Christ the King

The readings for Sunday, November 13, 2016, Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King, Cycle C, are
2 Samuel 5:1-3; Colossians 1:12-20; and Luke 23:35-43.

The feast of Christ the King was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925. According to Pius XI, people of his time “…thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives,” so that “these have no place in public affairs and politics.” Pius continues,”…as long as individuals and states refuse to submit to the rule of our Savior, there will be no hopeful prospect for a lasting peace among nations.” This was at a time when atheistic Communism had taken over Russia and was a threat to Europe. Pius XI, as Archbishop Achille Ratti, had been Pope Benedict XV’s representative in Poland during the Communist-Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917. During the attack of Communist Russia on Poland in 1920, Archbishop Ratti refused to leave Poland while other ambassadors fled before the approach of the Russian army.

This made him a hero to the Polish people and eventually to the Vatican. It led to his appointment as Archbishop of Milano, Italy, and a cardinal’s hat. A few months later he was elected as Pius XI. He remembered the danger he experienced in Poland, the threat of death and threat to Poland and all of Europe from atheistic Communism. This experience led him to proclaim Jesus as King. The proclamation of Jesus as King was nothing new. All the gospels had done that in various ways about nineteen centuries before. What was new was the establishment of a liturgical feast specifically in honor of Christ the King. Certainly the kingship of Jesus was already celebrated on Palm Sunday, but the sadness of events recalled in the reading of the Passion during that feast cast a shadow over a joyful celebration.

However the gospel reading the Lectionary offers for the Feast of Christ the King for the Year of Luke does not escape the sadness of the Passion events. The scene from beginning to end is Jesus on the cross, the various mockeries he endured, and the “deathbed” conversion of the so-called Good Thief. Unfortunately the assemblers of the Lectionary did not include the headline Luke wrote and intended to govern the scene described in this gospel reading. That headline of the greatest importance was this, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Then the mockers stepped onto the stage to do that for which Jesus forgave them before they acted.

In all the mockeries of Jesus, the rulers, the soldiers, and one of the criminals on the cross next to Jesus, Luke emphasizes “saving,” proclaiming that Jesus is being crucified as Savior. This is a favorite title of Jesus in Luke’s theology. At Jesus’ birth, “Savior” is the first title by which the angels described Jesus in the annunciation to the shepherds, Luke 2:11. The irony of the taunt of the rulers is that the seeming failure or inability to save himself is precisely what brought about “saving” for others, or its possibility. Therefore, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The titles triumphantly sung by the angels to the shepherds, including the “Messiah,” are again brought forward by Luke to proclaim that these titles of Jesus conferred on him at his birth are perfected by his saving death. The soldiers also taunt Jesus. This time the title used by the mockers is “King of the Jews.” Luke notes that this title was posted on an inscription at the top of the cross, “This is the King of the Jews.” The two titles, “King of the Jews” and “Christ (Messiah)” have about the same meaning for Jews expecting delivery from Roman occupation at the time of Jesus.

The final taunt comes from one of the criminals crucified with Jesus, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” Again Luke proclaims Jesus as Christ (Messiah) and Savior. But is it not pathetic to apply these grand titles to one who hangs helpless on the cross close to death? Yes, from a human point of view. However Luke will now demonstrate what he means by salvation through the crucified Christ, the Chosen One, the King. The other criminal rebukes his colleague. In a final moment of conversion, he says these words which proclaim Jesus King, though not of a kingdom of this world, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”