Nov 24, 2019: Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (C)

Introduction

The Feast of Christ the King was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as an antidote to secularism, a way of life which leaves God out of man’s thinking and living. The feast is intended to proclaim in a striking and effective manner Christ’s royalty over individuals, families, society, governments, and nations.

At this point in history, all of Europe was reeling from the nightmare memories of what they then called “The Great War,” a time of an explosion of hatred, blindness, and a torrent of blood that wiped out much of the European population.  Nationalism and fascism were on the rise; piercing the sound of these ideologies’ marches and hate-filled speeches, the pope’s new message of justice, peace, community and love were lighting a new spark.  In initiating this feast, the Chruch wanted to take our worship of Jesus from the privacy of our hearts and to proudly proclaim his public sway as well.

Originally celebrated on the last Sunday of October, it was transferred after Vatican Council II to the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year, the Sunday before Advent.

“God did not intend Israel to have a kingdom.  The kingdom was a result of Israel’s rebellion against God…. The law was to be Israel’s king, and, through the law, God himself…. God yielded to Israel’s obstinacy and so devised a new kind of kingship for them.  The King is Jesus; in him God entered humanity and espoused it to himself.  This is the usual form of the divine activity in relation to mankind.  God does not have a fixed plan that he must carry out; on the contrary, he has many different ways of finding man and even of turning his wrong ways into right ways…. The feast of Christ the King is therefore not a feast of those who are subjugated, but a feast of those who know that they are in the hands of the one who writes straight on crooked lines.”  —Pope Benedict XVI

1st Reading – 2 Samuel 5:1-3

In those days, all the tribes of Israel came to David in Hebron and said:
“Here we are, your bone and your flesh. 
In days past, when Saul was our king,
it was you who led the Israelites out and brought them back. 
And the LORD said to you,
‘You shall shepherd my people Israel
and shall be commander of Israel.’” 
When all the elders of Israel came to David in Hebron,
King David made an agreement with them there before the LORD,
and they anointed him king of Israel.

In today’s first reading, all the tribes of Israel (that is, the northern tribes) come to David and ask him to be their king.

In those days, all the tribes of Israel came to David in Hebron

A city in the hill country of Judah, about 20 miles south of Jerusalem.  It had a long history as a sacred shrine: it was the place where Abram had built an altar to the Lord (Genesis 13:18) and also the place where Sarah was buried (Genesis 23:19).  Traditionally, it was the center of Judah’s power — an appropriate place for the anointing of a new king.

and said: “Here we are, your bone and your flesh.

The people acknowledge the intimate bond they share with David.  They are his bone and flesh, his very kin.  Presumably this intimacy will strengthen the ties of loyalty that join them.

In days past, when Saul was our king, it was you who led the Israelites out and brought them back. 

They recognize him as a worthy leader.  In the past, when Saul was king, David had been able to gather around himself bands of people who would follow him wherever he would lead them.  At that time, such loyalty became a threat to King Saul’s sovereignty; now, it would be an asset to David’s power.

And the LORD said to you, ‘You shall shepherd my people Israel and shall be commander of Israel.’”

Although it was the people who anointed David as their king, they believed they were merely confirming God’s choice.  In fact, the passage states that God informed David of his fate, describing it in two metaphors frequently associated with kings in the ancient Near Eastern world.

Because they were responsible for the well-being of the people, kings were often characterized as shepherds.  The familiarity and person concern associated with this metaphor suggests the nature of monarchy that was held up as an ideal.

The second image is that of a commander or captain (nāgîd), one who leads by going before the people.  Both images represent the king as a leader for the people, not one who is removed, expecting only to be served by them.

When all the elders of Israel came to David in Hebron,

The elders were probably the leaders of the individual tribes who came together at certain significant times to make decisions that would affect all the people.  In a very real sense, they were the ones who governed the northern kingdom.

King David made an agreement with them there before the LORD, and they anointed him king of Israel.

David enters into covenant with the elders, in the name of the people they represented, and they anoint him as king. A thousand years before Jesus, David was the first great “Christ,” or anointed ruler of Israel.

In the ancient world, anointing served three distinct purposes: an ointment for hygiene and health purposes, a token of honor, and a symbol of consecration.  It seems probable that its sanative purposes were enjoyed before it became an object of ceremonial religion, but the custom appears to predate written history and the archaeological record, and its genesis is impossible to determine with certainty.

This particular anointing is a significant tribal act with personal repercussions — in doing this, they were relinquishing some of their own authority and power.

David went on to become the greatest king that Israel ever had.  Later, God will promise David that his kingdom will be secure forever (2 Samuel 7:8-17).  It was because of this promise that the Jews expected one from David’s line, an anointed one, a Christ (Christ means anointed) to come and save them from the Romans.

2nd Reading – Colossians 1:12-20

Brothers and sisters:
Let us give thanks to the Father,
who has made you fit to share
in the inheritance of the holy ones in light. 
He delivered us from the power of darkness
and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,
in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation.
For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers;
all things were created through him and for him.
He is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church.
He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
that in all things he himself might be preeminent.
For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell,
and through him to reconcile all things for him,
making peace by the blood of his cross
through him, whether those on earth or those in heaven.

Today’s second reading is made up of an exhortation to give thanks and hymn celebrating the excellence of Christ.

Brothers and sisters: Let us give thanks to the Father, who has made you fit to share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light.

The Colossians are invited to thank God for three blessings.  First, the blessing of a share in the inheritance of the saints.  Inheritance is a family privilege, not a benefit for servants and slaves (see Romans 8:17).

“Why does he call it an inheritance? To show that by his own achievements no one obtains the kingdom, but as an inheritance is rather the result of good fortune, so in truth it is the same principle here. For no one leads a life so good as to be counted worthy of the kingdom, but the whole is his free gift.” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 392), Homilies on Colossians 2]

He delivered us from the power of darkness

Second, deliverance from darkness, or sin.

and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,

Finally, transference into the kingdom of God’s Son. Note that in all cases the initiative is from God the Father – he made us fit, he rescued us, he brought us. Like the Israel of old, we have been delivered from captivity.

in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Paul claims that it was through the blood of this Son that redemption was won and sins were forgiven.  This is certainly reason to be grateful!

He is the image of the invisible God,

Paul transitions into what may have been primitive Christian hymn, possibly having its origin in the liturgy. The christology in this hymn of praise is referred to as high christology.  It extols the divine character and activity of Christ, rather than his human nature and the physical life he lived on earth.

An image can either represent something or it can be a visible expression or manifestation of it.  It is precisely because images function in this way that the ancient Hebrews forbade fashioning images of God.  Once God was so represented, God could always be represented in such a limited way.

It’s clear from this passage that Christ is considered more than a mere symbol; rather, he is a visible manifestation of the invisible God.  To say that Christ is the image of God is not meant to limit our understanding of God; rather, it extols the person of Christ.

the firstborn of all creation.

Paul uses several striking terms to characterize Christ: firstborn, the beginning, head of the church.  Each adds a significant dimension to our understanding of Christ.

Like “image,” “firstborn” can also be understood in two ways.  It can refer to priority in time, or to primacy in importance.  As the context which follows shows, the reference is not to Christ as the first created being, but to the sovereignty of the power he exercises.  Here, firstborn is a high-Christology title; that is, it is claiming the Christ is divine.

For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him.

Christ occupies a place of preeminence over all of creation; in fact, creation is dependent upon him.  He is the agent through whom all was created, and he is also the goal of all creation.

Note that Christ’s rule extends over the angelic realm as well (dominions, principalities, powers).

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

“Paul did not say ‘He was made before all things,’ but that ‘He is before all things.’ He is not only the maker of all, but also He manages the care of what He has made and governs the creature, which exists by His wisdom and power.” [Theodoret of Cyr (ca. A.D. 450), Interpretation of the Fourteen Epistles of Paul, On Romans]

He is the head of the body, the church.

Paul shifts his focus and ties creation together with redemption.  Using the metaphor of the body, he depicts both the union that exists between Christ and the Church and the preeminence that is Christ’s, as head of that body.

He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he himself might be preeminent.

Redemption is accomplished through Christ’s resurrection (“firstborn from the dead”).  Christ is both the first one raised and the one through whom all others will be raised.

For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, 

Finally, as image or manifestation of the invisible God, the fullness of God dwells within Christ.

This absolute fullness (pleroma) residing in Christ means that everything that makes God to be God resides in Jesus.  Only in Christ’s kingdom do we find majesty without tyranny, power without domination, glory without terror.

and through him to reconcile all things for him,

In this capacity, Christ is the agent of reconciliation, a reconciliation with a universal scope.  It includes all created things in heaven and on earth, things visible and invisible.

making peace by the blood of his cross through him,

The means of this reconciliation that Christ brings is the blood of the cross.  The sacrificial death of the human Jesus becomes the means through which the cosmic Christ reconciles all creation with God.

whether those on earth or those in heaven.

“I believe that when our Lord and Savior came, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were blessed with God’s mercy. Previously they had seen His day and rejoiced (John 8:56). It is not believable that they did not profit from it later, when He came and was born of a virgin. And why do I speak of the patriarchs? I shall boldly follow the authority of the Scriptures to higher planes, for the presence of the Lord Jesus and His work benefitted not only what is earthly but also what is heavenly. Hence the blood of His cross, both on earth and in heaven.” [Origin (after A.D. 233), Homilies on Luke 10,3]

On the feast of Christ the King, we recognize the firstborn on the cross.  We give thanks that we have been forgiven for our sins and join the whole church in praising Christ, our king.

Gospel – Luke 23:35-43

The rulers sneered at Jesus and said,
“He saved others, let him save himself
if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.” 
Even the soldiers jeered at him. 
As they approached to offer him wine they called out,
“If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.” 
Above him there was an inscription that read,
“This is the King of the Jews.”

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying,
“Are you not the Christ?
Save yourself and us.” 
The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply,
“Have you no fear of God,
for you are subject to the same condemnation?
And indeed, we have been condemned justly,
for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes,
but this man has done nothing criminal.”
Then he said,
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
He replied to him,
“Amen, I say to you,
today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Today’s gospel reading is a scene from the crucifixion — one of both contempt and faith.  In the paradoxical fashion that has become so much a part of the gospel reality, Jesus is ridiculed for being who he really is.  It is only at the end of the narrative, when speaking to the one person in the scene who does not jeer him but who professes faith in his innocence, that Jesus speaks with the royal authority that it is his.

The rulers sneered at Jesus and said, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Messiah of God.”

When the reading begins, Jesus has already been crucified.  The rulers sneer at Christ as he hangs on the cross, turning his own claims against him.  It is clear that they believe that if these claims were true either God or Jesus himself would intervene to prevent the events unfolding before their very eyes.

What they do not realize is that he is indeed the Messiah; the error is in their messianic understanding and expectations.  Jesus is a king, but he will not use his power to save himself.  In Luke’s gospel, we have been shown that Jesus overcame the temptation to use his power in self-serving ways before his public ministry ever began (Luke 4:1-13).

Even the soldiers jeered at him. As they approached to offer him wine they called out, “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.”

The Roman soldiers echo the mockery of the Jewish leaders.  Instead of focusing on Jesus’ messianic claims, a foreign concept for them, they insult him based on the claim to royalty.

There is much symbolism in the act of giving Jesus wine. Other translations tell us that this was sour wine, which corresponds with Psalm 69:21 (69:22 in the New American Bible). John 19:30 tells us that Jesus drank this sour wine from a sponge on a hyssop branch, which is what the Israelites used during the first Passover to sprinkle the blood on their doorposts and lintel.

Above him there was an inscription that read, “This is the King of the Jews.”

The inscription on the cross plays a cryptic role.  It was a Roman custom to display the crime of the condemned person so the passersby could both jeer the criminal and be sobered by the punishment inflicted.

Again, the massive irony here is that he is, in fact, the King of the Jews.  True to the paradox of the gospel, what was intended as a derision actually became a proclamation of faith.

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.”

Even one of the two criminals crucified alongside Jesus adds to the public humiliation.  It’s unclear whether he is mocking Jesus or truly held out hope that he was the Messiah and could save them.  If the latter, like the Jewish leaders, his messianic expectations were of a military ruler that would come with brute force.

The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

In a story found only in Luke’s gospel, the second criminal crucified with Jesus defends him.  He first recognizes the innocence of Jesus and then his kingly character.  While it was probably not difficult to realize that Jesus was no threat to Roman rule, the dying criminal goes further and professes a degree of eschatological hope.  Remarkably, he seems to have believed that somehow Jesus would reign as king even after his death.

He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Not only does the second criminal not ridicule Jesus, he accepts his own imminent death as just payment for his crimes.  In the eyes of Jesus, this appears to be enough, for he promises the man immediate entrance into paradise.

In Jewish eschatological tradition, the time of fulfillment was envisioned as a return to the pristine innocence and peace of primeval time. Descriptions of the end resemble descriptions of the beginning.  Paradise is the word used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) to describe the Garden of Eden.  By placing this word on Jesus’ lips, Luke implies that Jesus’ death reverses the effects of sin.

Using this image of Eden, Jesus here assures the dying criminal that he will be granted entrance into Jesus’ kingdom.  Even from the cross, Jesus rules with authority.

Actually, it is precisely from the cross that Jesus rules with authority, because it was through the cross that he entered into his kingdom.

Connections and Themes

The readings for this week are chosen in an unusual way; they are intended to create a collage of images that capture one or more characteristics of Christ’s kingship.  Each image in some way significantly reinterprets the concept of king, investing it with new meaning.  Gathered together, they create a kind of litany that extols the kingship of Christ.

Shepherd and commander call to mind the care and protection that Christ lavishes on those who place themselves under his care, who recognize his voice and follow him wherever he goes.  According to this metaphor, the kingly rule of Christ is characterized by tenderness, not by the exercise of power.

King of Israel is, in the reading from 2 Samuel, a sign of universal rule.  David was of the tribe of Judah and had been called to rule over the southern tribes.  Now he is asked to extend his rule over people who were not his own.  So it is with the reign of Christ.  It extends to all, even to those who are not his original people.

Image of the invisible God acclaims the divine origin of Christ and, by extension, of the rule he exercises over all.  The dominion of Christ includes everything over which God reigns.

Firstborn of all creation places Christ over the entire created world.  The image of the caring shepherd reinterprets what could be here misunderstood as unfeeling dominion.  Just as Christ tenderly cares for his sheep, in like manner he attentively tends the garden of the world over which he rules.

Source of all created things acknowledges both the sovereignty of Christ and his importance as the model after which all things were fashioned.  In other words, creation mirrors the image of Christ the King.  This is but another reason to cherish it.

Head of the body, the Church, underscores the intimacy and interrelationship that exist between Christ and all those who are joined to him through faith and baptism.  This image challenges any idea of a distant and disinterested ruler.  Just as a body needs a head, so a head needs a body.

Firstborn of the dead not only acclaims Christ’s resurrection, it also guarantees the resurrection of those who will follow him into death.  Christ is the kind of king who shares all of his privileges with others.

Crucified King is clearly the image that reinterprets all other images.  It strips from the notion of king all honor and glory that flow merely from pride of office rather than from the exercise of dedicated leadership.  For the sake of his sheep Jesus willingly endured humiliation and death.  Nailed to the cross, his outstretched arms embraced women and men from every corner of the world.  In his own body the created world was beaten down, only to rise again in glory.  As head of the Church, he became a victim so those who constitute his body could be spared many of the horrors he willingly endured.  Finally, having conquered death by dying himself, he entrusts to all people the power over death he has won for them.  He first exercised this authority as he hung dying on the cross, which forevermore will be seen as his glorious throne.

In the last words of the gospel reading, words with which the entire liturgical year is brought to completion, he opens the gates of his kingdom to a repentant sinner: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  These are the words we all long to hear, words that are charged with power when spoken by the one who is King over us all.

The fact that Jesus forgives sinners is emphasized throughout Luke’s gospel; the Church chooses to join Luke in emphasizing this theme on the feast of Christ the King. In the gospel reading we see that Jesus did not come to save himself, but to save sinners, including us. Luke wants us to understand that the jeerer’s words are true: Jesus is king, not only of the Jews, but of the whole world.  Christ, the king, has reconciled the world to God.

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