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Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe
November 24, 2019

 

     Each year on this final Sunday of the Church’s year we celebrate this wonderful feast of Christ the King, and each year, even as we pull out all the stops with glorious music, flowers, bells, candles, and clouds of incense, we get a none-too-gentle reminder not to get too carried away with all the trappings of royalty. The reminder invariably comes in the scripture readings. It came in the reading from the Second Book of Kings where we met the young King David – a king minus any majesty, a king who was more shepherd of the flock than mighty ruler. The reminder also came in the reading from Luke’s gospel where the kingship of Jesus was a matter of mockery – and with good reason.  For what kind of king hangs helplessly dying on a cross between a couple of common criminals!

     Last month when I attended the canonization of Cardinal Newman in St. Peter’s Square, from my seat in the huge crowd I could see the various dignitaries who were in attendance. Prominent among them was Prince Charles who was representing his mother, the Queen – a very meaningful ecumenical gesture. Of course, the most prominent dignitary at the Mass that morning was Pope Francis himself, but thanks to the way he has let go of the regal trappings of the papal office, there wasn’t a hint of royalty about him. This got me to thinking how beautifully Pope Francis embodies the kind of kingship that Jesus stands for: humble, servant kingship. He never plays the royalty card. He calls that “the leprosy of the papacy.” With Pope Francis, it’s never about pomp or privilege, it’s about the poor and those on the periphery. They are his priority – and, of course, they should be the Church’s priority, as well. Every leader in the Church (and I include myself) should take a chapter from his book – never taking ourselves too seriously, finding ways to walk on the same ground as the people we serve.

     This feast of Christ the King is not very old on the Church’s calendar. The Church got by for nearly two millennia without such a feast. It wasn’t until the years between the First and Second World Wars that Pope Pius XI put it on the Church’s calendar. For good reason. Not unlike today, various authoritarian and anti-democratic movements were on the rise around the world: Fascism in Italy, National Socialism in Germany, Communism in the Soviet Union. As a counterpoint to those nationalistic movements led by dictators with neither conscience nor constituents – powermongers accountable only to themselves - the Pope raised up the figure of a most unlikely kind of leader: Jesus Christ, a king, yes, but a king with no wealth or weapons other than truth and love, and no territorial ambitions other than human hearts. It is this servant king, the suffering, crucified Christ of today’s gospel, whom we honor today and every day as our King.

     But it’s risky, this business of kingship.  At its worst, throughout our long history, whenever the Church has lost sight of what sort of king Christ is, it has gotten seduced by the pretensions of power and the trappings of royalty or, to use Pope Francis’ telling expression, the Church has become “self-referential” -- inward-looking, self-absorbed - caught up with itself and its power and prerogatives.

     The result?  In turning away from the humble ways of Jesus, the Church has too often taken on the tactics of the very authoritarian movements that this feast of Christ the King is meant to counteract – a far cry from Jesus who demonstrated his authority, not by edicts and pronouncements or power plays, but by kneeling before his disciples and washing their feet.

     My friends, it is important for us to be clear by what we mean – and what we don’t mean – when we call Christ our King.  Over the Sundays of this past year we have steadily moved, chapter by chapter, through Luke’s gospel and have met there a Christ who is quite surprising – not only for what he said but, more importantly, for what he did.  Surprising, too, for the company he kept.  In fact, if we would follow this Christ, this King, I suggest that a good place to start would be to look at the company he kept.

     Here’s a rundown of some of his company – taken right from the pages of Luke’s gospel.  They are quite a bunch, I think you will agree: the lowly shepherds at the manger; the poor, the hungry and the mourning of the Beatitudes; the unlettered fishermen who were his inner circle; the sinful woman who crashed a dinner party to wash and anoint his feet; the poor woman with a lingering hemorrhage who wanted only to touch the hem of his garment; the lepers who kept calling after him, “Master, have pity on us!”; the cheating tax collector, Zacchaeus, with whom Jesus insisted on having dinner; the dying thief of today’s gospel.

     These, my friends, are the company of Christ the King -- his royal retinue, if you will.  We have met them all this past year Sunday after Sunday, and each of them should be a reminder to us, a powerful reminder, that if Jesus is a king, he’s a king like no other.  For what king worth his salt would waste his time with that long list of losers?

     May our celebration of this wonderful, but potentially misleading, feast, remind us not only of what sort of King Christ is, but also of what his kind of kingship means for us – and for the company we keep!

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

 

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