All kings, in their different ways, have power over life and death. In the case of absolute monarchs and tyrants, this power is made manifest very clearly. A thumbs-down or a single phone call could result in the death of a troublesome subject. In these governments, the king is the cause of great fear and a sense of dependence in his people. In other places, the power over life and death is more subtle. We can imagine a medieval king who, through negligence of his duties, can cause the death of many. Without wise and prudent policies for knights and farmers alike, his kingdom will eventually collapse and death will come upon his people. His subjects may not be as consciously aware of it, but they too are dependent on the king for life.
This latter type of kingship makes evident the reciprocal dependence between the ruler and the ruled. If the farmers don’t farm and the guards don’t guard, the king will suffer along with his subjects. And so it is in the king’s best interest to govern his kingdom well, thereby ensuring the health and happiness of his people. Without the cooperation of the king and his people, neither party could thrive.
Yesterday’s Solemnity reminded us that Christ too is a king. But unlike an earthly king, Christ doesn’t depend on man despite man’s dependence on Him. Aquinas discusses the issue of dependence by explaining that God cannot depend upon creation because then we would be forced to say that God needs creation in order to be God. But God created out of his will and, thus, created freely and not necessarily. Man’s relation to God, however, is still one of absolute dependence, because without God constantly thinking of man, man would cease to exist.
At various times in our lives we see this utter dependence on God more clearly than others. It is often most evident during times of trials, when we have nowhere else to go. It is then that we confess with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68). We find the widow from today’s Gospel in this same situation. She comes to the Temple alone with no other person to depend on and “from her poverty, has offered her whole livelihood” (Lk 21:4). This widow is a model for the self-awareness of our utter dependence on God.
In the Gospel, the widow offers the whole of her meager wealth—but two small coins—into the treasury of the Temple. We must note that the physical treasury is not the throne of God that dispenses life and death. It is not the case that the widow has found the material way to save her life through tithes. Rather, her material generosity is an illustration of her reliance upon God for her very life. She realizes that her life is not sustained by her own possessions, but that it is God alone who can sustain her.
But where, then, is Christ’s throne before which we may fall prostrate, if it isn’t the treasury? Surely it is in heaven at the right hand of the Father. But it is also here below in the cross. One way in which the medievals often depicted this was by portraying the crucified Christ wearing a crown. It is from the cross that Christ reigns as the king who has the ultimate power over everlasting life and death.
Image: Valentin Serov, Coronation of the Emperor Nicholas II in The Uspensky Cathedral