Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Parish, New Bedford, MA
Christ the King, Year B
November 26, 2006
Dn 7:13-14; Rev1:5-8; Jn 18:33-37
1) Today we celebrate the culmination of the Church’s whole liturgical year. During the past 51 weeks, we have been on pilgrimage through time. Our journey began with the Jewish people in the expectation of the Messiah. Then we celebrated the Messiah’s birth, epiphany, presentation in the temple, baptism and hidden life. We joined Jesus in the desert for 40 days. With the help of St. Mark’s Gospel, we followed him during his three years of public ministry. We took out our palm branches and sang hosanna to him. We joined him in the Upper Room as he inaugurated Holy Orders and the Mass. On Good Friday, we shamefully relived our calls for his crucifixion (which we reiterate each time we sin). We celebrated the most important event in world history on April 16th when we rejoiced in his resurrection and stayed with him for the next 40 days until his Ascension. We prayed with Mary for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Then we entered into the time of the Church, “ordinary time,” in which we’re called to focus on our mission to continue what the early Church started. In the month of November, as we neared the end of the pilgrimage, we began to focus on the “last things.” Today we come to the dramatic conclusion, the exclamation point, the finish line — and turn our attention to what will be the central reality at the end of time and into eternity. Then, we and every around us — every Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Jew, Buddhist and Hindu, atheist and agnostic — will recognize what we have been given the privilege in life to profess: that Jesus Christ is the King of the Universe, that to him, as Daniel told us in the first reading today, has been “given dominion and glory and kingship. … His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”
2) Our forefathers in this Church had this reality very much in mind when they, on the enormous stained glass windows in the southern transept, with all the beauty human artistry can muster, tried to give us a glimpse into the eternal reality we celebrate today. We behold Christ the King in the center, with his gold scepter in his right hand. All the angels surround him with praise. The Father and the Holy Spirit, above him, point him out. Various saints who have brought the good news of his kingdom to the world — St. Francis Xavier, St. Jean de Brebeuf, St. Peter Chanel, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha — are shown on the side panels, leading, as we heard in the first reading, “all peoples, nations and languages” to adore him.
3) But that’s only half of what our ancestors were trying to teach us by this scene. We see also Pope Pius XI, who inaugurated this feast of Christ the King in 1925, and Pius XII, his secretary of state and successor (who was Pope when this window was installed in 1952). They are joined by Fall River Bishops Feehan and Cassidy who were ordinaries of our diocese during their respective pontificates. They’re not depicted in heaven with the saints, but from earth they’re all joining the saints in adoring Christ the King, not in his image of eternal glory, but in the humble disguise of the Eucharist in a monstrance on the altar. What our spiritual progenitors wanted us to capture is the other aspect of this feast, that Christ’s kingdom is not just “coming” but is “at hand” and “among us”(Mk 1:15; Mt 12:28; Lk 17:21). It is not something toward which we should merely look in the future, but into which we’re supposed to have entered already, since Christ has already inaugurated it. The King is already here, truly present in the Eucharist, and if we wish to join SS. Francis Xavier, Jean de Brebeuf, Blessed Kateri, and others, the best means is to love Him in the disguise of the Eucharist like we would hope to love him if we saw him transfigured in glory.
4) But to do that, we need to have faith. We have to admit that it would be much easier for us to adore our King if he appeared to us in all his glory surrounded by the angels and the saints, but the Lord does not choose to manifest himself to us in that way here on earth. Instead he wills to hide his majesty under his equally great humility. We see that obviously in the Eucharist, where his Divine Majesty cloaks himself under the appearances of bread and wine and bids us to consume him. But we see it, too, in today’s Gospel passage, taken from St. John’s account of the Lord’s passion. Before Pilate and the crowds, Christ’s crown was made not of jewels but of thorns. The sign of his royalty was not a signet ring on his finger, but a hole straight through his hand. His throne was not made of marble but of two beams of intersecting wood. He was covered not in royal purple but in blood. The question for us is why did the Universal King divest himself of his majesty and not only assume the humblest of appearances, but allow his creatures he himself formed in the womb to manhandle him in the way that they did on Calvary and have continued to do through the centuries?
5) The ultimate reason was to show us first how much he loved us and second how we are called to love others. Even though, as Daniel tells us today, “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him,” the King himself said that he had come from heaven to earth not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many (Mt 20:28). His kingdom is not so much one of power and majesty, but of self-giving love, and by his actions, Christ was not only inaugurating that kingdom of love but making it possible for us to reign with him in it. In the second reading today, we see that Christ did all he did in order to make of us a “kingdom of priests serving his God and father.” Later in the same book of Revelation, the saints and angels in heaven praised Christ, chanting, “You were slaughtered and by your blood you have ransomed for God saints of every tribe and language, people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom of priests serving our God and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev 5:9-10). The term “priest” is being used generically here to describe one who makes sacrifices to God. Christ came to establish a kingdom of people who, like Him, offer their lives as a ransom for others, who desire not to be served, but to serve, who sacrifice themselves to for others’ sanctification and salvation. For us to accept our full place in God’s kingdom, in which we are adopted sons and daughters, we must be willing to suffer with Christ out of love for God and others. St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “The [Holy] Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — as long as we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:16-17). Since Christ reigned from the throne of the Cross, if we wish to reign with him, we must do so on the Crosses he gives us each day. We must give our body and blood in union with his for others, as a ransom for others, including those who might wish to do to us what they did to him.
6) This truth is a beautiful and most challenging one, and the Lord does not intend for it to remain theoretical. In today’s Gospel, when Pilate asked Jesus whether he was a king, the Lord responded, “Do you ask this on your own, or have others told you about me?” For Jesus it wasn’t enough just to know that others said he was a king. He wanted every man — from Pilate to you and to me — to hear that question and respond. It’s not enough for Christ to be the King of “others.” It’s not even enough for him to be the King of the “universe.” He died in order to become your king and my king and wants to have that relationship with each of us.
7) What is it mean for us to relate to Christ as king? Most people think that this means, principally, to obey Christ as we would obey a king. There is some truth to this. After all, to pray, “thy kingdom come!” is at the same time to pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Christ’s kingdom comes when we do his will. But the obedience to which Christ calls us is not the type of “against the grain” subservience that many people think. Jesus explains to us what obedience in his kingdom is in today’s Gospel. To Pilate’s question, “So you are a king?,” Jesus responded in a way that might seem like he was evading the procurator’s interrogative, but he was really pointing to the relationship between king and subjects in his kingdom: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Those who live in Christ’s kingdom are the ones who believe Christ’s testimony, listen to his voice, treasure his words, and follow him and his words. It’s not so much a thing of complying blindly to arbitrary dictates, but of trusting that what Christ reveals is the truth, the very truth that sets us free (Jn 8:32). Obedience in Christ’s kingdom is really the summit of freedom. It is only by conforming our will to God’s will, to the truth that Christ reveals, that we become free, free to love, free to follow Christ all the way, free to give our lives out of love as a ransom for the many.
8 ) That said, obedience is not the essential thing about relating to Christ as king. There is something more important. Since Christ came not to be served, but to serve, the most important part of our relating to Christ as King is to allow him to serve us, to permit him to give us the gifts and the help he wishes to give. This sounds easy enough, but in reality many of us do not allow Christ to serve us in the way he wants, because we prefer that he serve us according to our criteria not his. I like to relate it to how St. Peter responded to the Lord’s desire to wash his feet during the Last Supper. You remember the scene. Christ wanted to do the work of a slave and wash the filth off of his apostles’ feet. St. Peter did not want the Lord to serve him in this way. “You shall never wash my feet!,” he exclaimed. He thought humility before the Lord and respect for his identity meant refusing the Lord’s loving service, rather than humbly allowing Him to do what he wanted, even if it made Peter uncomfortable. But when Christ responded, “Unless I wash you, Peter, you will have no part of me,” the fisherman converted on the spot and replied, “Then, Lord, [wash] not only my feet but my hands and my head as well” (Jn 13:8 ). He responded by not only allowing the Lord to do minimally what he wanted — wash his feet — but with the enthusiastic invitation to wash him even more thoroughly than that.
9) The same dynamics can happen with us. Sometimes we out of a false sense of humility try to refuse the Lord’s ministrations. So that we might remain part of him in grace, he wants to clean us in the sacrament of confession. Do we let him or do we refuse? So that we can continue to be nourished by his testimony to the truth, he wants to teach us with Sacred Scripture, particularly through the Gospels. Do we let him or do we refuse? So that we can remain in Communion with Him who is the King of Gods, he wants to feed us in the Eucharist. Do we let him? And if we do let him serve us in these three days, do we give him access only to our “feet” or do we invite him to “wash our hands and our head as well.” Minimally, we need to allow him to cleanse our souls once a year in confession, but do we, with exuberant love, give him the ability to love us in this way more often, even once a month or once a week? Strictly speaking there is no minimum requirement for reading Sacred Scripture other than paying attention at Mass, but do we allow him each day at home, through our reading the Gospels, thoroughly to cleanse our minds of worldly ideas and place in our hands the truths that the world so much needs to hear? Strictly speaking, we only need to come to Mass on Sunday and on Holy Days of Obligation, but Jesus, out of love for us, because he wants to feed us and strengthened us, comes down on the altar at Mass 365 days a year. Do we allow him to feed us more than the minimum?
10) At this Mass, Christ says to us as he did to Pilate, “Do you say that I’m a king on your own, or have others told you about me?” In other words, he says, “Do you wish me to be YOUR king? If you do, then allow me to serve you, not according to your terms and ideas, but according to mine, according to what I know you really need. Only in this way will I be able to form you in the truth to be the kingdom of priests I came from heaven to earth to establish. Let me love you in the Eucharist. Let me teach you in Sacred Scripture. Let me wash the filth of sins from your souls in the confessionals. Let me help you to live according to the truth and freely pass that life-saving truth onto others, so that one day, with the saints you see in your stained glass window, with all the angels depicted in this beautiful Church, you may reign with me and come to see me smiling on you with love for all eternity.”