The Gospel for the Feast of Christ the King this past Sunday startled me. I am not sure why, but it did. I read it carefully, struck by the venomous hatred, which comes through even to this day. It reminded me of the contradictions, which those who seek to follow and love Jesus are faced within this world.
The Contradiction of the Cross
The wood to which our Lord was crucified is a stumbling block to many, who prefer power and success over suffering and apparent failure. This is not a big surprise. Everybody loves a winner, plain and simple. So the fact that Jesus was nailed to the cross was not appealing to most people during that time. Neither is it any more appealing in the world we live in today.
And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews Luke 23:35-38).
The wretched scene, which plays out is a scary and hurtful one. Jesus did save many people – from their afflictions, their despair, their sorrow, even from death. Yet, there He was being mocked for the mercy and kindness He showed others. He was mocked by those, who had not really known Him at all and was told to save Himself.
Christ Between Two Thieves
As if it was not bad enough that Jesus was crucified, He was positioned between two thieves, a further humiliation for He Who was being treated like the worst of the worst.
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom (Luke 23:39-42).
What a way to go. This “good” thief – known as Dismas by some – saw in Jesus what those who were hard of heart did not want to see or admit. This was no ordinary man hanging on the cross. Our Lord had been beaten, scourged, made to carry the cross He was nailed to, subjected to vilification and made to feel utterly alone and hopeless. Yet He still responds to the faith-filled request of one who believed in Him.
He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
The Enormity of His Sacred Heart
This is, perhaps, what is most striking to me in this whole Gospel passage. Jesus does not go off berating everyone around Him on Calvary. He does not call down an army of angels to smite His abusers. He says very few things, and one of them is to this penitent thief who has mustered up enough faith to ask Jesus the favour of being with Him when He comes into His kingdom. How does he know that Jesus’ kingdom even exists? How can one look the way Jesus did on the cross and still be believed to be a king?
It is amazing to imagine – to even try to imagine – the magnanimity of Jesus’ heart. His most Sacred Heart bears His crown of thorns and bleeds for our iniquities – and it loves beyond measure and comprehension. It loves like no other, as it did Dismas, and hence the promise our Lord makes to him of being in Paradise. Dismas saw and believed, not because he was some superman, who deserved special favour from Christ. Jesus knew what was in his heart, and made his conversion possible.
Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life (CCC 1996).
Is this not what a king is most capable of? It is a divine panoramic vision so wide, so deep, so encompassing, no mortal is capable of seeing the same or even understanding it. It is mercy overflowing because He is mercy Himself. It is love unsurpassed and unequalled because He is pure Love Himself. All of this – all of Him – nailed to the cross for all to see: to see and to believe, or to see and to mock.
The Contradiction of Bethlehem
The Feast of Christ the King marks the end of the liturgical year and heralds the beginning of Advent, a time to prepare for the Feast of our Lord’s birth – another beloved contradiction. After all, most if not all people can pretty much say they were born to live. With today’s advancements in medicine and technology, every effort is made to ensure the health and safety of both mother and child. For Jesus, though, it is as I heard a priest say once in his homily: Jesus was born to die.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage (Matthew 2:1-2).
This was a stumbling block for those who purported to be faithful to God. The very thought that God would become man was blasphemous to the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ time. It did not make sense to them and so it could not be true. How many times we reduce God’s logic and reason to our own limited and extremely imperfect mental capacity and think nothing of it! If it does not make sense to us, how could it possibly be so?
Yet, the fact that Jesus is both God and man – His divine humanity being a huge contradiction – should remind us of the enormity of His love and how we are made for God and not this world.
The Contradiction of Love
How many songs have been written about love, even to this day? People talk about it, are confused by it, agonize over it, pine for it, long to love and be loved. If we really want to love and be loved, the prime example is Jesus Christ Himself. He Himself has invited us to follow Him, but it is one filled with indications and things, which go against what we are comfortable with and prefer as human beings.
In all things, we must put God first. Doing this, however, goes against our very natural tendency of self-preservation and human comfort. This contradiction is the tension, which plays out every single day, in the hearts and minds of those who know they ultimately belong to God. It is a sense of being called for good and greater things, yet hesitating as we consider the appeal of the wider path, the easier life, the indulgent choice, the one we want.
Is it so wrong to want nice things or to have fun and feel good? We might feel reproached, at times, for the guilty pleasures we find ourselves enjoying. The point, though, is not that it is not wrong to enjoy something, but that we do what we do for God and for love. When we love those around us and enjoy their company and their affection, it is not a case of God being resentful of this. On the contrary, when we want to do God’s will, loving those He has placed around us is one of the biggest things we are called to do!
We love, laugh, work and live our lives well for the greater glory of God. It is easy to accept this with joy when things are going well and we like everything, which is happening in our lives. It is when we have to choose between God and our preferred option (aka “me, myself and I”) that things become more challenging. The contradictions in our life of faith can come from external things – cultural trends, limited material resources when circumstances are out of our control – but more often than not, they come from deep inside the heart and the mind.
Every moment of every day is an opportunity for a conversion of the heart and the mind. Whenever we choose Jesus, we choose to embrace those loving contradictions, which bring us closer to Him. It is in this way that we can truly let Christ the King reign in our hearts
Embracing the christian faith means committing oneself to continuing Jesus Christ’s mission among men. We must, each of us, be alter Christus, ipse Christus: another Christ, Christ himself. Only in this way can we set about this great undertaking, this immense, unending task of sanctifying all temporal structures from within, bringing to them the leaven of redemption (St. Josemaria Escriva, “Christ the King”, Christ is Passing By, Chapter , point 183).