The other day I saw what comes pretty close to the abomination of desolation. It was a singing Christmas tree. I was walking through a respectable department store when I noticed the bow in the middle of a plastic Christmas tree transform itself into a pair of lips and begin to sing Jingle bells in a harsh metallic voice.
On the last Sunday before Advent we are confronted with another tree: the tree of the cross that becomes the throne of the king of glory whose kingship we celebrate today. The cross is not a singing tree. It is not comic, but deadly serious.
Yet it was not entirely serious to those who first witnessed it. All executions involve an element of ridicule, of dehumanisation. Unless we engaged in a ritual of ridicule, we could not do this to fellow human beings. We can only torture and maim them if we make them ridiculous.
Pope Pius XI instituted this feast of Christ the King as a response to the Europe of the dictators. His reaction to the bizarre certainties and all-too-human schemes for redemption that were on offer at the time was not to say, "Look at me, listen to me," but, "Look to him, behold the wood of the cross on which hung the Saviour of the world." He said: Dare to be ridiculous as he did.
A few years ago a couple began a legal action against the Bavarian government that went all the way to the German Supreme Court. They were asking for the removal of crucifixes from schools and public buildings. They argued that it was intimidating and degrading for their daughter to have to sit under the image of a naked, tortured and dying man. She obviously never looked at TV, played videos or read the newspapers, never mind children's comics that are full of degrading images of violence.
When you think about it, it is a bit odd to venerate a crucifix. We don't encourage such images on the whole. Pornography appears more acceptable in our society than images of violence.
The German Supreme Court found in favour of this Bavarian couple, but the decision was contested throughout Bavaria. Many of those who opposed the removal of crucifixes remembered the last time that crucifixes were removed and replaced with swastikas. When we hide the image of God, we go on to defile, profane and destroy that same image which lives in the flesh of our brothers and sisters.
The singing Christmas tree gave a banal message of reassurance. Everything is right with the world as long as we can all sing Jingle bells. Images of home, hearth, good cheer and expensive presents will help us through the winter; the feast of Christ the King is a reminder to us of what our eternal joy costs.
What we see in the crucifixion, the enthronement of Christ on the Cross, is a form of pantomime. Christmas is the season for pantomime. Pantomimes are full of violence and cruelty, all disguised with a veneer of humour.
In every pantomime there is a triumphant winning through of the underdog or the victim, at some point disguises are cast aside, mysterious hidden identities revealed. In the end Cinderella ends up with her prince charming, but only after a deal of suffering and rejection.
Jesus on the cross engages in pantomime, the liturgy of his death is a parody of an imperial court liturgy. He is dressed in the purple robe, he wears the thorny crown, the mock imperial diadem, he bears the sceptre, a broken reed, and is presented to the people to be acclaimed. "Behold your king," Pilate says. Share in my joke.
What we find funny is very revealing. It says something about ourselves. We see ourselves reflected in our jokes. In the cross we are looking at a mirror. We see what life is like when we try to do without God. When we try to play a God, this is what happens. In this twisted, contorted, bruised and humiliated body, we see our own life without God. What is funny about that?
The next time we are invited by the rulers of this world to share the joke, when they say, laughing, "Behold your king," we might say, "You think this is funny?"