Feast of Christ the King – November 21, 2010 – St. John’s
It is worth reflecting on the contrast between our two New Testament readings today. The passage from St. Luke’s Gospel (Lk 23:35-43) describes a moment in the passion of Christ–but let us remember that “passion” means “suffering,” real, horrible suffering. Jesus was one of three men condemned to the worst form of torturing execution then known, one reserved for the worst of criminals or for people who represented a social or political threat. The focus of our story, of course, is on Jesus, the object of the mockery of the leaders of the people and of the soldiers, whose particular form of contempt was the sarcastic title they attached over his head: “This is the King of the Jews.” We shouldn’t let our familiarity with the scene and the moment hides its horrific character from us.
But then, in our second reading (Col 1:12-20), we heard said of this same Jesus the extraordinary claims that he was an agent of creation, the one in whom, by whom, for whom all things were made; the one in whom all things hold together, and then that he, the first-born of all creation, is also the first-born from among the dead, in whom God’s fullness dwells, the agent of universal reconciliation, achieving peace through the blood of his cross.
Commenting on this text, an Anglican scholar had this to say: “It is worth the effort to recall that these stupendous words apply (if they are indeed St. Paul’s own) to one who, only some thirty years before (and possibly less), had been crucified. The identification of that historical person–the Nazarene who had been ignominiously executed–with the subject of this description is staggering, and fairly cries out for some explanation” (C.F.D. Moule, Colossians and Philemon, 58-59).
Much of our Christian identity is tied up with this transition from the disgrace and horror of the cross to the sweeping and profound assertions of St. Paul. The transition began very early, as soon, in fact, as the disciples of Jesus became convinced that he had been raised from the dead and saw in his resurrection God’s vindication and proof of Christ’s claim that the reign of God was about to begin. This faith entailed a re-interpretation of his death itself; they came to see that the unjust execution of an innocent man was the atoning sacrifice that brought them forgiveness. When Paul was converted a few years after Christ’s death and resurrection, he was taught that Christ had died for our sins, and he himself began to proclaim that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19), the very same message he brought to the Colossians in the passage we heard today: “effecting peace through the blood of the cross.”
Now we can understand the exchange between the good thief and Jesus on the cross. The leaders and the soldiers have been mocking Christ, calling him King, but sarcastically: “If you’re a King, if you’re Messiah, save yourself!” But the good thief recognizes that he is enduring what he deserves because of his crimes, while Jesus is being punished unjustly. And he recognizes the truth about him: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” that is, “when you begin to reign.” And Jesus already exercises that royal power of pardon when he promises the thief: “This day you will be with me in Paradise.”
In the Old Testament, a law required that an executed criminal’s body should be hung on a tree as a warning to others, and it was said: “Cursed is one who hangs on a tree” (Dt 21:22-23). In another one of his letters, St. Paul refers to this text in order to show how Christ was willing to suffer this curse in order to bring blessings to us (Gal 3:13-14). This was another one of those paradoxes the early Christians loved to express: Life died, so that the dead might live. He became poor so that they might become rich. He was cursed so that they might be blessed. When early Christians found an ancient version of the Psalms with this verse: “The Lord reigns from the tree,” they did not hesitate to interpret it of Christ’s cross: The Lord begins his reign on the cross. The tree of death has become the tree of life.
This is the reason for what that scholar called the “stupendous words” of St. Paul that we heard in our second reading. All the meaning of God’s good work of creation and of reconciliation derives from, centers upon, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “In him all things hold together,” St. Paul says. Only in him will we be able finally and completely to make sense of this physical world, to make sense of human history, with its glorious achievements and its miserable tragedies, to make sense of our own individual lives, with their failures, too, and their triumphs. It is in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, that it all holds together. This is what we are celebrating today.