Week by week the Liturgy has been preparing us for the revelation to be made on this, the last Sunday of the Church year. Today is Christ the King Sunday. Christ the King Sunday is new to the church. Pope Pius XI introduced it in 1925, a time when despotic rulers and systems began to take hold in Europe: Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin. The Pope wanted to advance a message of security through the rule of Christ over the chaos of tyranny.
So, what kind of king is Christ, and how does he exercise his authority?
First, we need to recognize that kingship was central to Christ’s mission. Matthew, Mark, and Luke speak with one voice in telling us that at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus announced that the “kingdom of God” was drawing near. But Jesus upended and undermined the whole concept of kingship. This world’s kingdoms are about power and prestige; Jesus was about service and humility. The rulers of this world are about coercion and violence; Jesus’ life was characterized by peace and reconciliation. Kings surround themselves with throngs of fawning courtiers; Jesus chose the lowly and rejected as his companions.
Two of the three sayings of Jesus from the cross illustrate the nature of his kingship. One of the powers of kings is to pardon those accused of crimes. The irony of the crucifixion is that Jesus was sentenced to die for claiming to be a king. However, even while being nailed to the cross, Jesus demonstrated that it was his executioners who needed pardon and he alone had the power to grant it. “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
In pardoning those who were executing him, Jesus showed us the power of forgiveness. Forgiveness frees not only those who are forgiven; it also frees the forgiver. When we forgive, we release ourselves from the chains of anger and resentment. In forgiving others, we exercise the royal power that Christ delegated to his followers.
The power of forgiveness is also illustrated by the example of Sir Thomas More. During the English Reformation, More, who was Henry the Eighth’s Lord Chancellor, would not recognize the king’s authority to rule the church as he ruled the state, so Henry had More tried on charges of treason and bound over for execution. After being sentenced, St Thomas More addressed the judges at his trial, saying, “I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your lordships have here in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together, to our everlasting salvation.” More knew and demonstrated the power of forgiveness.
Secondly Jesus surrounded himself with the poor and marginalized. He crossed social, moral, and religious boundaries by accepting women as disciples. His critics charged that he ate and drank with thieves and prostitutes. Jesus does the same thing every time we celebrate the Eucharist!
Even on the cross, Jesus continued his habit of associating with the despised and disreputable. Poignantly, the second thief pleaded, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
What persuaded the penitent thief to believe not only that Jesus was a king but would survive the cross and “come into” his kingdom? Had he observed Jesus pardoning his enemies? Or was he able to see that the cross itself was Jesus’ royal throne?
“Remembrance” is central to Jewish thought. When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, Exodus tells us that God “remembered” the covenant he had made with the patriarchs. The kind of remembering that God did in Exodus and that the thief was asking Jesus to do is not the opposite of forgetting; it is the opposite of dismembering. The thief was asking to be made a part of Jesus’ kingdom.
By their covenant with David in today’s First Reading, Israel’s tribes are made one “bone and flesh” with their king. By the new covenant made in His blood, Christ becomes one flesh with the people of His Kingdom—the head of His body, the Church (see Ephesians 5:23-32).
We celebrate and renew this covenant in every Eucharist, giving thanks for our redemption, hoping for the day when we too will be with Him in Paradise.
The judgment of the Crucified and Risen Christ remembers not only us but also those whom we have forgotten and neglected and marginalized; he remembers us as we are – right and wrong, good and bad.
When Pope Francis began this Year of Mercy he may have had this ending in mind. For this Gospel relates a plea for mercy that was absolutely answered -a plea for mercy that we can make our own
“Lord Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Like the thief crucified beside Jesus, we pray that we may be a part of the great kingdom he is building in this world and the next. But we must always keep in mind that we make our prayer to Christ the King, whose judgment is ever against those who trust in their own righteousness (and at times that is all of us) but whose arms are always outstretched in mercy and love.