Early in the Christian churches, bishops and archbishops came to be called “primates.” The word was not intended to evoke images of orangutans or macaques. (It would be another five hundred years before Carl Linnaeus classified homo sapiens as a member of that order.) Rather, even in Latin, the word for “first” had been used to mean a superior, a leader, or most excellent person, and the Christians had no problem designating their spiritual leaders with the term as well.
There are many things I like about my Christian heritage. If Christians today preached what I believe the historical Jesus preached, I’d readily identify as a Christian. But as I see it, modern Christianity gets Jesus wrong in a number of respects.
When I was only eight, I was invited to spend the weekend in the countryside with a friend. Since I’d have to miss Sunday mass, I made a phone call to ask for permission to do so. My friend’s family got quite a laugh when, after the call, they discovered I hadn’t been calling home, but the church rectory. The “Father” they’d heard me addressing was not my biological father, but the parish priest.
I had already been taught to call all priests “Father,” and even when I talk to priests today, I use the term of respect I was taught as a child.
But it wasn’t long after the parish priest told me it would be a sin to miss Mass that I came across Matthew 23:9, where Jesus is said to have told his followers “to call no man Father, for one is your Father, which is in Heaven.” Given that scripture, I never understood how Christians developed the practice of calling their priests “Father” – especially in an age when fathers demanded so much respect – except, of course, that the priests had taught them to.
It’s easier for me to understand why hierarchies arose as church memberships and treasuries grew – and why words like “bishop” (from Greek epi-skopos, meaning to watch over) came into use. And it seems almost inevitable that as such growth continued, layers of rank would have to be added, for practical, administrative reasons. So by the time the Bishops of Canterbury, York, Armagh and St. Andrews had become powerful, it isn’t entirely surprising that they’d call these leaders ‘primates.” But the primates were always first among “fathers,” and I still had a hard time squaring that with Matthew 23:9.
Nor was it that particular scripture alone. According to Matthew 12:50, Jesus instructed his followers, “Whosoever shall do the will of my Father, which is in Heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Jesus preached, “Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5) and “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:4). I read of a Jesus who washed the feet of his disciples, of a Jesus who frequently dismissed those who treated him with special reverence, of a Jesus who said to a man who addressed him as Good Master, “Why callest thou me good? There is no one good but one, that is God” (Matt. 19:16). I read of a Jesus who, when asked if he was King, replied only, “You said it” (Matt 27:11), as if to disavow the title himself. In fact, Jesus taught, in the Sermon on the Mount, that his followers should pray to the Father (for His was the power and the glory). And, if we believe Matthew 7:23, Jesus chastised those who would honor him, warning, “Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? And in thy name done many wonderful works?’ And then will I profess to them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”
One reason I haven’t been to church but a few times in the last fifty years is my lack of comfort with heaping praise on this man who fought so hard to avoid it. Last month, I went to a Catholic mass for the first time in many years. One of the first hymns sung was To Jesus Christ, Our Sovereign King.
“To Jesus Christ, our sovereign king, who is the world’s salvation, all praise and homage do we bring, and thanks, and adoration. Christ Jesus, victor! Christ Jesus, Ruler! Christ Jesus, Lord and Redeemer! Your reign extend, O King benign, to every land and nation; for in your kingdom, Lord divine, alone we find salvation. To you and to your church, great King, we pledge our hearts’ oblation – until, before your throne, we sing in endless jubilation.”
Homage? Kingdom? Reign? Throne? I was taught the theology behind this hymn. But for me, the theology fails to justify adoration of a man who shunned adoration, who deflected all praise to God, his father in heaven. To my way of thinking, Jesus would not have approved of such a hymn.
Meanwhile, whatever may be said in defense of praising Jesus, I have even greater trouble with adoration of mankind.
Consider this passage from Pope John Paul II’s Gospel of Life, Evangelicum Vitae. I can’t read it without thinking of Jesus’ teaching that the meek shall be blessed.
52. Man, as the living image of God, is willed by his Creator to be ruler and lord. Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes that “God made man capable of carrying out his role as king of the earth … Man was created in the image of the One who governs the universe. Everything demonstrates that from the beginning man’s nature was marked by royalty… Man is a king. Created to exercise dominion over the world, he was given a likeness to the king of the universe; he is the living image who participates by his dignity in the perfection of the divine archetype.”
I hope that my thoughts are not taken as an attack upon those who sing the hymn, or upon Pope Paul II for his thoughts about mankind. I mean no disrespect, and God knows, I may be wrong. But as Christians prepare this month to celebrate Jesus and his birth, I’m moved to point out my inability to buy into these aspects of modern Christianity. As I like to think of it, “I prefer the original.” Father, Primate, Pope, Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Clearly, we are prone to bestow honor on ourselves. I don’t know whether we inherited this tendency from other primates or not, but the Jesus I believe in warned us against it.