Homily for the Feast of Christ the King
November 25, 2001
St. Agnes Church, Cincinnati
Last December our church began the church year, as it always does, by inviting us into the waiting and search for the coming of the Messiah, the new-born king. And now, at the end of that year the Church has us look back, at what he did and what he has become, Christ the King.
A strange king, indeed! We all have deep-seated impressions and ideas of what a king should be, and he turns all of them upside down.
Where's his palace? Kings have big palaces, don't they? Yet Scripture has Jesus saying of himself, "The son of man has no place on which to lay his head."
Well, then, what about his court? Jesus has only a ragtag bunch of slow-witted followers who never seem to 'get it', do they?
And then where is his kingdom? Kings rule over territories, lands. But you can't find the boundaries of his kingdom on any map, they're invisible. The kingdom itself is hidden; it resides in the hearts of people like you and me.
But paradoxically, it's at work. It's always operating. He told us it was like yeast, which is imbedded deep within the dough, invisible but always doing its thing. Or like a seed planted in the ground: we don't see anything there but it's bringing a mustard bush to birth.
Well, then, a court? He at least has to have a place where he holds forth, a court.
It is on a cross, like that one up there. He holds court on the cross, between two other criminals.
Because he is a criminal. I think we forget that in the midst of all our theologizing. And he's not an ordinary criminal, he's an enemy of the state.
You know, I think that because we've seen so much Christian art we may be inclined to think there was only one crucifixion; we even forget the other two guys. Whereas in reality crucifixion wasn't all that uncommon in Jesus' time. You could go out from Jerusalem to the fields or to some nearby town on business in the morning and return in the evening to find a couple of people up on crosses outside the city as you pass. He wasn't the only one. If a stranger passed by and hadn't heard anything about him and his following they'd probably shrug and say it's just another villain. There were no haloes on Calvary, you know.
Then why? How did it come to this? What did he do to deserve this? Well, nothing actually to deserve it, but the way he lived may explain the reason his enemies needed to do it.
When you look over Jesus' ministry as a whole, it's easy to find three things he did that led them to bring him down.
First he cared for the weak and the hungry, the masses that were without leadership; he gave them a reason to believe in themselves and their value and to hope for something better. He freed them from fear and from the cultural chains that kept them bound.
And secondly he took into his own hands the power to interpret the Law. He said by his actions what the Sabbath was really about. He refused to accept the boundaries of clean and unclean, by touching a leper or a dead body, or letting himself be touched by a prostitute. He refused to stone an adulteress but instead forgave her.
The third thing was that he hung out with the socially undesirable, the disrespected of Jewish society, the tax collectors and sinners.
And perhaps the worst sin was not of his doing but the most galling to his adversaries: the people followed him! This most attractive man drew people to him, and that was the thing that was most galling because it meant the religious and political 'leaders' were losing their power.
And so they brought the king -- to his throne.
You know, when the New Testament writers reflected back on the crucifixion they didn't focus on the suffering of Jesus. Others suffered the same things. Concentrating on his suffering was a later development of Christian piety. They dwelt on the shamefulness of what he went through. As the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it: "who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame". That was the obstacle an early believer had to confront: this Jesus was an object of shame, a disgrace. Scorned by his society.
We follow a criminal king.
I have a present for you. A Kingdom figure. In order to receive it, I invite you to try to imagine being at Ground Zero on September 12.
One of my Jesuit confreres lives in New York and he and another priest went down to see what ministry they could do there. They distributed Communion and anointed some people and blessed bodies and body parts. He witnesses, as everyone has, to the heroism of the firefighters and police and military people.
But then he tells about a man who was known only by the name "Flick". Flick's job was to distribute clothing and food from inside a bombed-out Catholic chapel in the World Financial Center. As my Jesuit colleague says, "It was a war zone, and Flick singularly organized the supply." The way he prodded the workers was with 'rather off-color humor'.
I think most of us can imagine some of the expressions and allusions and jokes. Flick was probably not the kind you would have for Thanksgiving dinner -- and certainly not for Grandma's 8oth birthday celebration. . . .
The Jesuit goes to make a very revealing statement: "To be honest, if I had met Flick on the subway, I would have held my briefcase a bit tighter. . ."
I think by now we all have a pretty good picture of Flick. We've all seen him in the 'hood.
But my colleague goes on to say, "He was amazing, a real hero. Countless men and women were energized to continue their work because of him.
Our king of one sent. He's on a mission. He said he had to be about his Father's business: to save that which was lost, to give his life for many.
The kingdom of God is in our midst. And so is the King. Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be" -- and we are his Father's treasure.
If I can digress for a second, I must note the sadly ironic note in today's liturgy: the first reading mentions Hebron, the town of David, and he becomes king in Jerusalem. And 2500 years later Arabs and Jews are still doing violence to one another in those same two cities. The process of establishing the reign of our God is so painfully slow.
As we join our King at his table, let us pray for the sensitivity to be able to perceive those tiny ways in which he brings his Father's kingship to light. The hidden ways, the unrespectable ways.
Let me end by sharing with you the words by which my Jesuit brother ended his commentary: "the words of a young girl, living years ago in the midst of an even greater horror. They are important words because they name a reality that is present in every corner of our country these days:
"It's difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. And when I look up to the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, and that peace and tranquillity will return once more."
The words of Anne Frank.