Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (Solemnity, Year C)
2nd Samuel 5:1-3
Psalm 122:1-2, 3-4, 4-5
Today we celebrate “The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe,” more commonly called the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Church’s liturgical year. We celebrate the message that everything is being brought together to fulfillment in the kingship of Christ. And also, the message that we always need to be mindful of our own end (“memento mori”), so that at our death, we will rejoice to meet our king, having given our life in service to his kingdom.
In the 1920s, a totalitarian regime gained control of Mexico, and the Church was being aggressively persecuted. Under the new Mexican constitution, religious education was banned, and priests were forbidden to wear clerical clothes, speak in public, or vote. Churches had been closed, many priests had been killed, and the remaining ones had to work underground at the risk of their lives.
In 1922, the Holy Father Pope Pius XI published his first encyclical, “Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio,” in which he exhorted the faithful to seek “the Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ”. Three years later, in 1925, Pope Pius XI published the encyclical “Quas Primas” establishing today’s feast of Christ the King. It was written in the aftermath of World War I, which saw the fall of many well-established (Christian) monarchies. In contrast, Pope Pius XI pointed to a king “of whose kingdom there shall be no end”. Other regimes were being established, or at least the seeds being sown, that not only rejected the Church and Christian wisdom, but were horrifically oppressive to the Church, and often ultimately to human dignity and freedom: The Bolshevik revolution in Russia, the beginnings of Mussolini’s fascism in Italy and Hitler’s Nazis in Germany, and the Cristiada in Mexico.
This period of the history of Mexico is called the “Cristero War,” or the “Cristiada.” Faithful Catholics, in a resistance movement called the Cristeros, took up the cry, “Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”). A Jesuit priest named Miguel Agustin Pro, using various disguises, ministered to the faithful of Mexico City. He celebrated the sacraments secretly to small groups of Catholics. Then in November 1927 he was arrested and executed without trial.
The president of Mexico (Plutarco Calles) thought that Miguel Pro would beg for mercy, so he invited the press to the execution. Pro did not plead for his life, but instead holding the crucifix in his right hand, he extended his arms and shouted, “Viva Cristo Rey!” At that moment the soldiers fired. The pictures of his execution were published in Mexican newspapers to intimidate Catholics, but they were treated as holy pictures by the faithful and had the opposite effect. We celebrated the feast day for the martyr Miguel Agustin Pro yesterday, November 23. For a taste of the times, you might want to watch the 2012 movie “For Greater Glory,” produced by the Knights of Columbus, and starring Andy Garcia and Peter O’Toole.
As providence would have it, after I watched the trailer for the movie, there was a video of Bishop Robert Barron talking about the movie. He mentioned that the biblical scholar N.T. Wright had said that that Cristero battle cry, “Viva Cristo Rey,” the life (and sovereignty) of Christ the king, is the central teaching of Christianity.
The Church’s choice of our first reading for the feast day of Christ the king is a magnificent choice. They didn’t ask me, but I love it. “All the tribes of Israel came to David… and said: ‘Here we are, your bone and your flesh… And the LORD said to you, ‘You shall shepherd my people Israel.’ King David made an agreement with them there before the LORD, and they anointed him king of Israel.” David is hailed as the greatest Israelite king. If you said to a first century Israelite, “the kingdom of God,” the kingdom of David is what will come to his mind. Not that David was perfect, his many failures are part of the Holy Scriptures. But his humility, his repentance, his devotion and relationship to God, and God’s favor and blessings upon him, set the standard.
So first, “All the tribes of Israel.” David’s son, Solomon, was the last of the kings whose entire reign was over the undivided kingdom of the twelve tribes of Israel. The tribes split into two kingdoms under Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. So one of the prophecies of the Messiah, the king and Son of David, was that he would reunify and restore the twelve tribes into a single kingdom.
Next, “Here we are, your bone and your flesh.” I love this part. This is a connection back to Genesis, when Adam, the original king and lord of creation, first beholds his bride, who he recognizes and declares to be bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. And with that, there’s a covenant of Bride and Bridegroom, a complementarity and mutual responsibility in a particular kind of relationship. At the heart of the concept of covenant is that it establishes a family bond, an exchange of self-gift. So, the tribes of Israel approaching David with these words is a declaration of covenant familial bond (of course, as they are all descendants of the sons of Jacob, they are family). This is a unique concept of kingship. In Israel, the king is the Bridegroom, the nation is the Bride, the children of Israel, for whom he is responsible, not just as a ruler exercising power, but husband/father, family, for the sake of their safety and flourishing, to lead them according to the Torah, the wisdom and law of God, for their good.
Third, from our reading, “the LORD said to you, ‘You shall shepherd my people Israel.” As an agricultural people who had a lot of flocks, and olive trees (olive oil was one of the major industries of Israel), and fishing, in what was otherwise a desert, these images were common experiences of life, and so became metaphors for important concepts. And the concept of leadership as a shepherd over a flock was an easy metaphor. So David is declared and anointed (with olive oil, just as the Church uses now for its blessed holy oil) as king of the twelve tribes, in a single kingdom, as the bridegroom king, the shepherd of the people. And David is the archetype, the model of good and holy kingship in the communal memory of Israel.
As I said, after David’s grandson, Rehoboam, things go off the rails for Israel. The kingdom falls apart. If we look through the bible at Israel’s history, we see Israel’s cycle of flourishing, and getting greedy and corrupt, there’s massive injustice, the prophets warn them, then they suffer horribly, usually at the hands of some powerful and cruel foreign nation. They cry out to God, they’re purified of their sin, delivered from the threat, they do well, they flourish, then they get corrupt, and the cycle repeats. And the hope of Israel is for the long-awaited new Son of David, the Good Shepherd, who will restore Israel, the king who will come and deliver Israel (especially those who are most vulnerable) from that self-destructive cycle with an everlasting kingdom of peace and unity and flourishing.
And what feeds that hope and expectation? Well not just the cycle of suffering, but the constant voice of God through the prophets who says, “I will come, and I will be their king. I will shepherd them. Israel your bridegroom, your lord, is coming, prepare to meet him. And then I will attract the whole world, and the whole world will come under the kingship, the lordship of God.” That’s the central theme of the bible.
I didn’t include the Second Reading in the homily, because I was already far over my limit even without it. But it is certainly well chosen for the feast. “He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” The kingdom of his Son. How does one enter this kingdom? By the forgiveness of our sins. Through the Sacrament of Baptism, through virtue, by which we lead a good and holy life, and by the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are restored to the kingdom, by his grace which again comes into the experience of our struggle against sin and wandering from the fold, and delivers us back into his flock.
The rest of the reading is Paul reflecting on the primacy of Christ, on the one hand through the Greek idea of the logos, the divine Word, as instrumentality of creation and mediation by the One (True God)—“For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible”—and on the other hand, with the tradition of Judaism, which reveals the richness of visible and invisible creation—“whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together”—all of which flow from the Father’s creative wisdom, through and for his equally divine Son, in his overflowing generosity and love.
And we, too, are brought into this mystery, in the mystical body of Christ, the Church, won by him, restored by him, and united to him, by the glorious mystery of the cross—“He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he himself might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross through him, whether those on earth or those in heaven.”
And of course, it is Paul who most explicitly writes about Christ the Bridegroom and the Church as his holy Bride, in his Letter to the Ephesians:
“Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church… Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her… that she might be holy… ‘For this reason a man shall leave [his] father and [his] mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.”
So then, our gospel reading. Not the gospel reading you would expect for the feast of Christ the King, is it? Me neither.
As soon as Jesus begins his earthly ministry, what’s his first proclamation? “The kingdom of God is at hand.” There’s the Old Testament hope. It has come! Jesus shows God’s role as king… in his outreach to both saint and sinner, to pharisee and tax collector. He offers forgiveness, restoration, healing, love, compassion, in all directions. When Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue, he proclaims, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” What is that but the reign of God made flesh—the incarnation of the kingship of God.
The response to that is joy, yes, but also the jealous opposition of worldly kingdoms and power. That tension comes to its climax, of course, on the cross. The key confession, ironically, is from Pontius Pilate, who had the sign posted above Jesus’ head, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” (In Latin, Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum, abbreviated INRI). If Jesus is king of the Jews, Israel’s king, he’s the king of the world. He is God coming to unite and shepherd his people (all people). And that’s the message of the gospels. And our feast day for today.
Jesus is criticized and mocked because our fallen human animal brains think divine power looks like violence and force and domination. What does divine power look like? Mercy, compassion, hope, love. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” What does Jesus coming into his kingdom look like? His death on the cross. Christ mounted the throne of the cross, the altar of his self-gift, where he manifested his divine love. It’s the good shepherd laying down his life for his sheep.
It’s the Divine Bridegroom who gives himself to his Mystical Bride, completely, uniting himself to her, which he does by the grace of his resurrected flesh, made present by his Holy Spirit, on the altar in the celebration of the Mass; the Bridegroom consummating his union with his Bride. When we receive the Body of Christ, his body is being united with ours, He the Bridegroom, we the Bride, that the two be made one flesh. The Bridegroom King and his Royal Bride, his people. It’s not just a symbol. It’s so much more. It’s God’s love for us. It’s Christ fortifying us as a stronghold of his kingdom.
Before his crucifixion Jesus is anointed by Mary, the sister of Martha. Not just anointed for his death, but anointed, like David was anointed, for Jesus to prepare to mount his throne, his cross, and come into his kingdom. Anointed… in Hebrew, Messiah.
The Preface for the Feast of Christ the King says, “For you anointed your Only Begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, with the oil of gladness as eternal Priest and King of all creation, so that, by offering himself on the altar of the Cross as a spotless sacrifice to bring us peace, he might accomplish the mysteries of human redemption, and, making all created things subject to his rule, he might present to the immensity of your majesty an eternal and universal kingdom, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.”
And so today, and every day, we claim Jesus Christ as our King, our Lord, and our God, whom we reverently worship. He whom, with thanksgiving (in Greek, Eucharistia) we receive the sacramental gift of his divine, self-giving love for us, making and strengthening our communion, our covenant with him, in flesh and blood.
Viva Cristo Rey!