In case we had forgotten and needed to be reminded, our world is constantly reminding us just what an unpredictable place it is - and how much malice and evil there is in the world. But none of that is new and should not surprise us.
89 years ago this week, 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. 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 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 inexorably cause a second one. That was the world in which 2 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, which we are celebrating today.
Of course, 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 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.
Coming at the end of a truly turbulent year in our country, characterized by a bitterly fought, angry, and divisive national election, 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 rather peacefully, usually as a matter of inheritance according to established constitutional rules, ritualized by suitable ceremonies. Once enthroned, a king or queen acts as a kind of social glue that binds a 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, a little over 3000 years ago, the process (reflected in today’s 1st reading) was less predictable – except in retrospect. In retrospect, David the king 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 nation and creating a unique new national and religious community.
This Sunday celebrates Jesus, David’s descendant, as the ultimate messiah-king, complete with all the religious and symbolic resonance the word “king” conveys – a king, however, who became king, not by shedding his rivals’ blood (as David did), but by 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 not as an honor but as an insult. The title is just one more mockery aimed at Jesus. Throughout his entire 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 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 - a question our modern world still seems to be struggling with. On the cross, however, Jesus must have appeared about as powerless as any person can be, a complete loser. Even so, he seems serenely confident in his power as he unlocks the kingdom for one of the two criminals executed with him, thus revealing himself as king of a new kind of kingdom, a kingdom of mercy.
A fitting image on this day when the Church marks the conclusion of an Extraordinary Holy Year focused entirely on God’s mercy – on how we experience it ourselves and how we share it with others.
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, here represents all of us, whose ultimate hope lies in God’s mercy, as we recognize our need and dependence and accept the crucified Christ as king. All of us must continually make our own the prayerful plea: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 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 have been anointed to share in his kingship and live as members of his body. So, if I may end by quoting 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 Christ the King, Saint Anne's Church, Walnut Creek, CA, November 20, 2016.