On the evening of 9 September 2015 Queen Elizabeth II became the longest-reigning monarch in British history. She’ll be 90 in April, although the celebration will be in June. She’s perhaps the oldest reigning monarch in the world today, of which profession there are around 25 internationally recognized members.
For a couple of centuries now, royalty has been decreasing in stature as well as number. So you may wonder, what does it mean to celebrate the feast of Christ as King? And in recent times, King of the Universe? Especially in a country like ours, which was founded on the premise that in the main, kings were a royal pain?
The feast itself is not ancient — it was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI to counter what he perceived as growing secularism and atheism and possibly the anti-monarchism of the era which had recently seen the assassination of the Tsar and several other European monarchs. In 1969, Pope Paul VI moved the feast from the last Sunday of October to the last Sunday of the liturgical year and also added the phrase “King of the Universe.” That gave it a more eschatological tone in keeping with the readings at this time of the year and also removed it from competition with Reformation Sunday among our separated Lutheran brethren and sistren. Jews, on the other hand, have long since used the phrase “King of the Universe” in the blessings before solemn occasions involving the fulfilment of a commandment in reference to Almighty God.
That leaves the question, however, why Jesus Christ as king? He certainly avoided that designation during his life on earth, even though he was executed by the Romans for treason because he was accused of accepting it. He avoided it for good reason. In the ancient world, kings were a pretty dismal lot – violent, avaricious, cruel, unjust, and generally pretty nasty in most respects.
There are more than 2700 references to kings in the Hebrew scriptures — only about 20 of them refer to God. And, by and large, the human kings were considered a pretty vile lot. Not even David was very good at it. God alone was the one true King of Israel.
And so we come to King Jesus, and we may well ask what kind of title is that? What did Jesus himself say about kings and kingship? And what did he do that resulted in his arrest, torture, condemnation, and execution as a pretender to the throne?
There are over 100 references to the kingdom of God in the gospels, and about 24 in the rest of the Christian scriptures. But Jesus himself never seems to have claimed to be a king except indirectly. In fact, he usually has some pretty harsh things to say about kings. Even in today’s gospel, Pilate says to him, “So you are a king?” And Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king. But it was for this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.”
In John’s gospel, the people acclaim Christ as their King when he enters Jerusalem: “…they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” It was this outcry that most likely led to his arrest and execution for sedition and treason. Jesus himself said nothing about it until before Pilate.
And Pilate had the inscription placed over his head, ‘This is the King of the Jews’ (Luke 23:38). Taunted by the soldiers, the leaders of the people, and even one of the criminals crucified with him, Jesus remained silent. But, as we read in today’s gospel, when the other criminal refused to mock Jesus and says, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,’ Jesus gives him what he asks for: ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23:43).
In the end, if every gospel and virtually every shred of early Christian writing affirms that Jesus really was not a king, but THE king, we are still left wondering: What kind of king? And what kind of Kingdom does he rule?
Above all, God’s kingdom is a gift; and it is given to the poor, sick, and suffering, even thieves who hear the good news and keep it. For the kingdom of Jesus is a realm of mercy and grace and truth, a kingdom of real freedom. It was to such a kingdom that Pope John XXIII recalled us when, summoning the Second Vatican Council, he prayed: “Renew your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost. Grant to your Church that being of one mind and steadfast in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and following the lead of blessed Peter, it may advance the reign of our Divine Savior, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace.”
If Jesus is King, he is king not of this world or as this world sees things, but of minds and hearts everywhere and always.
32nd Sunday of the Year
1 Kgs 17:10-16
It’s still ordinary time as the Church reckons things, but these days that mainly has meaning within these walls. If you have a hankering for early Christmas (skipping Thanksgiving), take a trip to your local Macy’s, where the Christmas tree went up last night to inaugurate the “holiday season.” Life beyond these walls seems anything but ordinary. In respect to widows and orphans, who occupy so much attention in today’s readings, there are certainly a lot more than when I was last here. More than last week even. And more grieving parents.
The treatment of widows and orphans was a touchy subject even in Jesus’ time. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus refers to the story of the widow of Zarephath in his first sermon. That manages to turn the whole town against him. [Luke 4:25-26.] In that world, far more than now, widows and orphans had a very difficult life. They had few rights and, apart from the charity of their relatives and generous benefactors, no way of supporting themselves. Or even of repaying the kindness of strangers. For that reason, the welfare of widows and orphans, and for good measure, the resident political refugee, the stranger in the land, was taken to be an index of the spiritual health of the whole nation by the prophets and also by Jesus. It usually wasn’t very good.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, from Exodus to the Book of Malachi, we hear the refrain: “…I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the resident stranger, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.” [Mal. 3:5]. The message is clear. Then why, you might wonder, do we need to hear it so often? The answer is that now, like then, we don’t really listen.
Today’s gospel begins where we left off last Sunday. Jesus is quick to point out that despite the wisdom of the scribe and his recognition of the need to love our neighbor as ourselves, we don’t often do that in practice. Beware, Jesus says, especially of those who parade themselves as religious but in fact devour widows’ houses, which is to say, deprive them of their life savings and only security. “They will receive the most severe sentence.”
Both Mark and Luke turn at this point to an event in Jesus’ life that focuses on one of these widows, a nameless old woman who offers just about everything she had to God because she, unlike the others, gave not out of her surplus, but out of her misery. If the poor are proportionately more generous than the wealthy, it is probably because they know what it is to depend on God alone for help.
Jesus’ compassion for widows, especially those who were childless and therefore without resources of any kind for their old age, points us back to another account of the poor widow of Zarephath we heard about the in the first reading. Shortly after the prophet Elijah came to live with her, her little boy fell ill and died.
So Elijah “carried him up into the upper chamber, where he lodged, and laid him upon his own bed. And he cried to the LORD, “O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried to the LORD, “O LORD my God, let this child’s soul come into him again.” And the LORD hearkened to the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived. And Elijah took the child, and brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and delivered him to his mother; and Elijah said, “See, your son lives.” And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.” [1 Kings 17:17-24]
Jesus must have remembered this story well, for he often refers to Elijah. And, as Luke tells it, once “as he drew near to the gate of the city, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a large crowd from the city was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ He came and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And, with a serene confidence so unlike the desperate efforts of Elijah, he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’ And the dead man sat up, and began to speak. And he gave him to his mother.” [Luke 7:12-15. Also see Luke 18:1-8.]
Today, we could do well to look to the well-being of single mothers and fatherless and motherless children for signs of our spiritual and political health, for of all minorities they are the most vulnerable, especially if they are also people of color, Native Americans, or recent immigrants. “…learn to do good,” Isaiah tells us, “seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” [Isaiah 1:17] For in the eyes of God, their welfare is our welfare.
Now, with winter approaching and ordinary time running out, we should especially remember the needs of the poorest, the most vulnerable, the most wanting in political guarantees and the necessities of daily life. Then, as the widow of Zarephath said, people might say of us, too, “Now I know that you are of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”
1 Jn 3:1-3
Traditionally, November is the month of the faithful departed, those we formerly called the “poor Souls,” usually meaning they were probably in purgatory. Today, which is to say tomorrow, we celebrate the Feast of All the Saints, the Hallows, as they were called in English in times past. All the Hallows, those saints known and unknown who enjoy the light of glory in the presence of God unveiled. I suppose there’s a very fine line between All the Saints and the Poor Souls, just as we celebrate the feasts back-to-back, so to speak. Between them, we commemorate all the faithful departed.
There are a few more all the time, it would seem. The news of the Russian airliner crash this morning provided a somber beginning of the weekend. The death toll of the poor migrants struggling to reach Europe from Iraq and Syria is a now a constant reminder of the precariousness of life, especially children’s lives, as desperate families seek a better, safer life. Seeing little kids running from door to door in Oak Park and River Forest begging sweets today did not cheer me up a great deal, although I think it is important to laugh in the face of death if we can. But it’s not easy.
A couple of days ago, I was looking through my stack of mass cards for deceased Dominicans of our Province. It has grown noticeably in recent times, and one gets a hint of advancing age when it begins to seem that most of the people I know are in one or other of those camps. Just today, I received word that a very good friend, the husband of a former colleague at Loyola University, had died this morning in Tacoma. One of my cousins died two weeks ago in Albuquerque and the wife of a deacon at the church I served for 16 years died last week in Carol Stream. Others of my age can claim similar experience, I’m sure.
Even more than taxes, death is the great certainty in life. But for Christian faith, death is not the end of life, but its true beginning. But if saints are people in heaven, those already saved, why do all this? Again, it’s because it’s about us, not them.
Famous saints — the great prophets, martyrs, evangelists, founders, missionaries, pastors, and preachers are holy women and men who have earned recognition by authority. They are held up for admiration and imitation, difficult as that might be at times. It has taken far too long to enter Oscar Romero’s name in that list and, despite her disinclination, that of Dorothy Day. But what about those who are not known or remembered, whose names are written in the Book of Life, but not in the Roman Canon?
That brings it home to you and me. For we are called to join that countless throng of holy ones celebrating the wedding feast of the Lamb, but in our time and place and according to the mysterious plan of God. We have our orders, but they are often sealed. We do our best. Whether we get canonized is not at all important. How we live is.
It is not being recognized, being canonized, that makes someone a saint. It’s what they have done with their lives that earns them a place of honor on that list. And on the much, much greater list known only to God and the blessed saints in heaven. But as Meister Eckhart once said, “It is not what we do that makes us holy, but we ought to make holy what we do.” [Talks of Instruction, 4] Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day are saints not because they strove to be, but because they did what they felt compelled to do as true followers of Jesus Christ.
The Feast of All Hallows also reminds us that sanctity, like salvation, is a community affair, a communion of saints. It’s a “we” thing, not a “me” thing. And the gospel for today reminds us in no uncertain terms that when we look for holiness, we should consider first those who are poor, the lowly who suffer persecution and are starved for justice, who mourn, who make peace, the meek and merciful. We will find more effective models of holiness not on pedestals or cathedral roofs, but in the marketplace, the barrios and slums, in the streets of San Salvador, Baghdad and the refugee camps of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Greece, Italy, and elsewhere. You may even find a few sitting next to you.
I don’t feel particularly lonely because so many of the important people in my life are now numbered among the Hallows, but I miss them. And I often feel their presence, for as we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses [Heb. 12:1]. And we pray that one day, they will receive us into that joyful throng. That will be the day of everlasting rejoicing, when death is no more and every tear has been wiped away. In the meantime, as we anticipate, we celebrate, we even emulate. So be of good cheer. “…let us throw off everything that holds us down and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”