First reading 2 Samuel 5:1-3
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 121(122):1-5
Second reading Colossians 1:12-20
Gospel Luke 23:35-43
Don’t you find it interesting, and even strange, that the crucifixion scene should be chosen for the glorious solemnity of Christ the King? It doesn’t sound very “kingly” or triumphant! It sure doesn’t resemble the celebrity royals we so often hear about, or the royalty of old who divided and conquered. Indeed, the events of our Gospel reading were far more shocking to Jesus’ first disciples. For when the people of Jerusalem first welcomed Jesus into the Holy City on the back of a donkey, laying down palm leaves as they proclaimed him King, they had a very particular idea of what that kingship was supposed to look like. The Jewish people at the time were expecting a Messiah after the prototype of the great King David, whose anointing we heard recounted in our first reading today. The Messiah was expected to come in and take possession of the Holy City by force, crush their Roman oppressors and usher in a new and permanent era of prosperity and peace for Israel. This new Davidic King would be just as glorious, if not more, than the first David. Instead, the whole thing appears to be a flop! Jesus instead ends up on the cross, crowned with thorns instead of gold, totally helpless, naked and vulnerable, executed in the manner of a criminal slave.
Now, in the ancient Roman Empire, there were slaves and there were citizens. A citizen who merited the death penalty was executed by beheading, quick and painless like St Paul. A slave or non-citizen, the other hand, was subjected to a long, cruel, humiliating and painful crucifixion. But this, in a sense, is key to Jesus’ kingship. The rulers, the soldiers and even one of the criminals mock Jesus: “he saved others, let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One”; “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself”; “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us as well.” Notice how each of these mockeries focus on his seeming inability to save? “Save yourself” is the catchcry of the mockers. They are effectively pointing out that he is no king, for the Messianic King, the Christ, was supposed to save them from their Roman overlords. Instead, the supposed King is killed by those same Roman overlords. There’s a little irony here too in that the name Jesus means “God saves.” The mockers point out that the one who’s supposed to save seems to need a saviour himself. But this is the real irony: Just as they are jeering at him for his seeming inability to save, the very work of salvation is in fact being carried out.
In order to perceive this true kingship at work, we must consider the mockers’ catchcry, “save yourself.” We live in a world where people more or less think they can save themselves. ‘Work hard to be successful in life, make yourself financially and materially comfortable, lead a good life, make the world a better place, reach out and take happiness for yourself. You don’t need God, you don’t need to conform to any objective standard of morality or religious truth. Worship and devotion are things of the past.’ Sadly, this is the mindset of so many people today, thinking they can save themselves by their own efforts. The reality is, however, that the earthly utopia we are trying to build without God, will be totally destroyed. It’s also very short sighted. For we may build such a utopia on earth, but what happens when the hourglass runs out? Man cannot obtain eternal life on his own! We can’t burst our way into heaven! Even the sarcastic ridicule of the mockers recognised this fact. And yet, as they criticised his inability to save himself, in that very moment he was saving them. He did so by becoming what they and we are. We are helpless. We have an inherent inability to save ourselves. We are under the inescapable authority of death because of sin. So, what does Jesus do? Jesus enters right into our fragile and powerless humanity, including our subjection to sin and death, though he himself never sinned. The Incarnation reaches its climax on the cross.
But there’s more. Just as Jesus is assuming the full extent of what we are, our corrupted nature is at once being re-formed. It wasn’t the Romans that Jesus came to overthrow, but our far worse overlords. Since the original sin, human nature has been a slave to sin and death and has been under the rule of the prince of this world. But by making a totally humble outpouring of himself in love for his people, Jesus, clothed in our fragile nature, does the opposite to the original sin. He gives himself instead of taking for himself. And in that same act of self-giving, that fragile and corrupted nature dies. But wait, there’s more! Jesus rises from the dead! That nature, once enslaved, is made new! In the resurrection we see something new – “the first to be born from the dead.” His resurrected body shows a human nature transformed, immortal, permeated with the divinity, no longer subject to suffering, corruption or death– not even subject to the laws of physics. Hence, by taking on himself the full weight of the consequences of sin, namely our suffering and death, he refashions human nature by bestowing his divinity, giving us a new dignity as children of God.
“But Father, we still struggle with sin, we still suffer and die!” Yes, Jesus is the prototype whom we must be conformed to. What he has done doesn’t automatically happen to us. We must assume into ourselves the transformation that Jesus has affected by clinging to him and being united with him. This began for us at our Baptism, when we were spiritually put to death and reborn by grace. But that transformation is not shallow magic! We are not passive spectators in this! We are in a process of becoming, which requires a day-by-day reception of his grace; a daily mortification of what enslaves us, a daily putting to death of the old ways and a gradual re-formation after the likeness of Jesus. Dear friends, this is why we have Jesus’ teaching, this is why we have the Sacraments, this is why the Church asks us to live in a specific way, all so that we may be transformed into Christ. There’s no time to lose, then! We would do well to ask, whose reign am I under? Who do I allow to govern me? Am I governed by my own desires and habits? Am I governed by the world and culture I live in? Or, do I daily and resolutely put myself under the reign of Jesus Christ the King, crucified and risen?