Monday, November 26, 2007

Year C, Thirty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King

For a limited time you can watch the entire Mass of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King, including this homily, courtesy of our diocesan newspaper The Intermountain Catholic.

Readings: 2 Sam 5,1-3; Ps 122,1-5; Col 1,12-20; Lk 23,35-43

Today, the last Sunday of this year of grace, we mark the solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ the King. Our readings present us with three very different views of kingship. In our first reading, taken from 2 Samuel, we read about earthly kingship, about David’s anointing at Hebron as the King of Israel, to replace Saul, who was anointed Israel’s first king by Samuel the prophet because of the hard-hearted demands of God’s People, who were to have no king except the Lord God (1 Sam 8,6-9). Of course it is in reference to our Lord Jesus Chris that Zechariah, the father of St. John the Baptist, sings in the Benedictus, which we recite at Lauds every morning: "He has raised up for us a mighty savior, born of the house of his servant David" (Lk 1,69) Our second reading, from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, tells us of a cosmic ruler, of the everlasting Son of the Father, who "is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation," in whom "were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible" (Col 1,15-16). Then, in our Gospel, Jesus’ kingship is denoted by a sign, meant to be an insult both to Jesus and to the whole nation of Israel, which was nailed with him to the Cross: "This is the King of the Jews" (Lk 23,38).

In our time and culture kingship is a difficult concept, one that we by-and-large and for very good reasons reject. We tend to equate it with absolute power, which we are told from grade school on, at least here in the United States, corrupts absolutely. We need look no further than scripture, than to either King Saul or King David, to confirm this axiom. We see David’s corruption most manifest in his defilement of Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, with whom David forcibly committed adultery before arranging to have Uriah, his faithful soldier and servant, killed on the battlefield (2 Sam 11). But, our Lord Jesus Christ is a very different kind of king who rules in a very different way, over a very different kind of kingdom. Every earthly kingdom will eventually pass away, regardless of how strong or vibrant it may seem at any point in its history. By contrast, Christ’s kingdom is an everlasting kingdom. In the introduction to his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul gives us some insight into the earthly seed from which Christ’s everlasting kingdom will grow, the Church. This brings us to our second view of kingship.

The Church is no mere earthly construct invented by the apostles after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Because "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together," Christ "is the head of the body, the church" (Col 1,17-18). The body of which he is the head is His own mystical Body, of which you and I, by virtue of our baptism, our anointing as His royal, priestly, and prophetic people with Sacred Chrism, and our sharing in this Eucharist, are incorporated as members. It is by means of the Eucharist that all things are held together in Christ. During this weekend of Thanksgiving, it bears pointing out that Eucharist is merely the Greek word for thanksgiving. So, in a very real and non-trivial sense, for us Christians, everyday is thanksgiving day, especially the Lord’s day, as we gather around His Table from East to West so that a perfect offering can be made to the glory of God's name. The perfect offering is God’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the King of time, space, and dimension, of all that is, and who is also the victim whose death reconciles us to the Father, the King whose death gives us birth as children of God and enables us, with Him and with each other, to call God our Father.

This brings us to today’s Gospel, in which we encounter the concrete and existential realization and synthesis of these different ideas of kingship, one very worldly and the other very other-worldly. Our Christian faith is rooted in real events that actually occurred in human history. We reject any form of Christianity that "wants only the word, but not flesh and blood" (Ratzinger Jesus of Nazareth 243). We reject any faith in which Jesus’ body and death plays no part, for without Jesus’ Incarnation, His birth, His life, and His death, "Christianity becomes mere doctrine, mere moralism, and an intellectual affair" that "lacks any flesh and blood" (243).

St. Luke gives us not merely a glimpse, but a very comprehensive view of the kind of King Jesus Christ is in a mere nine verses. The meaning that the various episodes from the life of our Lord, relayed to us in the Gospels, have for us depends to a very large degree on the people in these episodes with whom we identify. Maybe too often we identify with the protagonists of the various stories and events, perhaps in St. Luke’s Gospel, which we have recited this liturgical year, we are too quick to identify with the Good Samaritan, with the tax collector humbly praying in the precincts of the Temple, with Lazarus, instead of with the priests who left the man to die in the ditch, with the Pharisee, who thanks God that he is not like the tax collector, or with the rich man who ignores the man dying outside the gate of his house, whose sores are licked by dogs. Well, in today’s Gospel, we can and should identify both with the demanding thief, known in Tradition as Gestas, and the so-called good thief, who is known to Tradition as St. Dismas.

In these two condemned men we see a portrait of all humanity in that we, in the words of the good thief, "have been condemned justly" because of our sins, whereas Jesus, though condemned, "has done nothing criminal" (Lk 23,41). It is by recognizing the justness of his punishment that the good thief is able to make his simple request: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Lk 23,42). To which the King of kings responds, as he hangs dying an ignominious criminal’s death, "today you will be with me in Paradise" (Lk 23,43). Observed from a certain point-of-view, this promise seems laughable. After all, what good is the promise of a man who seems so powerless, so unable to make good on the claim for which He was condemned, namely His claim to be "the Messiah, a king" (Lk 23,2)? In light of all this does not the request of the demanding thief seem more reasonable? That we see his demand as more reasonable is reflected in the fact that such demands are far too often what constitute our prayer life, when confronted with life’s difficulties we demand, maybe even with a quiver of anger and resentment in our voice, "Are you not the Christ?" "If you are, save me," and by salvation meaning, "Make what I want happen and now"! The person we most often need saving from, as this state-of-affairs indicates, is the dreaded self. Paradoxically, it is in this that the liberation of the Cross becomes apparent: that we, in imitation of Him, "take up [our] cross daily" and lose our lives for His sake, recognizing that it is only by dying to self and loving others that we truly live (Lk 9,23-24).

So on this weekend of Thanksgiving, we gather for a Eucharistic feast at the invitation of the King of kings whose strength is shown in His manifest weakness, whose kingdom is already and not yet, a kingdom that is within us both individually and corporately, but in neither one exclusively, a kingdom, precisely because it is not of this world and is at odds with this world, that will last forever, having been established from before the foundation of the world. By our acceptance of His invitation, we freely subject ourselves to this King who beckons us to come lose our lives for him. In so doing we will have the faith of His first followers and we, like the good thief, Jesus Christ Himself, and the white-robed multitude of those who have survived the time of great trail, will feel the pain of the Cross, which is the only road to the Kingdom of God.

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