I have to admit that this solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King is a funny feast with which to end our Church year. First of all, we Americans don’t get the whole king thing. The monarchical top-down method of government is not what we have had as our heritage for over two centuries, so the idea of kingship is pretty foreign to us. Secondly, and I’m speaking objectively here, even if we had a king, the king we are presented with in the Liturgy of the Word today, and over the last couple of Sundays has not really been the kind of king we might want to follow. Over the last couple of Sundays, Jesus has warned us that we will have suffering in the world, so we know we cannot rely on our king to make that suffering go away. And today, here is our king, hanging on a 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 can ever possibly answer.
But only if we’ve been napping this entire liturgical year. Because Jesus has been very clear from the beginning as to what kind of king he would be and what his kingdom might look like.
A king who has been pre-ordained from birth would arrive with great fanfare and be born amidst opulence. But to the casual observer that wasn’t true of Jesus. Oh, we know that he was foretold by an angel and that kings bowed down to worship him and shower him with gifts. We know all the prophecies that pointed to his birth. We know of Herod’s jealousy that led to the slaughter of the innocents. We know that stuff. But to the average person in first century Palestine, well, his birth went pretty much unnoticed.
And even when people started noticing his ministry when he came of age, they were pretty disappointed. “Who do you say that I am?” is the question Jesus asks Peter. Peter acknowledges that he is the anointed one, the Christ. But right on the heels of that very revelation, Jesus emphasizes that the Anointed One must suffer and die in order to bring his kingship to birth. Peter’s reaction is predictable. Oh no, Lord, that can’t be right. Don’t even say such a thing! But Jesus is the one who came not to be served but to serve, and identifies himself right from the beginning as the Suffering Servant of which Isaiah speaks.
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.
Because 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 he holds it all together with a strength we could not possibly imagine, opening the way to a kingdom that goes beyond all our imaginings. I want you to listen very closely to the preface to the Eucharistic Prayer today because it describes a kingdom we all have to be hungry for: “a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.” That’s a kingdom of mind-boggling greatness, brothers and sisters in Christ, a kingdom no other ruler could ever hope to promise you.
On our baptism day, we were anointed with the sacred Chrism oil, an oil that has almost the same name as Christ, which means “Anointed One.” If you’ve been to a baptism or Confirmation recently, you’ll know that the Chrism oil is the only one of the three holy oils to have a fragrance, because it is intended to be the fragrance of Christ. Just as Christ himself was anointed priest, prophet and king, so we too were anointed in that same way. What this means for us today is that just as Christ had to suffer, so we too will have to suffer in this life. But just as Christ was intended for the glory of the Kingdom, so we too have that same destiny, if we but join our lives to his and follow his way.
That means, of course, we have to go down the ugly way, through the gateway of the cross. In this Kingdom there is no glory without passing through the way of suffering. There is no cheap and easy grace. But there is grace, a grace that walks with us through the hard times and leads us to the joy of the kingdom of truth and life, the kingdom of holiness and grace, the kingdom of justice, love and peace. Our home here on earth is but a temporary dwelling. Our true home is in that kingdom.
The religious leaders in Jesus day never figured this out. They couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t fathom it. But the good thief realized all of this at the very last minute, practically as he was taking his dying breath. His last words of prayer might be our very own words today. “Jesus remember me,” he says, “when you come into your kingdom.”