated ritual, the last British troops fell back, and Washington, together with his staff officers, crossed from the Bronx onto Manhattan and rode down from the Harlem Heights the path of Broadway, as the last British ship raised anchor, they went, en masse, to church, at St. Paul’s chapel, where Broadway meets Wall Street—right in the shadow of Ground Zero. They prayed, they gave thanks, and then went to Fraunces Tavern and had one heck of a party. Washington picked the last Thursday of November of 1789 to commemorate this. And so a tradition was born, anchored by a parade in New York the last Thursday in November.
Two holidays were proclaimed that year—July 4th, and Thanksgiving—and they commemorate the beginning and the end of the Revolution. This was the first step in creating a civic religion. America definitely has one —most countries do. They’re not a bad thing, in fact it can be quite useful—as long as we’re aware of what it is, and what makes claims of dominion over our lives. We have secular saints and heroes, holidays and anthems, and traditions linking them all. They come to embody what we’d like to think is good in us, who we’d like to think we are, and create common ground, help assimilate the folks who are new to it all, and give us something to aspire to. And if anyone has any doubts that we have a civil religion, and that Washington is both its progenitor and central figure, I invite them to go across the river to the Capitol and, in the rotunda, gaze up, at Brumidi’s masterpiece four thousand square foot fresco of the apotheosis of Washington—Washington apotheosized, becoming the highest embodiment of an idea, or, in the Greek, to make—apo—a god theos—of something.
Christ the King and Thanksgiving are indeed two sides of the same coin. One side has a smiling turkey wearing a Pilgrim’s hat? Yet when we turn the coin over, we find on the other side the face of Caesar staring back at us. Christ the King Sunday asks us: whom do we serve? Who and what has dominion over our lives? Are we serving God, or are we serving Caesar?
Today’s Gospel is John’s dramatic courtroom confrontation between Pilate and Jesus. As with all things when we encounter Jesus nothing is what it seems. Jesus is turning the tables—again. Because the who and what on trial here is not Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth accused of treason. The who that is on trial is Pilate, and the what is the idea of the Emperor of Rome as a God that must be submitted to.
Who was Pilate? We know a little about him from sources outside of the Gospels, but not that much. He was governor of Judea for ten years. He would have had rank from the military and way the Roman military and diplomatic bureaucracy overlapped—at least a GS 15, then Senior Excecutive Service, but lowest rung. He would’ve been on the fast track to be considered to be a governor but had clearly gotten on someone’s list, because governor of Judea was a career killer. As he rode in triumph on his white horse at the head of the Roman legion into a restive Jerusalem on the Sunday before Passover, the same day Jesus would have rode in from the other direction on a donkey, Pilate knew he wasn’t going anywhere. He would have spent his whole career to the service of the empire, and for all his life this is what he would’ve known—Rome was an empire, headed by an Emperor, and the Emperor was God. The Emperor as God was the embodiment—the apotheosis—the incarnation of the idea of Rome made flesh. The Emperor as God was what they saw as the good in themselves—the good they were bringing into the world—civilization, aqueducts, roads, order, commerce, art, culture. Law. And Order. The Emperor was the incarnation of this, and as Rome grew to include new peoples, new languages, new customs, the cult of the Emperor was the way to bring it all together. To synthesize and harmonize and civilize. It was their civil religion. This was the claim of dominion Caesar made on Pilate.
So when Pilate asks Jesus, “are you King of the Jews?” he’s asking as a Roman who equates kingship with godship He’s asking Jesus if he thinks he’s god. THAT was the treason. THAT was the threat. That was the claim of dominion Roman civil religion made on the people of the Empire it ruled. And Jesus of Nazareth was then, is now, and will always and everywhere be to the day He comes again in glory, a threat to Empire. For this, Jesus was put to death by the Romans. For this, Jesus was born, and for this He came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice.
Tuesday I’ll participate in my own version of the Thanksgiving Parade—I ask for your prayers as I drive to BWI to pick up eldest daughter flying back from work teaching in New Hampshire, followed by a second pickup later in the day at National for youngest daughter traveling from college, and we’ll all three drive back to Charlottesville to join my wife and our sons at home for the Thanksgiving Feast. We’ll all have parades we’ll be part of this week. As we do, let’s reflect: in our individual lives—in our lives as a community of the faithful here in Emmanuel, and as a nation——what are the claims of dominion God has on our lives? Are we serving Christ? Or Caesar?
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog