FEAST OF CHRIST THE KING – 2 Sam 5:1-3 Col 1:12-20 Lk 23:35-43
Sermon on Christ the King Feast
True Leadership Life’s Two Ways; The Full Meaning of Jesus as Our King. The sentence “Mary had a little lamb” has many memories for us. But if it didn’t, and you were hearing it for the ﬁrst time, what would it mean to you? That Mary owned the lamb, or that she ate it, or gave” birth to it? Without knowing more background, it can mean all those things. The meaning of the sentence, if fed into a computer, would be problematic.
Some of the sentences of the Bible, even for knowledgeable people, can be similarly difficult. One of the most difﬁcult jobs in the world is translating the Bible into modern languages. The biblical scholar takes the ancient Hebrew and Greek texts and forms them into today’s words whose meanings change from day to day. The greater the concepts, the more difficult the translating. One good example is today’s Feast of Christ the King.
When the New Testament gives us the word “king”, it’s typically in the mouth of a pagan — like Pontius Pilate. Other words have been used to describe Christ the king. He is the Good Shepherd, who gives his life for his sheep. He is the “man for others”, the one who came “not to be served. but to serve”.
What word can we use in modern languages? Chief? Leader? Ruler? Sovereign? Perhaps the words “shepherd” and “commander”, as in today’s First Reading, are the closest. But, applied to Jesus, all are inadequate. Jesus is all those words in their best sense — not like the subaltern about whom a British officer facetiously wrote, “I don’t doubt that there are men who will follow this ofﬁcer anywhere, but it will only be out of curiosity.”
Pope Pius XI established this celebration in 1925, when all of Europe had nightmare memories of what they called then “the Great War”, a time of an explosion of hatred, and blindness, and a torrent of blood that wiped out much of the European population. At that time, the swastika — a disﬁgurement of a cross — was ready to lurch across Germany, and in Russia a high ideal was being destroyed by tyranny, corruption, and mismanagement. Piercing the sound of these ideologies’ bands, marches, and hate—ﬁlled speeches, the pope’s new message of justice, peace, community, and love was lighting a new spark. In initiating this feast, the Church wanted to take our worship of Jesus from the privacy of our hearts and to proudly proclaim his public sway as well.
The connotations of the word “king” were then unquestioned by a society that knew many kings and accepted them. Later, kings went out of fashion. A media-saturated world lost respect for kings whose foibles were exposed. Applied to Christ, feminists objected to the masculine word “King” and wanted instead words like “Ruler of the Jews” or “Sovereign One”. In our democracies, we see it as social progress to vote monarchy to little more than a nominal status under a parliamentary system. And many are not satisﬁed with the word “King” to express the nature of the intimacy of their relationship with Jesus. No matter what words we use, the title of today’s feast is intended to convey the relationship between Christ’s rule and all creation.
Calling Jesus “King” is actually less than calling him Christ. When we say “Christ”, we are tapping into all the rich historical connotations of Jewish tradition. A thousand years before Jesus, David was the first great “Christ” or anointed ruler of Israel, their great ideal of kingship. King David, to whom the Scriptures constantly refer in speaking of Christ the King, and who is the subject of today’s First Reading, showed that, though a reign might be looked upon as a Camelot, its love doesn’t preclude intelligence.
It was through the thirty-year-old David’s intelligence, as well as his ability to judge people, that he became king of all the tribes of the Jews. Although his united kingdom lasted only to the death of his son Solomon, for that brief time the Jewish people had their Camelot a glorious and golden age.
David’s reign had become a model, and the pastoral image of “shepherd” described him. Some day, the people hoped, there would be another great shepherd-king like the most-beloved David. The reason why the Church chose this reading for this feast is to suggest that Jesus, of the line of David, is that other great king.
As our Church year comes to its close today and begins our preparation for Christmas next week, we can’t help but look at both the kingly crown and the Christmas crèche. The theme of Christ the King is already apparent in the motifs of Jesus’ conception and birth. At his conception, the angel said to Mary, in words we repeat in the Creed at Mass, that of his kingdom there will be no end (Lk 1:32f.). And when Mary gave birth to Jesus the angels announced to the shepherds that a saviour had been born who is Messiah and Lord (Lk 2:11). And the thesis of life’s two ways — the way of accepting and coming to God and the way of taking care of self — was also already apparent. It was present, for example, with the people who turned their back on Mary and Joseph, and with the shepherds who rejoiced and believed.
That theme of life’s two ways is continued in today’s Gospel. In it, St Luke paradoxically, yet dramatically, highlights the king rule of Jesus in the scene of the crucifixion. The very first line (v. 35) tells us that whereas the leaders were rejecting Jesus, the people were accepting him. The theme was present also in the soldiers, some of whom made fun of Jesus (v. 36), but others of whom, like the centurion spoken of later, said that this was truly the Son of God (Mt 27:54). The full inscription over Jesus’ head (V. 3’8), which he had to carry to the place of execution, was the assertion of his crime. “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” What had been intended as the last best insult became for the Gospel writers a triumphant proclamation.
The two criminals, too, contradicted each other on Jesus. Both were guilty and deserved punishment. One, however, out of an ingrained ignorant habit of cursing and blaspheming took up the taunts of the leaders and of some of the soldiers against Jesus (v. 39). The other criminal not only refused to rebuke the Lord, but berated his companion (vv. 40f.) and touchingly kept asking that Jesus remember him when Jesus came into his kingdom (v. 42).
Jesus’ gracious response to the contrite criminal was to assure him that that very day he would be with him in paradise (v. 43). Jesus put an emphasis on “this day” — that is, before the sun sets. The penitent will be “with him” — not simply following Jesus in his retinue, but sharing his reign. “Paradise” is a lovely word of Persian origin meaning “a walled garden”. When a Persian king wanted to do someone a special honour, he invited him to walk with him in his garden.
That a person like Jesus is a great King has always been for some people hard to understand. He doesn’t appear strong enough, or materialistic enough. From the beginning, some haughty people like the Gnostic heretics haven’t been satisfied with ordinary Christianity; they have wanted something more sophisticated, more intellectual, more exclusive.
The letter to the Colossians argues-against that. It states that God alone rules the universe, Christ is its cosmic Lord and King, and those who belong to him share his mastery over the world. Referring to the ancient custom of victor nations transporting entire defeated populations to the’ own country, the letter explains that God has transported us from the power of darkness to light, and transferred us from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of Jesus (v. 13).
Then the letter Shows an exalted awareness of Jesus as King and Judge of the world, endowed with divine redemptive power, and containing the fullness of God’s effective presence among people. Whereas every human being is patterned after the image of God (Gen 1:26f.), Jesus is the actual likeness of God (v. 15). Jesus not only shows who God is, but also who we are meant to be. Far beyond angels whom the Gnostics called thrones or dominations or principalities or powers (v.16), Christ is God who Shared in the creation of all things and is therefore supreme. It is to him that creation owes all that it has been, is, and will be. Christ is not only the agent of creation in the beginning, but also its goal in the end, and in between these two it is he who holds the world together (v. 17).
And Christ is supreme over the Church, which without him is unthinkable and unrealizable (v. 18). He is the beginning of the Church not only in the sense of sequence, like “a” is the beginning of the alphabet and “l” is the beginning of numbers, but in the sense of being the source of everything. By virtue of his victory over death, he is Lord of all. The absolute fullness (pleroma, v. 19) that resides in him means that everything that makes God to be God resides in Jesus. Only in his kingdom do we ﬁnd majesty without tyranny, power without domination, glory without terror. Though he is nothing like the earthly kings we have heard about, what else can we call him but our King?
Altogether, Jesus’ kingship holds out a vision that takes us beyond imagination. It is a vision of a place beyond nations’ mountains of arms and our own private worries; it provides a recipe for human contentment out of peace and hope for the future. Quite unlike dictators or politicians who intuit which way the human parade is heading and getting in front of it, ,Jesus came to turn the parade in a different direction. The kingship of Jesus is always different from that of earthly kings, and its meaning does not crumble away with the passing modes of earthly politics. His kingship depends on our willing acceptance of his rule in our hearts and in our lives. We make him welcome and ask him to lead us, as the Shepherd-King of our souls.