The Feast of Christ the King, or since Pope Paul VI augmented it in 1969, “King of the Universe,” is strangely paradoxical. During his lifetime and ministry, Jesus denied that he was “The Man Who Would be King,” as Rudyard Kipling might have it. When challenged on this by Pilate, he replied, simply enough, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And small wonder. For a thousand years, almost everyone who called himself a king in Israel and Judah had been a villain, thief, and thug. Even David, the “model king,” was not very good at it. The reign of his son Solomon, arguably the greatest of the old kings, ended in disaster. So did most of the others.
In John’s gospel, people dangerously acclaim Jesus 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!” This act of political impudence most likely led to Jesus’ arrest. Jesus himself said nothing about it until before Pilate.
“Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’ (John 18:33-37). Jesus was nevertheless executed for sedition and treason by pretending to be “King of the Jews,” as Pilate made clear by the notice posted on the cross itself: ‘This is the King of the Jews’ (Luke 23:38). As we
heard in today’s gospel reading, taunted by the soldiers, the leaders of the people, and even one of the criminals crucified with him, Jesus remained silent. But when the other criminal refused to mock him 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).
Clearly, Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God, a realm of human affairs ruled by the divine laws of love, justice, truth, and mercy. He came, moreover, to inaugurate that reign. In later times, Jesus was seen to have done so and not only inherited that Kingdom, but entrusted it to all who follow him. For centuries, however, Jesus was rarely referred to in royal terms. The earliest pictures of him painted on the walls of the catacombs depict him as a young shepherd. But when Christianity emerged from the shadows of illegality in the fourth century and eventually became the religion of the Roman Empire, the image of Christ the King came increasingly to the fore in icons and hymns. He now wore a crown not of thorns, but of gold. He sat on a throne and held the royal orb and scepter. Just like the emperor. To be sure, there was some precedent, especially in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 22:1-4). Still, it seems a little odd.
By the Middle Ages, when kings had emerged as the powerful and contentious rulers of Europe, the figure of “King Jesus” also rose to greater prominence. Liturgical celebrations were established here and there to imbed that tradition and, in effect, to remind the rulers of the earth that there was a greater King over all. Art and music followed suit. But it was not until the twentieth century that the Feast of Christ the King was extended to the entire Church by Pope Pius XI. By then, kingship was in a pretty sad state, having been widely supplanted by both republics and dictatorships.
So you may wonder, what does it mean today 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? And in an era of scientific discovery which has shown us that the universe is millions of times larger and stranger than anything believed in 1925?
Even so, 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 cosmological and more eschatological tone in keeping with the readings at this time of the liturgical year and also removed it from competition with Reformation Sunday. Jews, on the other hand, have long since used the phrase “King of the Universe” in reference to Almighty God in the blessings before solemn occasions involving the fulfillment of a commandment. Long before that, “King of the Universe” was a title given by ancient Mesopotamian empires, the Assyrians and Babylonians, to justify a claim to universal rule. The Jewish appropriation of the title, like the later Christian title, was likely a not-too-subtle correction.
We may still be left wondering: What kind of king is this? And what kind of Kingdom does he rule? Is Jesus the Lord of the Universe? Or as one of my students asked, “Did Jesus save the Klingons and Romulans, too?” Strangely enough, that’s not an idle question as scientists, philosophers, and theologians ponder what “universe” has come to mean. But that is not really our concern here and now.
Our concern is whether the Reign of God preached by Jesus is a fiction or a real force in tide of history, not simply a given, but a goal, a mission, and often a struggle. Yet it is also a gift; one given to the poor, sick, and suffering, captives and refugees, even thieves who hear the good news and treasure it. For the kingdom of Jesus is a realm of mercy and grace and truth, a kingdom of justice and real freedom. This kind of kingdom and this kind of king should still strike fear into the heads and hearts of tyrants everywhere.
It would hardly be wide of the mark to point out that the “holiday season” is definitely upon us. It has been here for weeks in fact, at least in the big-box stores and the gorgeous decorations in Macy’s windows. It started this year weeks before Halloween, and what could be more seasonal than celebrating Veteran’s Day with a “Black Friday” sale on mattresses and giant flat-screen TVs?
Advent is nevertheless nearing – and oldsters can tell from the shift in the tone of the Sunday readings toward the anticipation of the End Times. It’s a also way of foreshadowing the end of one liturgical year and the beginning of another. And then comes Advent, which I am tempted to call “formerly a period of subdued but joyful anticipation of the Christmas season,” which actually begins on Christmas!
That Advent hardly exists any more other than as a fond memory of a time when school kids gave up sweets and donated their pennies to save pagan babies in faraway places with strange-sounding names. The colored lights and decorations are already up. The parades have begun. Dozens of Santas crowd street corners and shop fronts. “Advent calendars,” once a way of marking the weeks and days before Christmas by opening little doors to reveal Christmas themes and symbols, now reveal merchandise. Especially electronic gadgetry. Maybe a Tesla or a BMW. Perhaps Thanksgiving will provide a welcome break from the Christmas glee, if not (heaven knows) from shopping sprees, even on Thanksgiving Day itself. The commercial world remains very much with us. (Yes, on Christmas Day, too.)
Once upon a time, the Sundays after Thanksgiving that led up to and inaugurated Advent scared hell out of us kids (or so it was hoped), featuring accounts of what many still think of as the end of the world, with descriptions made frighteningly memorable by the eloquent Jesuits at our parish church. In these troubled times, of course, many people have also had the hell scared out of them by the prospect of the environmental cataclysm threatening to befall the world in a distressingly few years. Or the prospect of another war or the loss of their pensions. Or the political circuses in Washington, London, and elsewhere.
Perhaps we should be jittery, considering the mess humans have made of the world over the last fifty years or more. But that’s really not what Jesus is talking about in today’s
gospel, or that passage from the book of Malachi, which — not coincidentally — is the last book of the Old Testament. The message of both, and St. Paul, too, is not one of doom and gloom, but of hope. And at the risk of anticipating Advent again, hope is the great theme of that season, too.Both Paul and Jesus himself actually warned us against getting too worked up about rumors of the End Times. In today’s gospel reading, for instance, Jesus says, “Take heed that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified; for this must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” (Luke 21: 8-9.) That theme resounds throughout the gospels: do not be afraid!
None of this was simply talk about history, about space and time and the stock market or even the stones of the Temple. (The Wailing Wall is still standing, by the way, so don’t get panicky about Armageddon.) What Malachi, Paul, and Jesus were all saying is that this world, with all its governments, social systems, wealth, poverty, wars, misery, and suffering is not ultimate, not finally decisive. Money, power, and success are not what life is all about, despite what lurks behind those little doors on your Advent calendar.
The message we hear in today’s readings and will echo in the weeks to come is that we are not to place either our hopes or our fears in the powers and structures of this present world, which are not only fallible, but will inevitably fail us. Still, as St. Paul insists, we may not resign our commission as members of our communities and hang around waiting for the Parousia. Rather, we must attend to the very real needs of those around us and the living planet as a whole, more now than ever. Or we won’t be ready when the Son of Man does appear!
In fact, we are called to build a truly humane city, a commonwealth of love and justice, a world where peace, truth. and freedom can flourish. We are called to look to our neighbor in order to assist and protect, especially the poor, the oppressed, and defenseless, not least the political refugee. (Yes, Virginia, it’s in the bible – from beginning to end!) For all that, Jesus warns us, we should not count on being rewarded, honored, or even thanked. Expect, rather, to be misunderstood, opposed, and even persecuted.
Even so, we should lift up our hearts. For, as Malachi had it, “…for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall” [Malachi 4:2 in the RSV]. The former world is inevitably coming to an end, with all its injustice and suffering and destruction. It has been ending all along in fact, ever since Christ rose from the dead. A new world is coming, just as surely, but it will get here in God’s good time. In the meantime, we have some important work to do. The bumper sticker had it right: “Jesus is coming soon—look busy.”
Today throughout much of the world, celebrations and commemorations of Armistice Day, or what here in the US we call Veterans Day and elsewhere is known as Remembrance Day, are in full swing and rightly so. It was at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 that the final Armistice between the parties of the first World War was signed, bringing to an end “the War to End All Wars.” Or so it was hoped. Because what followed this “stoppage of arms” was not a just peace, but one marred by vengeance and retribution, that terrible war was only a prelude to another and even more terrible war barely twenty years later. And in truth, several lesser wars since then, particularly in the Middle East, where territorial wars continue to this day.
The lesson the great nations of the world did not learn from “the Great War” is that the only path to lasting peace is justice. An unjust peace is only a hiatus during which the impetus toward further wars festers and grows more virulent.
Today’s first reading recalls an incident in the aftermath of a war between the Greek successors of Alexander the Great and the Jewish
resistance,when customs alien to Jewish life and faith were imposed by violence and terror upon a conquered people. The insurgence led to years of bloody conflict that ended two centuries later with the Roman occupation, more rebellions, and the eventual destruction of the Jewish nation. During that interval, known with some irony as the Pax Augustana – the “Peace of Augustus”– there came among us the Prince of Peace, the Savior whose mission was not to overthrow an unjust ruler but to emancipate the human race from all injustice, hatred, and killing. He paid for it with his life.
The theme that runs through today’s liturgy, however, is not about war and death but rather about resurrection and life. The episode from the Second Book of the Maccabees, a work not in the Hebrew canon of Scripture but treasured by both Jews and Christians, testifies to a firm belief in the ultimate vindication of undying faith — “…since it is for his laws that we die, the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever.”
Similarly, the thrust of the gospel reading is not some technical interpretation of the Levirate Law as the scholarly but narrow-minded Sadducees attempt to lure Jesus into a legal dilemma. Rather, he cuts to the quick – their refusal to believe in the resurrection of the dead. But, Jesus insists, “the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive” [Luke 20:37-38].
As I once said on such a day, there are no dead people in the sight of God – all are alive, eternally. Every moment is now, and there is no elsewhere. Where the presence of God is felt, there, too, are all those who have preceded us into the light of glory, whose presence to God does not differ from our own. The only difference lies on our side, limited as we are by boundaries of space and time that also prevent us from being fully attentive to that glorifying presence.
Tomorrow’s observance reminds us that those who resist injustice and oppression, even to the shedding of their blood, are precious in the sight of God — all the former or “old” soldiers (which is what “veteran” means), but those presently serving, and, as our allies in Europe recall, all those who perished in the Great War, civilians and soldiers alike. In this month of remembrance, we should pause to remember all those who have suffered and died in the long history of humanity’s wars – the most destructive, wasteful, vicious enterprises ever undertaken on this planet. Let us pause, too, and ask forgiveness as we pray for those who died so needlessly and for ourselves, too, that we may at last learn that the path to peace lies and will always lie through true and universal justice.
About 20 years ago, my forester neighbor in Ireland gave me a dozen sycamore saplings, half of which I planted in the old sheep pens that were entirely devoid of trees and flowers. They are now well over 50 feet tall and the branches are pretty high up. So I was curious about the gospel story about “the man in the sycamore tree,” as Thomas Merton called him.
The sycomores of Palestine are an entirely different species from our sycamore maples. It’s a ficus or fig tree. But if anything, in its natural state it can grow even taller than our sycamore maple and its branches spread wide, very wide. But they are low enough for even a short fellow like Zacchaeus to climb up for a better view. And he was short. That minor detail Luke adds seems odd other than as an excuse to get Zacchaeus up that tree. But why did Luke go to all that trouble about a fellow who appears only once in the New Testament? The answer is probably simple enough: early Christians knew him. Call him a local hero. By the way, the Zacchaeus Tree is a living 2,000-year-old sycomore in Jericho that has always been associated with our little tax collector.
Jesus knew his name. That detail is even more telling and too easily slips by. Before meeting Jesus Zacchaeus was no doubt well known in his community and most likely widely despised. He was a tax collector and very rich, which probably meant he took more than he was entitled to as his percentage. Sound familiar? So it would seem that Jesus not only knew about him but came looking for him. He called him by name. And he had a plan.
He invited himself (and no doubt several of his disciples) to supper at Zacchaeus’ house, something that set some people’s teeth on edge. Zacchaeus was a collaborator, an agent of the hated Romans, a sinner and a traitor. And yet Jesus reaches out to him. Or, rather, up to him. And saves what was lost.
It seems that Jesus developed a bad reputation among the Very Best People because of his habit of eating and staying with tax collectors and other sinners. It certainly didn’t stop him. And up a tree, this little political hack is struck by the invitation that saves his soul and no doubt even his reputation. “Today,” Jesus says, “salvation has come to this house…” And that is what brings us here today.
Zacchaeus is us. Whether we are up a tree or out on a limb, and most of us usually are, one way or another, Jesus reaches up to us with words of invitation and promise. And what he offers is not merely better social relations, but eternal life. Salvation.
Our yearly gathering to remember our beloved and even ornery departed family members, friends, and associates, follows the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls. Like the Latino Dia de los Muertos celebrations, both commemorations begin what has traditionally been called “the month of the Poor Souls.” They remind us that we are in this together — saints AND sinners, Apostles AND tax collectors. The living AND the dead. God loves us all and extends the promise of salvation to all. Zacchaeus is our model here. On hearing the good news, he changes his life, bringing it into line with the mercy, justice, and love that God expects of us all, those he calls to the Supper of the Lamb. And that means everyone.
As we heard from the Book of Wisdom,
“…you are merciful to all, for you can do all things, and you overlook people’s sins, so that they may repent. For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made…You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living” [Wisdom 11:23-24, 26].
So let us always pray for each other, present and departed, asking that God will make us all worthy of his invitation and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in us, and we in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. [See 2 Thess 1:11-12].