26 November 2018

Homily - 25 November 2018 - The Solemnity of Christ the King

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

On this great solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe, Mother Church sets before us the image of Christ Jesus as he truly is. We see him “robed in majesty,” the one to whom is given “dominion, glory, and kingship” because he is “the faithful witness” who will be seen “coming amid the clouds” and before whom “all the peoples of the earth will lament” (Psalm 93:1; Daniel 7:7; Revelation 1:5, 7). We are presented with the image of a true king, of one with real authority and power; as such, it is an image that does not mesh well with the way most of us today imagine Jesus to be, but that is because we do not know him as we should.

Too often we think of Jesus simply as a nice man who hangs around with simple people and who never says anything that might be perceived as offensive or unkind. We think of Jesus in this way because we have not read even one of the four Gospels from beginning to end, or even half of one of the four Gospels; no one who has read one of the Gospels would dare to call Jesus a simple, nice, unoffensive man. We know more about our favorite celebrity than we know about the only Savior of mankind and we do not bat an eye at this, to our great detriment and shame.

The image of Christ as the “ruler of the kings of the earth” surprises us because we have largely lost the understanding of kings “as they were conceived in the medieval imagination” (Revelation 1:5).[1] Whereas we – basing our notions on a falsified and distorted telling of history – view all kings as tyrants, the medieval imagination held to the idyllic notion of a king as one “who manages all aspects of his reign, including civil government, infrastructure, and the church in harmony with the created natural order.”[2] This was, at least, what a king was supposed to be, the unifier of his people, even if, in reality, kings did not always live up to this ideal.

The very word “king” is itself telling. It comes from the old German kuning, a word related to kin and family, and means a leader of a people. Through its etymology, “the Anglo-Saxon "cyning" from cyn or kin, and -ing meaning "son of" evokes images of long-gone tribes choosing as leader a favoured son who is mystically representative of their common identity.”[3] The Latin word for king, rex, is likewise telling: “Rex has its roots in the common ancestor of most European languages, associated with stretching, thus keeping straight (di-rect, cor-rect) and then governing.”[4] A true king, then, is a leader who comes from among a people to guide and govern them along the straight path.

In the American consciousness, we think of kings not as those who guide their people along the right path, but as those who use their sovereign power to satisfy their own desires at the expense of their people. Consequently, we at least notionally dismiss kings out of hand because, by definition, because having a king means that I may not be able to do everything I want to do whenever or however I want. This is why we are hesitant to speak of Jesus as a true king, as one who, because of his Incarnation at Bethlehem, comes from among us to guide us and govern us along the narrow way that leads to the Father’s house.

If Jesus is king, we think, he must be something like the kings we know, but the kings we know are often greatly flawed. We think of King Henry VIII of England, who tore his kingdom apart to conceive, an heir or of King Geoffrey from A Game of Thrones, a king who knows nothing of justice or of mercy. We often forget about kings like King Saint Louis IX of France, who told his son, “the first thing I advise is that you fix your whole heart upon God, and love Him with all your strength, for without this no one can be saved or be of any worth.”[5] King Louis was not perfect, but he strove to conform his life to that of the King of kings. We might, perhaps, think of King Arthur, who was able to uphold justice but could not find a way to temper it with mercy. We might say that the failure of earthly kings lies in their inability – or refusal – to rule with both justice and mercy. In Jesus Christ, however, we find both justice and mercy perfectly exercised, which is why “all the peoples of the earth will lament him” (Revelation 1:7).

Here it might well be asked, if Christ the King is the faithful witness who loves us,” why will we lament before him when at last he comes (Revelation 1:5)? We will lament because

The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God.[6]

The pain that we will experience is the pain of love; standing before him, we will see the immensity of his love and realize in how many ways we failed to respond to his love. We will lament him because we have failed to love him as we ought, because we failed to allow him to straighten and direct our lives and walk on his path, and because we will, at that moment, experience his judgment and his justice.

In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ's Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy… The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).[7]

Truly, for those who have striven to allow the Christ the King to rule over the lives, there is no reason to fear his just and honest judgment, painful as it may be, because “the king’s grace is greater than [we] know.”[8] Amen.

[1] Cory Grewell, “The Elegiac Fantasy of Past Christendom in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur.” In The Inklings and King Arthur: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, & Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain, ed. SΓΈrina Higgins (Berkeley, California: Apocryphile Press, 2017), 221.
[2] Ibid., 225.
[4] Ibid.
[5] King Saint Louis IX, Letter to Phillip III, 3.
[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, 47.
[7] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, 47.
[8] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 159.

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