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Jesus shows what it means to face the world with the truth this Christ the King Sunday, the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, Year C.
The Gospel presents our king holding court over the world in all his regalia — a crown of thorns, naked except for his torn skin, and the cross as his throne.
This last Gospel of the Liturgical Year sums up so much of what Jesus has been saying all year.
He said he had no place to lay his head. Here he is, without even a deathbed to die on. He said to take the lowest place at the table to move higher. Here he is taking the lowest — and highest — place. He said the invited guests wouldn’t come to the feast, so he would compel the worst to come. And here he is, crucified between thieves who have no choice but to be there.
And there he is under a sign that says “King of the Jews.” This attracts the mockery of the rulers in Christ’s time, just as it does today.
We say Jesus is King of the Universe, and the world scoffs. What kind of king is this? His Church is neither accepted nor rejected in the boardrooms and Zoom meetings and international summits that rule the world. It is simply ignored. His own people seem largely uninterested in following his great kingly decree to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
And he is supposed to be a king?
Only two people ask him for favors while he is there on his throne.
The unrepentant thief says, “Save yourself and us.”
Isn’t this what we say, also? “Save yourself — save your body, the Church, which is ignoring you, where baptisms are at an all-time low, because we don’t think baptism is all that important, and where we no longer teach your commandments, because we no longer believe them. Save your Church, which doesn’t even want to make disciples of the nations. It’s your Church, isn’t it? Why won’t you do something, if you’re the Christ?
And save us, too. We are getting clobbered by the world. The media ignores us or treats us with contempt. Even the right-to-life is losing, and we long ago gave marriage up for dead. The schools call us bigots for believing what you told us, that “God made them male and female” and “a man shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” No one takes us seriously anymore. Big business has teamed up with big government in a monstrous new leviathan that scorns your truth, and we are helpless to do anything about it.
Why won’t King Jesus do something about it, since we can’t? If he’s the king of the world, why is the world such a mess? “Save yourself and us!”
Maybe none of this is being solved because we are imitating the wrong thief.
The Good Thief turns to Jesus too. First, he tells the unrepentant thief, “We have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes.”
Maybe the Church is the way it is because we are the Church. We made the Church the way it is. We are allowing our parishes to drift from God. We do little to intervene when our families give the cold shoulder to God. And it’s no wonder, because our own love for God grew cold. Our practice of the faith is minimal, perfunctory, and distracted. We prefer ugly little sins and pale little comforts to our king on his cross. We can say it with the thief: “We have been condemned justly.“
And what about the world? The world is our world too. It’s not a place where bad people automatically hold sway and lord it over the poor and helpless us. God had a strong solution to the problem of a world that rejects his truth: You and me, armed with all the teaching of the Catholic intellectual tradition at our fingertips. We are his solution. He sent us out like shock troops, one in each of our neighborhoods. But we have allowed the enemies of the truth a louder voice than the truth Himself, not just in the halls of power, but in our schools, homes and, God help us, in our own self-talk.
“This man has done nothing criminal,” says the Good Thief. We can say the same for Jesus: He gave us his Church and his truth, and he put us in a democratic republic with maximal opportunity to influence the future, then left it to us to build his kingdom.
Then the thief said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
The thief looks on Jesus Christ, denigrated and in agony, and sees a king. We have to look at Jesus as he is and, where the world sees a loser, see a king. Because he is one. Jesus is the one who is beaten but not defeated. He is the one who is crucified, but rules from the cross. He is the one whose crown of thorns shows his true greatness.
How is it possible to look at him and see anything but defeat?
Because we know who defeated him and how. We know Judas betrayed him for money, and then killed himself from regret. We know the Sanhedrin condemned him out of envy, but that they will soon be swept away by the Romans. We know the Romans killed him out of pride, but that all that is left of the Roman Empire, 2,000 years later, is the Roman Catholic Church, with the crucifix at the center of each of its churches.
We know the same thing about those who defeat Christ today.
Like Judas, they destroy the innocent for money, envy and pride. Businesses who fight for abortion, whatever else they are fighting for, fight for their profits; they want workers, not moms. Politicians who fight for abortion know that doing so will deliver them more power and donations. Men who fight for abortion know that abortion will give them freedom from the burden of women and children. And women who fight for abortion end up filled with regret and depression at their shortsightedness.
And we know why one thief rejected him and the other accepted him.
The bad thief is totally pathetic. Hatred led him to his crime, hatred condemned him, and he spends his last hour on earth reveling in hatred, refusing to learn his lesson to the end.
The Good Thief sees Jesus suffering with him, and recognizes the God of love. He sees the sign that says “This is the King of the Jews,” and he says, like the Tribes of Israel said to David in the First Reading, “Here we are, your bone and your flesh.” He looks at Christ crucified and sees what St. Paul sees in the Second Reading: “He is the image of the invisible God … He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
“The thief knew that the wounds on the body of Christ were not Christ’s wounds but the thief’s,” said St. Maximus the Confessor. “After he recognized his own wounds on Christ’s body, he began to love all the more.”
And Jesus answers: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
In Genesis 3:23, God banished Adam and Eve from Paradise because they made themselves the arbiters of what is good and bad. In Luke 23:43, God reopens Paradise to a thief who made Jesus the arbiter of what is good and bad. If we do what the thief does — if we join Christ in his suffering and speak his truth into the harsh world that surrounds us — then there is still hope for us, and hope for the world he entrusted us with.
“The cross of Christ is the key to paradise,” said St. Jerome. “The cross of Christ opened it.”