This year the Solemnity of Christ the King marks both the end of the Liturgical Year and the conclusion of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. It invites us to reflect on how a powerful and glorious King can be at the same time a King of Mercy. Today’s liturgy shows us that the seeming contradiction of the King’s defeat leads to the deeper reality of his everlasting victory. It fills us with joyful hope, because it is mercy – which of course does not end when the Jubilee ends – that prompts the King to say to every repentant sinner: “you will be with me in paradise.”
The first reading tells us that the tribes of Israel wanted a strong king, one favored by God, a king who would lead the mighty armies of Israel to victory. They saw David as that kind of king, so they anointed him as king of Israel. King David did kingly things: he wore a crown of jewels, carried a scepter of office, and led processions celebrating great victories against the enemies of Israel. He was a good shepherd who looked after the welfare of his sheep, providing them with security, peace and freedom from fear. The people loved him because he did everything they expected of a king.
The prophets then told of another who was still to come, a Messiah – an Anointed One – who would be a descendant of David, a king greater than David, one who would save Israel from its enemies. So, the Israelites awaited another king whom they would anoint with oil, a great king with a jeweled crown and scepter. He would lead great armies in victory processions and bring great wealth to Israel. This is what the people expected – but what they got instead was a surprising paradox. The Messiah is Jesus Christ, who is indeed a king, but not an earthly king. He was anointed king, not with oil, but with the Holy Spirit and with power (cf. Acts 10:38). Yet he was also lowly and humble. He seemed to be so much less than a king, yet he is so much more. As the second reading tells us, “He is the image of the invisible God… all were created through him.”
The paradox is most fully revealed when Jesus the Messiah culminates his earthly ministry dying on the wood of the cross – a sign of terrible defeat and yet also of final victory. It is through his cross that he has “rescued us from the power of darkness” and brought us into the kingdom of light. His kingship is boldly proclaimed from the cross. “There was an inscription over his head: ‘This is the King of the Jews.’”
However, this inscription was written in mockery. The Pharisees, the soldiers, and the first thief all see the Kingdom of God in an earthly way. A savior should be able to save himself. “Let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, the chosen one.” But Jesus does not save himself. Instead, he dies meekly and humbly, never even defending himself. His death on a cross caused many of the Jews to doubt that Jesus was really the Messiah. Even today people ask that same question. Could the Messiah, the Chosen One of God, be killed on a cross by his enemies? Unfortunately, many answer, No, because they do not understand the wisdom of the cross.
As a matter of fact there were several political figures both before Christ and after Christ who claimed to be the Messiah. They were all eventually killed, and when they died all their claims of being the Messiah died with them. It was with that in mind that the Pharisees condemned Jesus to death. ‘Let him fade away like the rest of the would-be Messiahs.’ Jesus Christ, however, did not just fade away. He rose in victory and glory, “the first-born of the dead.” The Church, which is his Body, grew and quickly spread throughout the world. It is the Church that confidently announces to the whole world that Christ is King.
How do we view this King? How do we relate to him? In contrast to the mockery and doubt of the crowd, we learn a far better way from the thief who humbly appeals for mercy. The thief seems to understand that this King’s mission is not a political one. He sees him as an innocent victim who can save the guilty, and as someone he can approach personally. Our King is not far away on an unapproachable and lofty throne; he is united with us in our condition of suffering and need, carrying our burdens with us and for us. To know Jesus Christ personally is to have hope – not the hope of the self-righteous who reject the idea that they need a Savior, but the hope of all who are poor in spirit. Looking at our King hanging on the cross for our sake, we are not afraid to ask him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
When we humble ourselves before the Lord, when we pray with awareness of our unworthiness, we rejoice to discover that he is the King of Mercy. He does not hold our sins against us. He wants us to be with him in paradise. It is the experience of his mercy that moves us in turn to be merciful to others, and to strive to relieve their misery. As the Jubilee Year of Mercy comes to an end, we look to Christ our King, who saves us “through the blood of his cross” and makes us “worthy to share the lot of the saints in light.” He calls us to be his ambassadors, that all people may enter his Kingdom of Divine Mercy.
When do I place earthly expectations on Christ the King? Am I willing to humbly approach Jesus and trust in his mercy? In what ways do I struggle with the paradox of the cross?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 12, no. 8. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.