The other day while working on my homily, I ran across an interesting article concerning some strange and funny facts about famous kings. For example, King Mongkut of Siam offered to give the United States elephants for transportation purposes. Could you imagine if instead of Metrolink, you could just rent an elephant??? It might be more efficient too. Obviously, a confused Abraham Lincoln refused the king’s offer. King George I of England spoke five languages, which is impressive: German, French, Italian, Dutch, and a little Latin. You might note – he didn’t speak English! What? Who would really want to be ruled by these guys? You would want a king to be successful, intelligent, and wise – that’s our idea of a good king!
It’s interesting that today, as we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King, we are transported back to the pivotal moment of human history – Christ on Calvary. Today is the day when the whole Church celebrates Christ’s universal Kingship, and this story of Jesus on the Cross is his coronation day. Now of course, we all know what happens, but imagine if you didn’t. If I’m looking at this scene from that position, I’m thinking that a king is supposed to be strong, successful, victorious, and all those things we just said. So why are we staring at this dying, helpless man as he is hanging on a Cross? If I’m honest, I’m not sure I would want this guy for a king.
So how can a sign of utter defeat become a sign of the King’s everlasting victory? John Paul II called this the “Paradox of Christ’s Kingship.” It really is a paradox – it doesn’t seem to make sense in an earthly way. In 2001, he spoke to the crowds in one of his Angelus addresses, saying, “If it is assessed according to the criteria of this world, Jesus’ kingship can appear ‘paradoxical’. Indeed, the power he exercises does not fit into earthly logic. On the contrary, his is the power of love and service that requires the gratuitous gift of self and the consistent witness to the truth.”
He’s right! The Kingdom of Christ isn’t about strength or success or victory, at least not in the normal human sense. We see this very clearly in our readings. In our first reading from the Second Book of Samuel, we hear that David was king not so that he could dominate, but so that he could “shepherd God’s people, Israel.” Back to the crucifixion scene in the Gospel of Luke, we see that Christ the King doesn’t rule by selfishness and greed, but by sacrifice. He doesn’t rule by bringing in his heavenly hordes to destroy the evildoers who put him there, as he could have. He didn’t rule by sending this terrible wretch of a man hanging next to him away, but by mercy and forgiveness. And so he said to that man, “Today, you will be with me in paradise. Today, you will be with me in my kingdom.”
The thief, usually referred to as St. Dismas, gets it. He realized that there is more to the human story than we see, experience, or understand here. Jesus, in his example of selfless sacrifice, held a key to a Kingdom much greater than the earth would ever know. He realized that the Kingdom began on earth through faith, hope, obedience, and love, and that it would only truly reach its fullness in heaven. St. Dismas understood this. And so he said to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” He surrendered himself, and all the terrible things of his past, to the authority and reign of Christ the King.
I think we are called to do the same, to allow Jesus to be our King. That is so difficult to do! It’s easy to allow other things to conquer and dominate our lives. These other things can begin to dictate what we do and how we do it, how we treat others and ourselves, how we look at God. We can easily allow convenience to be our king. Maybe ambition and success can become our ruler. Or maybe it’s on the other side of the spectrum – self-loathing and unworthiness begin to rule us.
But today’s feast is about allowing Christ to have dominion over our hearts. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the greatest preachers of the Church, who lived in the 12th century, spoke on this same topic in one of his homilies. And because he’s a lot better preacher than I am, I’m going to just read that paragraph to you!
And now, Lord Jesus, come and remove the stumbling blocks within the kingdom, which is my soul, so that you who ought to may reign in it. Greed comes along and claims its throne in me; arrogance would dominate me; pride would be my king. Comfort and pleasure say: We shall reign! Ambition, detraction, envy, anger fight within me for supremacy, and seem to have me entirely in their power. But I resist insofar as I can; I struggle against them insofar as I receive your help. I protest that Jesus is my Lord. I keep myself for him since I acknowledge his rights over me. To me he is God, to me he is the Lord, and I declare: I will have no king but the Lord Jesus! Come then, Lord, rout them by your power and you will reign in me, for you are my king and my God.
In St. Peter’s Square in Rome, there is a massive Egyptian obelisk that stands in the center of the plaza. Now I don’t know if you’re that familiar with geography, but Egypt is a long way from Rome. It’s somewhat strange to see the obelisk standing there. Actually, it was erected about 2400 BC as a monument to the Egyptian Pharaoh. After Rome had conquered Egypt, the Emperor Caligula brought the obelisk to Rome as a trophy, a symbol of their superiority over Egypt. It was placed in the Circus of Nero, where it presided over brutal gladiatorial games and Christian executions. Eventually, it was toppled by the barbarians, and it became buried under dirt and ivy. But eventually, the Church overtook the Roman Empire, and it baptized the barbarian tribes, and persisted through the Dark Ages until a new Christian culture emerged and flourished. And when St. Peter’s Basilica was rebuilt and expanded, the obelisk was once again raised from the dust to stand in the square, where it is today. The difference is that now it is topped with a bronze cross, and within that cross is another small fragment of the True Cross, the Cross on which Christ was crucified for us, and the place where he ascended to his throne. There was an interesting inscription written on the obelisk – two actually. The first faces out to the rest of the world and it reads, “Ecce Crux Domini! Behold the cross of the Lord! Let his enemies flee! The Lion of the Tribe of Judah has conquered!” On the other side, facing the basilica, the inscription reads, “Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat! Christ conquers! Christ rules! Christ reigns!” That ancient obelisk is no longer a trophy of Rome conquering Egypt, and it no longer stands as a reminder of the destruction of barbarian hordes. Now it stands in the center of St. Peter’s Square, a place usually filled with people praying and worshipping God and listening to the words of the successor of Peter. It stands as if to say, “Now, this stands for another conqueror. Now, Christ has conquered our hearts!
Brothers and sisters, let us allow our hearts to be ruled by this loving and merciful Lord. Christ the King has conquered indeed, and his Kingdom will last forever.