(The following was written as a meditation for a candlelit prayer service on the eve of Christ the King Sunday.)
And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” – Luke 23:33-43
On Good Friday, one man knew Jesus was a king: the condemned thief dying right beside him. Romans had mocked Jesus, Jews had rejected him, and his very disciples had abandoned him. But for a man at the end of his rope, the only hope was in Jesus being the king he claimed to be.
It’s often only when we reach the end of our rope that we remember that Jesus is our king. It’s then when we have to hope in his kingdom. In our everyday lives, we’re pretty content to dwell in the here and now. It’s when the world crumbles around us, when we see how utterly powerless we are, that we have to rely on something greater than ourselves to save us from our broken world. It is then when our brokenness calls us to remember that the Light has come into the world, as John proclaims, and the darkness cannot master it.
Brennan Manning wrote in his classic The Ragamuffin Gospel,
“Jesus says the kingdom… is not a subdivision for the self-righteous nor for those who feel they possess the state secret of salvation. The kingdom is not an exclusive, well-trimmed suburb with snobbish rules about who can live there. No, it is for a larger, homelier, less self-conscious caste of people who understand they are sinners because they have experienced the yaw and pitch of moral struggle. These are the sinner-guests invited by Jesus to closeness with Him around the banquet table. It remains a startling story to those who never understand that the men and women who are truly filled with light are those who have gazed deeply into the darkness of their imperfect existence.”
The Feast of Christ the King comes at an especially dark time of year. The days are remarkably short. Yesterday, to tell the truth, I didn’t see sunlight. It’s easy for our minds to get as dark as the winter sky, and we need the Light of Christ shining within us to give us hope.
Christ the King is also the last feast day in the calendar. It comes just before Advent, and yet it is almost the fulfillment of Christmas. It is, after all, proclaiming that Jesus is our king and that his kingdom is both coming and already here. On one hand, we are looking forward to Jesus coming and making all the broken things whole again, including us. On the other hand, Jesus gives us the sense that this kingdom has already started. It’s slowly breaking into the world. Time and time again, we are told that Jesus proclaimed the Gospel, “The kingdom of God is at hand” and, usually thereafter, performed some miracle of healing that showed the very curse of death turning backwards.
After all the news of the past two weeks, this is something awfully good to hear. The kingdom is breaking into the world, even if the world and our very own hearts are currently still broken. But it has begun and we, as the church, can do our part—in our homes, in our communities, and in our relationships with each other. We can create beauty and healing, and this is kingdom work.
As we enter the seasons of Advent and Christmas, we remember how the kingdom began to break in. As we wrestle with all the things around us and all the things within us, this Advent season, reflect that it started in the humblest of ways, with a baby born in a stable in the middle of the night. The King of the Universe is born in the humblest place on earth.
“This, this is Christ the King
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing…”
(Cover image: Deesis from Almudena Cathedral, Madrid)