With hearty thanks to Fr. Warren, from whom I took the first part of this sermon.
“A new reality came into being in the last, the 20th, century, and they had to invent a word to describe it: totalitarianism. There had been authoritarian societies, and governments-of-control before – most of them, in fact, for that’s what a government was taken to be.
“But this was something new. In a totalitarian society, control was total. Every aspect of life was under the power and domination of the state. Public life, of course, but also private life. In fact, the word ‘totalitarian’ was coined to describe this new reality: that the distinction between the public and the private was erased, abolished. There was no private life. Every aspect of one’s existence was dominated by and in the service of the state and of its ideology. Systems and agencies of security were set up, aided by new technologies of surveillance. New techniques of propaganda and terror were developed, and people were encouraged to inform on one another. It could get you a new job or a better apartment. It could settle an old score. And so, the wrong joke or the wrong remark in a café or on a bus or even at the dinner table at home could result in a knock on the door in the middle of the night.
“Total control. An unguarded moment – even with family and friends – could land you in jail or a concentration camp or worse. Mussolini invented this. Hitler and his Nazis perfected it. Stalin learned it from Hitler, and this caused the one dictator to admire the other, his sworn and hated enemy.”1
Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s character on House of Cards, said that “Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.” He went on to say “I cannot respect someone who doesn’t see the difference.”
We’re talking about power today, two kinds of it.
On the one hand, there’s the old stone building of Rome that stood for centuries, the kind of power that our twentieth century dictators weren’t smart enough to even grasp at. The power of Rome was an orderly sort of power, the kind of power that enables a certain kind of peace, the kind that gets things like roads and aqueducts built, but also the kind that secured that order by way of crucifixion.
On the other hand, there’s the cornerstone Himself, on which all else is built. The power of Christ couldn’t be any more different than the power of Rome (that is, the world), and St. Paul strives to make that clear. We hear his words at the (N) Station of the Cross: that Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
The fancy term for this is kenosis, a Greek word that implies self-emptying, to empty yourself of your power. Paul’s experience of Jesus is different from the other Apostles – they got to experience Jesus in stages, so to speak, they met Him on the shoreline or at the tax booth, or their friends pointed out the Man who they suspected might have something very special about Him. Paul, on the other hand, was literally knocked to the ground by the glory of God in Christ, and so Paul sees Jesus in a more cosmic way (not that this is necessarily an advantage). Paul feels the need to explain just how Jesus could be both God and man, all powerful and all knowing, but somehow walking among us. How did Jesus pull this off? By voluntarily emptying Himself, by humbling Himself in service to His Father, by being the opposite of the worldly powers that seek total control. Jesus shows us the difference between seeking control and seeking good; between seeking power and seeking the will of the Almighty.
I think we all seek power, power wherever we can find it. And so we must ask ourselves, today and this week as we hear and experience power in all its forms, what power is to us, how we perceive it, use it, counter it. And we must then ask ourselves, if we must choose which power we are to seek, which way will we go?
1Fr. Allan Warren, Advent Boston http://archive.theadventboston.org/sermons/aw032413.htm.