Sunday, November 24, 2019

Christ the King

92 years ago, 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, Father Pro had returned to Mexico, after his ordination in 1926, to serve in the underground Church. On November 23, 1927, as the firing squad pointed their rifles at him, Padre Pro 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 martyrdom, Padre Pro reminded the world that there is a something even greater than worldly human political power.

The 1920s were a turbulent time not just in Mexico, but all over, as the world unsuccessfully tried to recover from one world war and was already creating the conditions that would cause a second one. That was the world in which two years earlier, Pope Pius XI had anticipated Padre Pro in an encyclical letter on the kingship of Christ, which established this feast of Christ the King.

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

As we come to the the end of another turbulent, angry, and divisive year in our country and look ahead to another even more so, this feast comes as a good reminder that, while politics may be important, it isn’t everything, and that worldly human power has in fact already met its match in a very different kind of King.

Most modern monarchs – like the 10 currently reigning European ones we are most familiar with – have ascended their thrones peacefully, usually as a matter of inheritance according to established constitutional rules. Once enthroned, a king or queen acts as a kind of social glue that binds people together and helps create a powerful experience of political unity and community.

For King David, the tribal chieftain who successfully unified Israel around its new capital, Jerusalem, some 3000+ years ago, the process (reflected in today’s 1st reading) was less predictable. In the end, David the king came to personify Israel’s new national identity - his royal rule a sort of earthly expression of God’s presence and power, unifying separate tribes and creating a unique new national and religious community.

This Sunday celebrates Jesus, David’s descendant, as the ultimate messiah-king – a king, however, who has obtained sovereignty, not through shedding his rivals’ blood (as David did), but through shedding his own, making peace (as we have just heard Saint Paul say) by the blood of his cross.

In today’s Gospel, the title “king” is initially applied to Jesus as an insult, just one more mockery aimed at Jesus. Throughout his public life, Jesus had been challenged about the nature and the significance of his power. Nobody doubted that he did powerful deeds – driving out demons, healing the sick. The question was always the source of his power and its significance, whether it was good or a bad, a saving power or a threatening power. On the cross, however, when Jesus appeared about as powerless as anyone can be, he seemed serenely confident in his power as he unlocked the kingdom for one of the two criminals executed with him, thus revealing himself as king of a kingdom of mercy.

Mercy, of course, has traditionally been one of the virtues considered particularly proper in a king. It is, as Shakespeare famously said, enthroned in the hearts of kings. Jesus on the cross has gone even further and has revealed that mercy is, in fact, what his kingdom is all about.

The repentant criminal, of course, represents all of us, whose hope lies in God’s mercy, as we recognize our need and dependence and accept Christ as our king. Saint Paul speaks powerfully of how we have been delivered – just as the criminal 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.

Like earthly monarchs, Christ the King binds his people together and creates a powerful experience 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 own crown on all who seek salvation in the power of his cross and who acknowledge his kingship for all the world to witness – and experience.

Christ’s kingdom of mercy is continually being revealed in the world by means of his Church – all of us who share in his kingship and live as members of his body. To quote Shakespeare one more time:
We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

Homily for the Solemnity of Christ the King, Saint Anne's Church, Walnut Creek, CA, November 24, 2019.

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