HOMILY for Christ the King (C)
Promises, promises… Jesus promises one of the criminals beside him that he will be with him in Paradise. But why should he believe this? Another promise was made at the start of St Luke’s Gospel which we’ve been reading this whole liturgical year. In chapter one, Gabriel had said to a young maiden: “[T]he Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:32f). And what had become of this promise? Here, in the penultimate chapter, the maiden looks at her son reigning not from a throne but from two rough-hewn logs. Promises, promises… Are these just empty promises?
This prospect haunts us, I think, especially in the face of tragedy such as we’ve seen recently in the Philippines. As Joseph Ratzinger once said: “[T]he believer knows himself to be constantly threatened by unbelief, which he must experience as a continual temptation…” So, confronted with suffering, violence, and death, we’re taken to the foot of the Cross. And, in the desolation we hear Jesus’ promise. But we also hear the mockery of those who say: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Lk 23:39).
So, to countless many, this is what the Gospel looks like: a condemned man, deluded by pain and hunger and dehydration, promises ‘paradise’ to a thief. He hangs from a Roman torture instrument, barely able to rein in his breath, let alone reign over a royal house; and his kingdom, it seems, has not even begun. Indeed, his life is about to be annihilated. Empty promises, then, coming to an empty end. One of the earliest depictions of the crucifixion of Christ, a bit of Roman griffito, thus shows a donkey-headed man crucified, with a man kneeling before him. In Greek, there is scrawled: ‘Alexamenos worships [his] God’. The earliest surviving image of the Crucified One is thus a mockery, a taunt, a challenge to faith. And yet in the next room, someone had scrawled a riposte in Latin: ‘Alexamenos is faithful’.
Hence Ratzinger notes: “So [too] for the unbeliever faith remains a temptation and a threat to his apparently permanently closed world. In short, there is no escape from the dilemma of being a [human person]”. For our humanity confronts us with the fragility of life, with suffering and pain, with temptation and threats, and with the uncertainty of faith and unbelief. The questions remain: Can we build our life on promises, on Christ’s Word? Is he, the One hanging and dying on the Cross who is suffering with us, our king? Do we go with Alexamenos the slave and the good thief? Or are we swayed by the mockery of the soldiers and the rulers?
Today’s feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ the Universal King presents us, perhaps unexpectedly, with such questions. Because today’s Gospel challenges us to see the Crucified One as a king, and it is on the Cross, in his Passion, that he is reigning and being king. The Virgin Mother, standing at the foot of the Cross, experienced the fulfillment of a promise made to her: that “a sword will pierce through [her] own soul also” (Lk 2:35). And so, she recognized, too, that the angel’s promise that her Son would reign for ever was also being accomplished. Promises, promises… But not empty ones for Our Lady because they were being fulfilled in her sight.
Hence we must ask what kingly act was Jesus doing in his crucifixion and death?