Our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe. I often wonder if this solemnity is one to which many people can relate. Our system of governance in America does not include the idea of a King, and even if it did, so many people don’t recognize or accept any authority outside of their own personal opinion of what is okay. So I wonder if the whole idea is completely foreign.

Now, if we were looking for a king, what kind of king is this? Our gospel reading today presents a picture of a king who, objectively speaking, seems to be a complete failure. This is not a king who lived in a lavish palace and expected the blind obedience of all those around him. This is not a king who held political office, or led a great army. His message was always quite different than that, and now today, just look at him hanging on the cross between two hardened criminals. That one of them thinks to ask Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom is almost laughable, but, well, there it is.   There is our king. This feast leaves us on the very last Sunday of the Church year with more questions than, it would seem, could ever possibly be answered.

This wasn’t the kind of thing the Jews were expecting, of course. They had long been expecting an Anointed One, but never one like this. Their whole picture of a Messiah had been one of political greatness and military strength, one who would restore the sovereignty of Israel and reestablish Jerusalem as the great political and religious city that it had once been. That was the Messiah they were looking for, but what they got was one who was so much of a suffering servant that he ended up on a cross. Pilate’s inscription, “This is the king of the Jews” was sarcastic and completely offensive to them, which of course is exactly what he intended.

So it’s easy to see why the Jews might not have noticed that this one was their king. It’s easy enough to even see why they would have chosen to ignore his kingship. But we can’t miss it: we have heard the Word proclaimed all year long and we know that this is the way that God chose to save the world. There are times, of course, when we could do with a bit more opulence and certainly a lot less suffering. But Jesus is the king of our reality, not of our fantasy, and so he is not ashamed to herald the cross as the gateway to the kingdom and the instrument of our salvation.

And we have to admit that we are a people who need a king like this. We might want a king to give us greatness and rest from our enemies, but that’s not real. What’s real is our suffering, whether it’s illness, or grief, or job dissatisfaction, or personal troubles, or family strife, or broken relationships, or any other calamity. Suffering happens, and that’s why Jesus chose the image of the Suffering Servant as the motif of his kingship. St. Paul says today in our second reading from his letter to the Colossians that “in him all things hold together.” Even when the world seems to be falling apart for us, we can trust in the Suffering Servant to walk with us and hold everything together.

And so, as preposterous as it may sound to others, we know that Christ is our King. His Kingship, he says in another gospel, is not of this world. No, he was not a king who came with great fanfare, oppressing peoples and putting down vast armies. No, he was not the king who restored Israel to the Davidic monarchy that began in this morning’s first reading. His power was not exercised over the political forces of this world, as much as it was exercised over the power of evil in the world. He is the King who conquered, once and for all, the things that really plague us: evil, sin and death. His Kingdom was not defined by his mortal life, but in fact begins just after he gives up that mortal life. Unlike earthly kings, his power is everlasting.

In 1925, Pope Pius XI, in the face of rising nationalism and Fascism, instituted the Feast of Christ the King to reassert Christ’s sovereignty over all forms of political governance. Jesus Christ is not just one king among others, but rather he is the King of kings and Lord of lords. Perhaps, if this feast had been instituted today, our Church might be reasserting Christ’s sovereignty over all powers of cynicism, relativism, and apathy. Jesus Christ our King is, as he says in another place, “the way, the truth, and the life” and there is no other way to the Father, no other way to the kingdom, no other way to life eternal than to take up our cross and follow our King through the sadness of sin and brokenness, through the pain of death, to the glory of his kingdom. And so we have to say with boldness and conviction on this day that one religion isn’t as good as another; that it’s not okay to skip Mass to go to so that your child can play basketball; that Sunday isn’t just a day to sleep in, or shop the malls, but rather a day to worship our King who is the only One who can give us what we really yearn for; what this life is all about.

And so this is how we wrap up our Church year. Next week we begin anew, the first Sunday of Advent. On this last Sunday of the year, it makes sense that we stop for a minute, and look back at the year gone by. How has it been for us? Have we grown in faith? Have we been able to reach out to the poor and needy? Has our faith really taken root in our lives, have we been people who witness to the truth with integrity and conviction and fearlessness? Have we put our King first in our lives or have we been worshipping false gods, attaching our hopes to impotent kings, recognizing false powers, and wandering off the path to life?

If we have been lax about our faith this year, if we have given ourselves to relativism and apathy, then this is the time to get it right. On this eve of the Church’s new year, perhaps we might make new year’s resolutions to worship our King in everything we say and everything we do. Because nothing else is acceptable, and anything less is offensive to our King who gained his Kingship at the unimaginable price of his own precious life that we might be able to live with him in his kingdom. Maybe we can resolve to get to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of obligation, not just when it works out in our schedule, and including those times when we travel (there are Catholic churches pretty much everywhere). Or perhaps we can resolve to reinvigorate our prayer lives, making time every single day to connect with our Lord, to remember our Sunday worship, to seek his guidance in all our endeavors and plans, to strive to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom in the quiet moments of our prayer. And certainly we must resolve to live the Gospel in its fullness: to reach out to the poor and needy, to live lives of integrity as we participate in our work and in our communities, to love every person God puts in our path. On this “new Church year’s eve” we must resolve to be followers of the King in ways that proclaim to a cynical and apathetic, yet absolutely watching world, that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords and that there is absolutely no other.

Our prayer on this glorious Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King must be the prayer of Saint Dismas, the “good thief” as he hung upon the cross: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!”

The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Listen to that opening line from Jesus in today’s Gospel parable: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” That is a revelation so glorious that it should have us up dancing in the aisles, praising God, and throwing a huge party. Think about it: the Father is pleased to give us the kingdom. The whole thing. Doesn’t cost us a cent. All of it is ours! If there was ever any good news to share, this is it. It’s better than a huge promotion at work, it’s even better than winning the lottery. All those things last but a moment, but the kingdom, well that’s for eternity.

So now that we know that the Father is pleased to give us the kingdom, I’d like to explore two questions. First, are we pleased to receive the kingdom? And second, what on earth do we do with it?

Okay, so are we pleased to receive the kingdom? Well, the obvious answer is “yes!” I mean, the kingdom is the great promise that brings us here to church today. Inheriting the kingdom means we are not going to hell; indeed, we will have everlasting happiness. But I wonder how readily we receive this gift of all gifts – and let’s be clear: this is the best gift we’re ever going to get. But there are so many other things out there, and we want to keep our options open. We’d rather pursue the big promotion, the latest and greatest shiny gadget, the American dream house, and so much more. Lots of things tempt us and look better than the gift the Father is pleased to give us.

Another obstacle to receiving the kingdom is maybe we feel like there’s always time to receive that gift. We’re going to live a long time, right? So why deny ourselves so many passing things in favor of receiving the kingdom? We can always receive the Father’s gift later. Except for the fact that none of us knows how much time we have in this life. Procrastination is our enemy, because some day could well turn into never. Not only that, but Jesus came to clearly proclaim that the kingdom is now, and why would we deny ourselves the pleasure of receiving the kingdom now and latch on to so many easily-tarnished things? Now is the time, and there’s no gift greater.

So if we receive the kingdom, what are we supposed to do with it? Well, just like all of God’s gifts, it’s not just for us. We’re supposed to share it. We’re supposed to live like we are part of it. So this gift of the kingdom calls us to greater integrity, greater love, greater mercy, greater holiness. And this may well seem like hard work, but that’s because it is. Jesus made it clear at the end of today’s Gospel: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”

So does that make the gift of the kingdom seem like a burden? Well, maybe. But it’s a happy burden, a glorious burden, a sweet burden. All the saints tell us as much. Even Jesus said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30) But we’ll never realize that until we go all in and receive the gift the Father is pleased to give us today. It’s kind of like that project that seems daunting, but once we get into it, is actually kind of fun. That’s the burden of the kingdom.

So Jesus brings us Good News today: the Father is pleased to give us the kingdom. So what do we have to do, what do we have to let go of, in order to receive it? That’s what should be our to-do list this week. And then we can rejoice in that gift with the Psalmist today who sings: “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.”

Friday of the Twenty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

We sure have some scary readings today, don’t we?  They’re talking about floods, and fire and brimstone raining from the sky, and someone taken and another left behind.  That’s pretty scary stuff when you stop to think about it.  But I want you to remember this: we don’t ever have to be afraid, because we always have Jesus.  And that’s a huge point.  If you read readings like this and you don’t know the rest of the story of the Gospel, it would be scary.  But we know that Jesus loved us enough to come and save us from our sins, and so floods and fire and brimstone might be scary, but we know that we can be spared all things like that if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.  Do we have to be afraid?  No.  Why?  Because we always have Jesus.

The readings that we get toward the end of the year like this are wrapping up the story.  We are also wrapping up the Church’s liturgical year and in a couple of weeks we’ll start a new liturgical year, so the Church wants us to hear some of the readings that talk about the end of time.  Readings like this can be scary because they talk about how people were persecuted over time, or about how God wants sin to come to an end.  Or like in the Gospel today, it talks about how people might miss the second coming of Jesus because they’re so wrapped up in themselves.  But if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we don’t have to worry about missing his second coming, because we’ll be right there to see it.  Do we have to be afraid?  No.  Why?  Because we always have Jesus.

You may also have heard some people talk about the ancient calendar developed by the Mayan people centuries ago.  If you have, then you know that calendar stops on December 23rd of this year, and so many people are thinking that means this is the end of time.  Is that true?  Probably not.  Jesus always told us that there’s no way we’d ever know the exact time that he would return; that the only one who knows is God the Father.  So the Mayans aren’t so special that they would know something only God the Father knows.  People are afraid of this, but we don’t have to be.  We’ll never miss the coming of the Lord if we’re always keeping our eyes fixed on him.  Do we have to be afraid?  No.  Why?  Because we always have Jesus.

The point is that God is good.  He made us so that we could be with him forever.  He is not going to abandon us.  The only way we’ll get left out of a relationship with him is if we choose to walk away.  But if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we’ll always be able to rely on God’s goodness.  Do we have to be afraid?  No.  Why?  Because we always have Jesus.

Thursday of the Fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This week we have been hearing in our first readings from the Acts of the Apostles, about the controversy concerning the Gentiles.  As the Church grew and grew, many people from all walks of life began to turn to the Lord.  That’s the kind of thing we want to have happen.  But as the Church grew, it became time to clarify which traditions were just traditions and which really pertained to the faith.  How much of the Judaic faith was really necessary for salvation in Christ?

Many of the traditions had to go.  Jesus himself chastised the Pharisees and Scribes often enough for the parts of the law that they rigorously defended when they should long ago have been dismissed as scrupulous and irrelevant.  But not everything would have to go.  Certainly there were tenets of Judaic faith that should and do apply to Christians too.  We retain a lot of Judaic faith in our own practice of religion even to this day: the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments, even the berekah prayer form is part of our Liturgy right now.  So the task for the Church was to untangle what needed to stay, and what had to go.

The blueprint for them is as it is for us: the Gospel.  What traditions pertained to the great love that Christ brought us and called us to live for God and neighbor?  Those we should keep.  What traditions merely amounted to undue burden on our brothers and sisters and became irrelevant in the light of the Gospel?  Those would have to go.

We’ll see in the coming days that the Church figured this out.  We know they did, or we would probably not be around today.  But we still have to figure it out sometimes, I think.  As we call Catholics to come home, we have to figure out how to welcome them back.  Maybe they have been put off long ago by irrelevant rules that amounted to undue burden.  We have to teach them what parts of our faith are Gospel values and put aside those things that are not.

Controversies like the one with which the early Church wrestled teach us things.  We are forced to examine our faith and keep it lively and fresh, instead of letting it grow dim and lifeless.  Keeping our eye on the Gospel will help us to welcome people home, to the Church and to the family of God.

Wednesday of the Second Week of Lent

Today’s readings

“Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?”  That’s a loaded question if ever there was one.  But just like James and John, all of us Christian disciples will indeed drink of Jesus’ chalice.  And just like James and John, we will have to accept all that comes with it.  Yes, we will get a place in the kingdom, but yes, it will also mean for us that we will get hardship, suffering, and grief.  We must drink the chalice if we would have the reward that Jesus came to give. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.

Tuesday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel reading follows immediately after yesterday’s in which the rich young man went away sad, not knowing how he could attain eternal life, because he had many possessions.  Today, Jesus explains to his disciples what was going on.  “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of heaven.”  And it’s not going to be hard because God is setting up the obstacle; it will be hard because we have placed an obstacle between ourselves and God.  Jesus isn’t bashing rich people.  And it’s not just rich people who will have trouble going to the kingdom.  It’s going to be hard for anyone who has an obstacle between themselves and Jesus.  So whether that obstacle is riches, or our work, or our lifestyle, or whatever, we need to let go of all that.  It’s going to be hard for us to get into heaven with obstacles in our way, “but for God all things are possible.”  If we let go of our obstacles, if we make a real sacrifice for the kingdom, then the kingdom is ours.

Thursday of the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I think it’s good to have this Gospel reading about the Lord’s prayer in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  So often with familiar prayers like this, we can say them so automatically that we can get to the end of the prayer without the prayer ever registering in our minds.  So when we have the reading about the Lord teaching his disciples to pray, it is good for us disciples to pay attention, would that our prayer would be revitalized and God’s grace increased.

The part of the prayer that leapt out at me today as I was reflecting on the Gospel was “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  I have been reading a reflection on the Lord’s Prayer by Saint Cyprian, and this part of the prayer was the part I read about yesterday.  As Cyprian points out, this line doesn’t mean that we are praying for God to accomplish his will.  He can do that quite well without our asking for it, thank you.  The point of this part of the prayer is that God’s will would be accomplished in us.  And again, God can certainly do that, but it’s up to us not to throw up the obstacles.

There’s a catechetical skit about the Lord’s prayer that goes back to the 70s.  In a humorous way, it portrays God conversing with someone praying the Lord’s prayer.  Here’s the part that deals with this section of the prayer:

God: Do you really mean that?

Prayer: Sure, why not?

God: What are you doing about it?

Prayer: Doing? Nothing, I guess. I just think it would be kind of neat if you got control of everything down here like you have up there.”

God: Have I got control of you?

Prayer: Well, I go to church.

God: That isn’t what I asked you. What about your temper? You’ve really got a problem there, you know. And then there’s the way you spend your money – all on yourself. And what about the kinds of books you read and what you watch on TV?

Prayer: Stop picking on me! I’m just as good as the rest of those people at church.

God: Excuse me. I thought you were praying for my will to be done. If that is to happen, it will have to start with the ones who are praying for it. Like you, for example.

Prayer: Oh, all right. I guess I do have some hang-ups. Now that you mention it, I could probably name some others.

God: So could I.

Prayer: I haven’t thought about it very much until now, but I’d really like to cut out some of those things. I would like to, you know, be really free.

God: Good. Now we’re getting somewhere. We’ll work together, you and I…

Saint Cyprian sums up what it means for God’s will to be done in us: “To be unable to do a wrong, and to be able to bear a wrong when it is done; to keep peace with the brethren; to love God with all one’s heart; to love God because he is a Father but fear him because he is God; to prefer nothing whatever to Christ because he preferred nothing to us; to adhere inseparably to his love; to stand faithfully and bravely by his cross; when there is any conflict over his name and honor, to exhibit in discourse that steadfastness in which we proclaim him; in torture, to show that confidence in which we unite; in death, that patience in which we are crowned – this is what it means to want to be co-heirs with Christ, this is what it means to do what God commands, this is what it is to fulfill the will of the Father.”

What is God trying to do in us these days?  As we pray the Lord’s prayer later in this Mass, let’s let it be a true prayer that God’s kingdom would be manifest among us as we truly strive to let God’s will happen in our lives.