Samuel 5:1–3; Colossians 1:12–20; Luke 23:35–43
Today is the last Sunday of Ordinary time—Christ the King Sunday. I think it couldn't have come at a better time—a little reminder for us that, regardless of who sits in the White House, regardless of how bleak the world may look at one time or another, Christ is still Lord and King. I rest better knowing that.
Our Liturgy of the Word is a study in contrasts this week—from the cosmological grandeur of Christ the King in Colossians, to the temporal kingship of David in ancient Israel, to the utter worldly defeat of Jesus on the cross. What strikingly dissimilar images the first two present compared to the last. It underscores one point. When it comes to understanding God's plan, we always seem to get it wrong.
Why is that? Just a few weeks ago on All Saints Day, we read from Matthew 5, the Beatitudes, where Jesus tell us that we are blessed when we are persecuted, when we mourn, when we are poor in spirit. He tells us repeatedly to pick up our cross, a sign of condemnation and humiliation, and to follow Him. Jesus sets our expectations for worldly failure, yet we constantly expect the opposite.
Now, I can see why we misunderstand. We've been doing so throughout human history. Think of how pagan cultures had this concept of assuaging the wrath of the gods through more and more sacrifice: sacrifice of animals but even of their own offspring—as if somehow this pleased whatever god they thought ruled their land. Their collective thought was that they would be happy so long as they kept the gods happy. When they saw good results, the gods were smiling on them. When things went wrong, the gods were angry with them.
Sometimes we think of our God the same way. Wealth is a sign of someone's favor with God, while poverty is simply a sign that someone is reprobate. Our nation's Puritan forebears really wove that notion deeply into the fabric of our nation.
But that is not the gospel message. That isn't what Christ offered to us in the here and now. Our victory only comes after what J.R.R. Tolkien called the long defeat. Tolkien was deeply Catholic and a professor of Anglo-Saxon studies at Oxford. And like all pagan mythologies, Anglo-Saxon mythology ultimately always ends in defeat, which is death. In a culture without a redeemer, there can be nothing else. In a culture where our actions supposedly bring about our material redemption, such redemption is always simply another delay... another postponement of the long defeat.
Does this approach seem pessimistic or self-defeating to you? It's certainly counterintuitive. It goes against the way our culture thinks. We as Americans expect that our hard work leads to reward in our earthly lives. But salvation is not about temporal fulfillment. It's not about the prosperity gospel—which, by the way, is not a Christian gospel.
As Tolkien intimated, we have no victory until after the long defeat. We can't get to Easter Sunday without first enduring Good Friday. The gospel passage exemplifies this today.
Now all four gospels make reference to Psalm 21—Psalm 22 many other translations—the one that begins "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Two of the four gospels mention the first line of the Psalm, but all four note the mockery that the Sanhedrin and the people heap upon Jesus: "He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!" Compare that to the verse from the psalm: "He hoped in the Lord, let him deliver him: let him save him, seeing he delighteth in him."
To them, Jesus' dilemma confirms His failure. Jesus is crucified! That is as final as it gets in the pagan world. That's the most humiliating, shameful way to die in the Jewish world. That is the ultimate sign of power and control in the Roman world. And this is the heir, the Son of David? Preposterous!
But even in the darkest moment we see a glimmer of light. The second thief, the one we call Dismas in Sacred Tradition, says "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He is at his very end, yet still he hopes. He recognizes his need for mercy, and Jesus grants it to him.
God's ways are not our ways. Jesus knew all along that the path of suffering was also the path to redemption. His ministry, His mission, was one of reversal, of turning things on their head. Look at the Magnificat, with its dramatic reversals: He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. Or the Song of Hannah from 1 Samuel 2: "The bow of the mighty is overcome, and the weak are girt with strength." Or again in Jesus' own words in Luke 6: "Blessed are you who hunger; for you shall be filled.... Woe to you who are filled: for you shall hunger."
Jesus' defeat of death is the most dramatic reversal. He is Lord of both life and death. All things were created through Him and for Him. That is what we celebrate today.
We're in a contentious moment in our nation's history, and unfortunately, I don't think we've gotten the message yet. We keep putting our trust in worldly things, in worldly rulers, even though they fail us time and again. Our own choices, made with the best intentions, often perpetuate the problem. We truly want a solution to what ails us, what ails our country and our world, but we are still too full of the things of this world to let them go and let God be the king of our lives. We won't find a solution until we recognize the brokenness and weakness in our lives and our culture. We can pretend to be strong and self sufficient. We can be proud in the imagination of our hearts, as the Blessed Mother says in the Magnificat. But Christ the King turns all of those illusions on their heads.
In the Eucharist we will share here in a few minutes, we will hear how Christ blesses the bread, breaks it, and offers His broken body for our redemption. And through that Eucharist, that offering of our thanksgiving, our brokenness is healed. Christ the King, who turned back and reversed the effects of sin in our broken human nature, can heal us and our culture, if we will make Him king of our lives.