Sunday, November 21, 2010

Christ the King

83 years ago this week – this coming Tuesday, actually – a 36-year old Mexican Jesuit priest, Miguel Augustín Pro, was executed on the orders of Mexico’s President. Educated abroad because of the Mexican revolutionary government’s persecution of the Church, Pro had returned to Mexico, after his ordination in 1926, to serve in the underground Church, baptizing, hearing confessions, celebrating Mass – until his arrest and execution. On November 23, 1927, as the firing squad pointed their rifles at him, Padre Pro famously extended his arms in the form of a cross and proclaimed: “¡Viva el Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King”).

With those powerful words and his even more powerful martyrdom, Padre Pro reminded the world that there is a king greater than any earthly government or secular society. Just 2 years earlier, Pope Pius XI had made much the same point in an encyclical letter on the kingship of Christ, which established this feast of Christ the King, which we are celebrating today.

Now, obviously, the image of Christ as king was not some novelty of the 1920s. On the contrary, it is actually quite ancient – reflected, for example, in early Christ depictions of Christ on the cross, dressed in priestly vestments and wearing a kingly crown, as if the cross were his throne, which, in fact is precisely what today’s Gospel reading seems to suggest.

Most modern monarchs – for example, the 10 currently reigning European monarchs we are most familiar with – have ascended their thrones rather peacefully, usually as a matter of inheritance according to established constitutional rules, ritualized by suitable ceremonies. Once enthroned, a king acts as a kind of social glue that binds a people together and helps create a powerful bond of political unity and community.

That’s not always been the case, of course. For King David, the tribal warrior who successfully united Israel around its permanent new capital, Jerusalem, some 3000 years ago, the process, reflected in today’s 1st reading (2 Samuel 5:1-3), was less predictable – except in retrospect. To us in retrospect, King David personified Israel’s new national identity. His royal rule was a sort of earthly manifestation of God’s presence and power, binding separate tribes into one unified national and religious community.

This Sunday celebrates Jesus, David’s descendant, as the ultimate messiah-king, complete with all the symbolic and religious resonance the word “king” conveys – a king, however, who has obtained sovereignty, not through shedding his rivals’ blood but his own, making peace, as we have just heard St. Paul say (Colossians 1:12-20) by the blood of his cross.

In today’s Gospel (Luke 23:35-43), the title “king” is initially applied to Jesus as an insult. Throughout his entire public life, Jesus had been challenged about the nature and significance of his power. Nobody doubted that he did powerful deeds – driving out demons, healing the sick. The question at issue was always the source of his power and its significance, whether it was a good power or a bad power, a saving power or a threatening power.

On the cross, of course, Jesus appeared powerless. Yet with serene confidence in his power, Jesus unlocked the kingdom for one of those executed with him, thus revealing himself as a king of a kingdom of mercy. Mercy, of course, has traditionally been one of the virtues considered particularly proper for a king. It is, as Shakespeare famously said, enthroned in the hearts of kings. Jesus has gone even further and has revealed that mercy is, in fact, what his kingdom is all about.

The “good thief” (as he is traditionally termed) here represents all of us, whose only hope lies in God’s mercy – all, who recognizing our need and dependence, accept Christ as king. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” St. Paul speaks powerfully of how we have been delivered – just as the “good thief” was – from the power of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, and share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light.

The strong Father-Son language St. Paul employs is not so much family language here as it is royal language, the image being that of the heir who inherits the crown. What is so striking about this kingdom, however, is how the succession is not confined to just one heir. In Jesus, God has overcome the great gulf that separates us from God, has identified himself with us sinners, enabling us sinners to identify ourselves with Jesus and so inherit the kingdom with him.

Like an earthly monarch, Christ the king binds his people together and creates a powerful bond of unity and community. What makes this community so uniquely powerful, however, is that the whole point of this kingship is that it be shared – and shared widely. Christ is most completely a king in conferring a share in his crown on all who seek salvation in the power of his cross and acknowledge his kingship for all the world to witness – and experience.
Homily at St. Anne's Church, Walnut Creek, CA, November 21, 2010.

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