Hallelujah! For the Lord God Omnipotent Reigneth! So begins the most acclaimed moment in the most acclaimed Christmas oratorio ever written.1 Like other works of art, the Hallelujah Chorus in Handel’s Messiah is a cultural fixture with meaning that reaches beyond its formal message and even beyond its beautiful music. For my part, I’ve heard the Messiah in church Christmas services, paid large sums to hear it performed in a concert hall with fancy singers, a full orchestra, and wine at intermission, and even participated in a congregational Messiah sing-along. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I noticed the political overtones of the Chorus’s opening lines– “Hallelujah! for the Lord God Omnipotent Reigneth!”
My tone-deafness was all the more remarkable given that the only other lines in the Chorus (which runs for over four minutes) are “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ” and “He shall reign forever and ever.”2 But I’m guessing I’m not the only one to have missed the boat. Maybe it’s that even “religious” 21st-century people no longer take theology very seriously. Or maybe the words are overpowered by the sheer beauty of Handel’s music. Possibly we are blinded by our assumptions about the irrelevance of private matters like Christmas to the serious work of secular law and politics. Whatever the reason, we (or least I) had managed to miss what amounts to a rather plain challenge to worldly authority.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised. Most of us think we have pretty good reasons for keeping our politics secular. We don’t want the state to tell us whom and how to worship or what opinions we should hold. We want our government to ensure that we have space to answer those questions for ourselves, while it occupies itself with more mundane questions like taxes, roads, crimes, wars, and various sorts of “policies”—i.e., we want our government to concern itself with earthly (secular) and not heavenly (religious) matters. It’s not that we think secular matters are unimportant. Most of us believe that it’s our Christian duty to be engaged in the world and to do so on the basis of a theologically-informed vision of justice and human flourishing. We just don’t think that politics should be everything, or even the most important thing.
The Advent season helps us see that this common understanding of secular government is not so much wrong as incomplete. The Christian faith isn’t just a set of propositions about the correct ordering of authorities in a society; it is the unfolding story of God’s redemptive work. In that story, an institution or practice isn’t secular because it is “not religious.” Rather, things are secular insofar as they belong to the saeculum—the era between first and second advents of the “King of kings and Lord of lords”– the One who “shall reign forever and ever.” A secular government is one for this particular time and this particular world; it is in place for the time being, and, in effect, its days are numbered.3
The Kingship of God
On its face, the Advent story is an affront to earthly powers because it amounts to a declaration that their reign is destined to come to an end. It is also an affront to a ruler’s self-conception as “sovereign.” The gospel narrative discloses that there is a higher authority to which rulers will be called to account. Here again, story is crucial. What is disclosed is not merely the existence of an additional layer of political authority—more rules to be followed or commands to be obeyed—but rather a higher personal authority, the Incarnate Word who created the world. Earthly rulers find themselves on the subordinate end of the most fundamental of all divides—that between the Creator and the creature. No matter how glorious and powerful the ruler, he has far more in common with his subjects than he does with his Maker. The glory of the created world that prompts the Psalmist to ask “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” might also prompt a subject to ask the same question about a king.
To add insult to injury, the gospel discloses that the earthly ruler is not only a creature, but a fallen one at that. The ruler is a fellow sinner in need of God’s grace. In some versions of the story, the secular ruler’s vocation (political rule) would not exist absent human rebellion against God. The ruler needs divine wisdom in order to rule well, divine grace in order to choose the good, and divine favor to remain in office. Although Jesus simultaneously fills of the offices of Prophet, Priest and King, the sacraments remind the secular ruler that she is in need of a prophet and a priest.
The Presence of the Church
The Advent story also entails Christ’s coming to save “a people for his own possession” (Titus 2:14). The fruit of the preaching of the gospel is the church, a community whose highest loyalty, even during the saeculum, is to Christ the King. The mere presence of the church poses a challenge for secular rulers. In the past, as Harold Berman argues, the institutional presence of the church, which carried with it its own internal governmental structures and laws, helped lead to a distinctive understanding of law and political authority in the West—one that made room for “a plurality of legal systems within a common legal order.”4 Even in the present, secular rulers are confronted with institutions and authorities they neither created nor authorized and that press their own claims for recognition and respect.
Government without end?
What difference might the Advent story make for secular listeners when it comes to earthly rule and “secular” government? No doubt even to tell the story would raise suspicions of theocracy and the oppression of nonbelievers, and these suspicions are unlikely to be assuaged by reassurances about liberty of conscience or the anti-theocratic particulars of the classical account.
Perhaps, given these limitations, it is better to start with what government might be like if there were no Advent to celebrate. Another way of posing the question is to ask what it would mean to have a government that is secular in the modern understanding (not religious) but not secular in the classical understanding (destined to pass away). A government without a coming King need not make room for an authority higher than itself or for any competing institutional authorities. A government without a coming King might reasonably assume that its authority would last, in one form or another, forever. A government without a coming King would assume its own competence and that only contingent limits stood between it and the new order it hoped to impose. And if its self-understanding is that government should be secular in modern sense of the world—i.e., that government should act apart from any religious understanding—it should feel compelled to stop its ears when confronted by any suggestion to the contrary.
- This post is adapted from William S. Brewbaker III, “Government For the Time Being,” in Austin Sarat, ed., Legal Responses to Religious Practices in the United States: Accommodation and Its Limits (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 287-294.
- Handel takes these lines from Revelation 11:15 and 19:6.
- See Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 211-212 (“The corresponding term to ‘secular’ is not ‘sacred’, nor ‘spiritual’, but ‘eternal’.”)
- See generally Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983).