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Friday, November 22, 2019

On the Feast of Christ the King

Luke 23:35-43
The rulers sneered at Jesus and said,
"He saved others, let him save himself
if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God."
Even the soldiers jeered at him.
As they approached to offer him wine they called out,
"If you are King of the Jews, save yourself."
Above him there was an inscription that read,
"This is the King of the Jews."

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying,
"Are you not the Christ?
Save yourself and us."
The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply,
"Have you no fear of God,
for you are subject to the same condemnation?
And indeed, we have been condemned justly,
for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes,
but this man has done nothing criminal."
Then he said,
"Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
He replied to him,
"Amen, I say to you,
today you will be with me in Paradise."


On the Feast of Christ of King

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was taken by Satan to a mountain and shown “all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them.” “All these I will give you,” Satan said. But it didn’t work. “Begone, Satan!” (Mt 4:8-10) 

The word Jesus said to Satan ― “begone!” ― in Greek is “hypage.” Jesus said that exact same phrase, “hypage, Satan!” just one more time in his life. It was when he explained to the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to be killed. Peter rebuked him: “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” The text says Jesus then “turned on” Peter: “hypage, Satan!” It’s often translated as “get behind me, Satan!” (Mt 16:21-23)

This is startling. Jesus has linked Peter’s words of concern with the devil’s temptation. How is that fair? How could they possibly be related? One way of thinking about it is in light of this week’s feast day; it has to do with the way in which Jesus desires to be king. How so?

Recall that Satan offered Jesus “all the kingdoms of this world.” He refused. Think about that! Wouldn’t it be desirable to have Jesus as the head of every world government? Wouldn’t we want his justice to be the law of every land? But Jesus outrightly rejected this kind of earthly political kingdom: “my kingdom is not of this world,” he told Pontius Pilate (Jn 18:36). He is not interested in obtaining “the things that are Caesar’s” (Mt 22:21).

Peter’s rebuke of Jesus ― “God forbid [you should go to Jerusalem and be killed!]” ― was not a call for some glorious political kingdom. But it’s similar to Satan’s temptation insofar as Peter wanted to limit Jesus’ mission to something occuring merely within this world. Peter very sincerely wanted Jesus not to suffer and die but to live a long and healthy life. He wanted his teachings and the community around Jesus to flourish. It’s hard not to sympathize. But Jesus’ forceful response highlights that his mission was not to establish a merely earthly community. His mission was to die and, somehow, by dying, bring that earthly community to heaven.

The temptation of Satan and Peter reappears in this week’s Gospel in the words of those standing by as Jesus is crucified. “If you are King of the Jews,” the soldiers taunt him, “save yourself!” They are looking for a king ― even one with supernatural power ― who can dissolve the tyranny around him and prove his worth by coming down from a cross. What kind of king suffers at the hands of his enemies? One of the criminals even “reviled” him: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and save us!”

This is the last and hardest temptation, the temptation to create a kingdom without suffering. It is a temptation we face too. We also wonder what Jesus is doing about our suffering. Shouldn’t the king of the universe prevent and take away the world’s agonies? Shouldn’t the Christ relieve our pains? “Aren’t you supposed to be Christ the King?! Save yourself and save us!” 

But Jesus’ kingdom is not free from earthly suffering, neither for us nor for him. Instead, Jesus reveals his kingship precisely by suffering. He is among his people in their agony. Our king is anxious like we are. He is heartbroken, wounded, and ailing like we are. He weeps for his dead friends like we do. Above all, he dies and is buried as we will be. The king of the universe has not decided to redeem us from a distance. He is in the fray. That is how Christ is king. He is a king who is with us, among us, and alongside us through his own suffering, agonizing, and dying. 

But if Jesus is king in his agonizing alongside us, he is king, too, when he assures us that our suffering and dying is not the last word. He has gone to the very bottom of our existence and, by rising from it — by rising from death — given us new reason to hope. For we know now, as Saint Paul said, that “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:5). 

Christ is king. His throne is a cross. In God’s kingdom, earthly suffering has not been banished, but is precisely that which makes us most like Jesus, that which makes us most like God. Christ is king because he transforms our suffering into glory. “Jesus,” the Good Thief implored amidst his own agony, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It would be three days until Jesus did that. Yet he assures the thief that his pain is already a participation in that kingdom: today you will be with me in Paradise.”

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