Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. In today’s world, the image of Christ as King has largely lost its power. For it is an image that belongs to a bygone age. These days, the pomp and circumstance of the image conjures up courtly behaviour with all its bowing and scraping. Royal occasions have largely become public spectacles, with soldiers marching up and down — great fun which draws in the tourists, but of little relevance to the ordinary lives of ordinary people. Going to Court no longer means an audience with the monarch, but appearing before the Law Courts. Christ the King also puts before us an image of the exercise of real power, with our King coming to set right all that is wrong in the world, and so it comes with a sense of great triumphalism: “You’ll get yours!” It is an image that over time has been greatly romanticised, the more so as our experience of its reality has become the more distant. The reality of life in a kingdom was probably more akin to today’s experience of living under a dictatorship. A more modern translation of ‘Christ the King’ would be ‘Christ the Dictator’ — hardly an image appropriate for the Anointed of God. As a feast, Christ as King has largely lost its relevance; it needs updating. But what does one replace it with? — ‘Christ the President’ does not seem to adequately portray what ‘Christ the King’ seeks to convey … and so, for want of something better, we stick with Christ as King.
This image of Christ as King is also far removed from that which the Church holds up for us in today’s Gospel. (C.f.: 1 Corinthians 1:23) It begins: ‘The people stayed there before the cross watching Jesus’ (Luke 23:35) … looking upon their King! (Luke 23:38) But, no courtly behaviour here: ‘They jeered at him … soldiers mocked him.’ (Luke 23:35, 36) Even one who was no better off abused him. (Luke 23:39) The night before, in a scene that is intimately linked to this one, this ‘king’ was the one who was there washing the disciples’ feet. (John 13:5) Jesus really meant it when he said: “You know that the rulers of the gentile peoples dominate them, and that their great men make their authority felt. It is not to be so among you; rather, whoever among you wishes to be great must be your servant, and whoever among you wishes to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his soul as the price of liberation for many.” (Matthew 20:25-27) This is what we can see on the Cross.
Standing with them there before the Cross watching Jesus turns an interesting light on the Beatitudes in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, for it is perhaps only in this place that we can begin to really hear what they might have to say. The Message Bible puts them this way: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for. You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens — give a cheer, even! — for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.” (Matthew 5:3-12) There, standing with those at the Cross, we can come to see that those who do such things are likely, in one way or another, to find themselves up there with Jesus. This is what we will come to understand when we look upon our crucified King — when we begin to realise that God-in-the-Christ does not lord it over anyone, that the God-in-the-Christ does not make his authority felt at all, that Our God is not going to force anyone into his kingdom, that our God is not going to impose his rule on anyone. (C.f.: Ezekiel 11:19-21; 18:31; 36:26-27)
This is not to say that in his presence we cannot feel his ‘authority’ move us … if we let it. For, in the persons of the two who were crucified with him, today’s Gospel put before us two ways of responding to the presence of our God. (Deuteronomy 30:15) One of them abuses him: “Some Christ you are! Save yourself, and us too.” (Luke 23:40) These days we can and do hear many who choose some variation on this scoffing, hostile response. The other was moved to defend Jesus. He could face his lot because he knew that he was getting only what he deserved. (Luke 23:40) But he also knew that Jesus did not even have this to hold onto, and so he sought to support him. He tells the other to hold his tongue, thus does the other feel the rebuke of Divine Justice. (Luke 23:40) Then, out of his compassion for the injustice that was being done to Jesus, he was moved to support Jesus in the only way he could, in the only way that was left to him — with just poor words, though beautiful in their own way: “Jesus,” he said, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42) For this Jesus said to him, “Don’t worry. Today you will join me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43) … in God’s Kingdom, in that place where no one is oppressed or constrained, where no one is abused, jeered at or mocked … not even the least powerful/the most vulnerable, not even one as helpless as one nailed up on a cross. It is into this kind of kingdom that Christ our King invites us when we feel moved to speak up against injustice, when we feel moved to support another who is being bowed down, when we feel moved to do any of those things suggested in the Beatitudes. For it is only then that we feel the full force of the Divine Imperative acting upon us and directing us, and we are faced with the choice of either living under God’s Rule and doing his Will, or choosing to live outside his kingdom by ignoring it. Should we choose the former, we, too, will hear God-in-Christ say to us, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” So, on this feast of Christ the King, let us join the join the apostle in ‘thanking the Father for making it possible for us to join the saints,’ for inviting us to that ‘place he has created for us in the kingdom of his Son’ … if we but let him move us. (Colossians 1:12,13. C.f.: Luke 14:10; Matthew 22:3)
By Dom Steele Hartmann OCSO