Christ the King

15 November 2019

Jeremiah 23.1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1.11-20; Luke 23.33-43

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ACCORDING to Pope Francis, this feast is “the crown of the liturgical year”. In our Gospel reading, we behold Christ enthroned upon the cross, while our collect declares that he has “ascended to the throne of heaven, that he might rule over all things as Lord and King”.

Our Eucharistic Prayer expresses this intertwining of sacrifice and power: “As priest, he offered himself once for all upon the altar of the cross and redeemed the human race by his perfect sacrifice of peace. As king, he claims dominion over all your creatures that he might bring before your infinite majesty a kingdom of truth and life. . .”

The purpose of this feast is not simply to communicate doctrine, but also to draw us into a deeper life of worship and discipleship: enthroning Christ as Lord of our lives. Pope Francis draws our attention to the very different responses of the other characters in the story, and invites us to consider our own response to the scene it describes.

First, there is the response of “the people”, who “stood by, watching”. As he warns, “we, too, can be tempted to keep our distance from Jesus’s kingship — to not accept completely the scandal of his humble love, which unsettles and disturbs us.”

Second, there is the response of the religious leaders and of the first of the criminals to be crucified alongside Jesus. They all jeer at him, saying that if he is the Messiah he should save himself. This is “the most terrible temptation, the first and the last of the Gospel”. As when Satan tempts him in the desert, the suggestion here is that Jesus should triumph by showing his superiority in wonder-working or in force.

Finally, there is the response of the second criminal. Suffering on a cross alongside his innocent Lord, he recognises that, in Christ, a different kind of glory is being manifest, and a different kind of victory is being won. He cries out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

St Leo the Great writes that Jesus’s response — “Today you will be with me in Paradise” — is an edict of mercy. Thus it is suited not to a tree of shame, but a “throne of power”. Yet it is through the humiliation of the cross that Christ conquers sin and death. Amid the agony of his crucifixion, Jesus resists the temptation to “come down and save” himself. From this new “throne of power”, he, instead, saves others, beginning with the penitent criminal: the first-fruits of a reign of mercy which will extend across all times and places.

As Marianne Meye Thompson explains, our epistle is addressed to disciples who are being distracted by a rival message: namely, that “there are yet further divine mysteries or depths of esoteric knowledge to be plumbed” beyond the message of Christ crucified and risen.

Paul writes to remind the Colossians that it is Christ who rescues them from “the power of darkness”. All other “thrones or dominions or rulers or powers” have been created both “through him and for him”. In Thompson’s words, while the powers of darkness “may in part shape the structures of the world in which human beings presently live”, it is the cross alone that “determines the shape of Christian existence” (Two Horizons New Testament Commentary: Colossians and Philemon).

In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Jeremiah describes the failure of “the shepherds who shepherd my people”. Pauline Viviano notes that the metaphors of kings as “shepherds” and Israel as “the Lord’s flock” are found frequently in the Old Testament. The self-serving leadership of its kings is the ultimate cause of the destruction of Judah and the exile of its people.

Jeremiah promises that God will raise up a new king, who “will execute justice and righteousness in the land”. His name will be “The Lord is our righteousness”. As Viviano explains, the name of the future king may “play off” the name of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah (whose name meant “The Lord is righteous”). Whereas Zedekiah merely bore the name, this promised king will usher in the reality (New Collegeville Bible Commentary: Jeremiah, Baruch).

In Christ, this promise has been fulfilled. On this feast — as at every eucharist — we proclaim his paschal triumph: the victory by which he became “our righteousness”, ending the reign of sin and death, and drawing us into his eternal Kingdom.

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