Bishop emeritus

TV Mass Homily 11/24/2019

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus, King of the Universe, known most familiarly as Christ the King. This feast day was added to the Church calendar only in 1925 to counter the atheism, nationalism, materialism and anti-Catholicism when communism and fascism were on the rise, all of which are not known for mercy but for oppression. Things have not changed much since 1925, with god-less secularism, religious fundamentalism and moral-less relativism shrouded in incivility now added to the list. In the midst of turmoil, division and fear in our day, it is important that we raise up Christ as King of the Universe. Today we affirm what is core to our faith, that Jesus on the Cross triumphed over evil and all those negative forces; He continues to do so this day. Today’s feast invites us with all the challenges and crosses we bear to welcome him into our lives in an ever deeper way for He offers hope.
Our readings put Christ as King into scriptural context. The first reading from Samuel reminds us that Jesus is of the house of King David, a shepherd king. The 2nd reading from Colossians reminds us that the kingdom of God has been achieved through the blood of the cross, the cross our Gospel from Luke highlights.
We may view the image of Christ as King as outdated, replaced by presidents and prime ministers where real power resides. Christ as president would find his power limited, checked and balanced, and truth influenced by polls and self-interested people. Christ is in fact the opposite, all powerful, all knowing, all truth. The image of Christ as king of the “universe” sets all other concepts of power on their heads. His is not a leadership of mansions, entourages, flags and servants. His is a willing leadership of rejection, slander and suffering out of love for us. His is not a leadership of political power and people following blindly. His is a leadership of humility, sacrifice and witness. His is not a leadership of preferred status that expects homage and fearful obedience. It is a leadership of being lord for others, serving others, saving others. For him to be such a shepherd king for us, we must accept that his is a kingship and leadership we want and need. Sadly many do not see a need for a shepherd king, yet the state of our world cries out for Christ the King.
These are busy days with holidays, travel and many other distractions. Yet the realities of daily crosses cry out for hope and for help. A father wrote after the discovery of a brain tumor in his 5 year old daughter. She was allowed to come home before being hospitalized for a hopefully life-saving operation. He wrote: “It was like a prisoner’s last meal. We took her shopping for toys, for pajamas for the hospital, for dozens of infinitely precious little things, as the thought constantly tortured us to dry tears: is this her last this? Her last that? The nearness of death is a harsh but effective teacher. And it teaches a lesson not to the mind but to the heart: the infinite preciousness of life. When every little thing becomes perhaps the last thing, every little thing becomes a big thing. Why must we wait until death is near to see this”, he asked? We don’t have to, we ought not to.
In the Gospel reading Jesus from the cross looked down on the crowds and across to the prisoners with whom he shared Calvary with eyes of understanding and mercy. He prayed for them as misguided figures who did not know what they were doing. Many of them had read or heard the early Scriptures. They knew of the prophets from Jeremiah to John the Baptist. But they could not see the Messiah, the shepherd king, before them. Why not? Perhaps it was because they wanted the crown without the cross. And often so do we, including me. We want the kingdom of God without the challenge and the need for change, for conversion of heart witnessed in action. The crown does not come without the cross because the cross helps us to separate truth from delusion, life in Christ from the phoniness of the passing world.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen described the cross as a vertical pillar representing the will of God, up and down, and a horizontal pillar representing the will of man, left to right. When the two are put together there is conflict, in physical terms a cross. The conflict between the will of God and the will of our fallen human nature is a tension every day. That is why we must pray for and seek greater conversion every day for ourselves and for all. It is Christ the King of the Universe at the center of that tension who offers the way of peace, of forgiveness, and of hope.
In the Gospel reading Jesus was on the cross, King of the Jews boldly and derisively proclaimed above him. Religious leaders and soldiers taunted him: “if you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” One of the criminals picked up that theme and selfishly sneered, “Save us” which of course you cannot. The other criminal recognized Jesus for who he is, acknowledged his own unworthiness, his sinfulness, and his need for God’s mercy which he apparently sensed was possible. He humbly asked, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Note that this condemned man did not pray that Jesus take him to his kingdom; only that Jesus remember him, pray for him.
Jesus likely reaching beyond the hopes and expectations of the repentant thief offered the most profound act of mercy, forgiveness yes, but also recognition that despite what he had done in the past, he remained a man of worth and a child of God. Jesus granted him the hope of us all sinners, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Paradise, scholars tell us, comes from the word that means walled garden. Kings wishing to honor someone would ask that person to walk with him in his beautiful and safe garden. I have asked that this Gospel reading be proclaimed at my own funeral. For although a sinner, I long to be with Jesus in paradise.
As long as we breathe the air of this world, it is never too late for us to turn to Christ in humility and ask for his mercy and companionship, to be at least remembered, and perhaps someday to be allowed, to walk with him in the beautiful and safe garden of eternal life. Jesus remember me, remember us, when you come into your kingdom.