In this photograph of the sanctuary of St. John’s in Orange, NJ, you can see both of the images I refer to in my homily: the painting of Christ glorified in heaven over the arch (the subject is the coronation of the Blessed Virgin) and the large crucifixion scene behind the ambo. (In my homily I say the crucifixion is on my right. That’s because this is an older photograph; the ambo has been moved and the stairs retired. Other than that and some water damage to the ceiling, the church looks pretty much the same.)
Homily: Christ the King vs. Caesar
Note: This is not the homily I had planned to deliver today. Last night around 9pm, as we began our family devotions, I thought I had my homily pretty well written. But during family devotions last night I happened to say something to our kids that I thought should be tucked into the homily…and, like a mustard seed, the thought grew in the writing, until I realized, to my chagrin, that I would have to jettison everything I had written before. This is not what I would have chosen! My hope is that in such happy accidents are the collaborations of the Holy Spirit. — SDG
When we think of Christ the King, we probably picture a scene like the one over the arch above my head: Christ enthroned in glory at the right hand of the Father. But the Gospel for today, on the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, proclaims the scene on my right: Christ crucified.
Our king is rejected by his people, abandoned by his followers, condemned, beaten, exposed, impaled, ridiculed by the powerful, by soldiers, even by one of his fellow convicts. His true title, “King of the Jews,” is hung over his head as the charge for which he stands convicted.
It’s true that some of his followers were there: his mother, John the beloved disciple, Mary Magdalene. We don’t hear about them in today’s Gospel, though. The only person in Luke’s account who looks at Christ crucified and sees a king, a king who will come into his kingdom, is the good thief. And Jesus promises him that he will soon see what no one else in Luke’s account can see coming.
And, in a sense, our story ends here. The Solemnity of Christ the King is the last Sunday in the Church calendar: the “crowning of the liturgical year” in the words of Pope Francis. Some crowning. A crown of thorns. Next Sunday we go back to Advent and the story starts over again.
Of course we know that the story doesn’t end here. The crucifixion is followed by the resurrection, and the ascension, and Christ is enthroned on high, like we see in the painting above me. And he will come again — a second coming which we also celebrate on this solemnity — and his kingdom will be fully established in all its glory.
As an aside, next year the reading for this Sunday is Matthew’s parable of the sheep and the goats, with the Son of Man coming in his glory with all his angels, sitting on his glorious throne, welcoming those on his right into his kingdom and casting out those on his left.
But today our king is crucified. Why this reading for Christ the King?
Saint Paul in the second reading also connects the kingdom and the cross. God has transferred us, he says, from the powers of darkness to the kingdom of his beloved Son who has reconciled all things to himself, making peace by the blood of his cross. It is through his death and resurrection that Christ brings the kingdom.
He doesn’t look much like a king up on the cross, though, does he? In fact, he was nailed up there to show that he wasn’t a king. In Jesus’ world, kingship belonged to Rome, to Caesar. Other rulers and kings, like Herod, reigned at Caesar’s pleasure. When the early Christians proclaimed that Jesus is Lord, that was a dangerous claim, because if Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. So the authorities nailed Jesus to the cross to show that Caesar is Lord and not Jesus.
And to all appearances that’s still the world we live in, isn’t it? We’re still living in Caesar’s world. Just take a good look around.
Take our recent election. Jesus said that his kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, belonged to the poor in spirit. In Jesus’ kingdom, the meek will inherit the earth. Whoever you voted for, I haven’t met many people who thought either of the two main candidates were poor in spirit, or meek, or pure in heart.
To all appearances Caesar is Lord and Jesus is not. But like the good thief we believe in a reality that goes beyond what we see. We pray every day for the coming of the kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven. This is the world we pray for every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer.
And we believe the kingdom is already here. Not just in heaven, or in the future, but here and now. Christ’s kingdom has come and is coming. There’s a phrase in Catholic theology and spirituality: “already and not yet.” Pope John Paul II, among others, used that phrase. Christ’s kingdom is already; Christ’s kingdom is not yet. Christ reigns on earth already; Christ reigns on earth not yet. The “not yet” part is easy to see. Where does the “already” come in?
There’s a famous remark from a Modernist priest named Alfred Loisy: “Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church.” Maybe his remark was a little like those T-shirts that say “I did XYZ and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”
Loisy may have been disappointed. But look at Jesus’ parables explaining what the kingdom is like: It’s like a mustard seed growing in a field, the smallest of seeds, but it grows larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree for all the birds of the air to nest in. It’s like leaven, like yeast, that a woman mixed with three measures of flour until the whole was leavened. The kingdom is a work in progress, but Christ has begun to reign on earth in the Catholic Church. Vatican II calls the Church “the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery.”
And of course there’s good and bad in the Church. Jesus’ kingdom parables talk about that too. The kingdom is like a man who sowed good wheat in his field, but while men were sleeping an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, so that the wheat and the weeds grew up together. And the man’s servants said, shall we root out the weeds? And the man said, no, you might tear up the wheat along with it. Let them both grow together till the harvest, and the reapers will sort them out.
Again, the kingdom is like a net thrown into the sea that catches up fish of every kind, bad fish as well as good fish, which the men take ashore and sort out, keeping the good but throwing away the bad. There are good fish and bad fish, or as we might say good apples and bad apples, in the Church. The Church is the kingdom already and not yet.
Christ the King reigns on earth in the Church already and not yet, because Christ is still suffering in his Church — wherever his Church is persecuted, as it is today in so many places around the world, especially in the Muslim world, but also in other places including India and China. Here in the Western world, including the United States, we’ve seen some eroding of religious liberty, though nothing to compare to the persecution of Christians around the world.
And of course Christ’s kingdom is not yet because we are sinners. Whenever we lie, or hold a grudge instead of forgiving, or indulge in envy or resentment over what others have instead of being grateful for what God has given us, or look at someone lustfully, whether in real life or on a screen, or give in to needless worry and anxiety instead of trusting God, Christ’s kingdom is not yet. We’re living as if Caesar is Lord and not Jesus.
Whenever we form or take part in cliques or factions or tribes of any kind and close our hearts or our minds to people outside our group, whether we look down on them, scorn them, hate them, or simply don’t care about them, Christ’s kingdom is not yet. The mustard seed grows into a tree for all the birds of the air to nest in — not just the ones who look like us or talk like us or think like us.
The Church, “the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery,” exists as God’s means of calling all of humanity to union with himself and of gathering together the human race into one, of breaking down all the tribal walls that divide us into separate camps: Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female; black, white, Hispanic, Latino, Asian, African, Middle Eastern; rich, poor, blue collar, white collar, uptown, downtown; Latin Mass, English Mass … the list goes on and on.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with all of these tribes — only with the walls we put up against each other. Walls between tribes are part of the kingdom of Caesar, not the kingdom of Christ.
In the kingdom of Caesar, people who are different are treated differently and there’s injustice — and it’s important to understand that and resist it. But in the kingdom of Christ, none of those boundaries is supposed to matter; we’re all brothers and sisters, no matter what other tribes we belong to. That’s why the Church is called “Catholic,” which means “universal.”
That doesn’t mean no differences matter. It certainly matters whether you’re in the kingdom, in the Church, or outside it. Those inside the Church are our brothers and sisters. Those outside the Church are our neighbors, and we’re called to love and serve them, to see them as potential brothers and sisters.
And even in the Church there are good fish and bad fish, wheat and weeds. That’s another difference that matters. But it’s not up to us to separate them out. Christ will do that.
May God give us the grace to live more and more as subjects of Christ the king and not Caesar, to live more and more in the “already” and less and less in the “not yet.”
Thy kingdom come. Amen.