FEAST OF CHRIST THE KING (Final Sunday of Church Year]
USCCB LINK to all three readings
The rulers sneered at Jesus and said,
“He saved others, let him save himself
if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.”
Even the soldiers jeered at him.
As they approached to offer him wine they called out,
“If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.”
Above him there was an inscription that read,
“This is the King of the Jews.”
Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying,
“Are you not the Christ?
Save yourself and us.”
The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply,
“Have you no fear of God,
for you are subject to the same condemnation?
And indeed, we have been condemned justly,
for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes,
but this man has done nothing criminal.”
Then he said,
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
He replied to him,
“Amen, I say to you,
today you will be with me in Paradise.”
We come to the climax of the Liturgical year, the Feast of Christ the King. Originally this feast was celebrated on the last Sunday of October. The Tridentine Missal in use before 1970 celebrated the final Sunday of the Church year as the “Last Sunday after Pentecost” late in November. The Gospel of the day was Matthew 24: 15-35, the most graphic description of the final days, similar in tone and message to our Gospel of last Sunday.
When the editors developed the post-Conciliar Missal in the late 1960’s, when the Church’s Sunday liturgy was expanded to three annual cycles of Matthew’s, Luke’s, and Mark’s Gospel, the thinking was that the final Gospel of the Church year ought to reflect a summary statement of each Gospel. The Church drew from the Gospels the “final word” on the meaning of Jesus Christ as put forward by each writer, as the Church looked forward to the Lord’s final coming.
In this new format that we use today, Matthew’s Gospel describes an apocalyptic last judgment where the Son of Man arrives with his angels for the final judgment. The human population is divided into “the sheep and the goats.” When those judged ask for the criteria of their fates, the Son of Man answers that the saved had fed and cared for him in the way they treated the “least,” the variety of the poor and marginalized. It is an excellent summary of Matthew’s entire text, centered as it is on Jesus as the New Moses who has come with an open ended moral agenda in the eight beatitudes. We will be studying Matthew very soon as we approach Cycle A on November 27, the First Sunday of Advent.
Year B, the cycle of St. Mark, ends with the evangelist’s description of the end times, though his account is shorter than the other two Gospels. If scholars are correct, Matthew and Luke used St. Mark as a starting point for their own theologies. Mark has the fewest details of the last days, possibly because the horrors of the Roman siege and destruction of 70 A.D. had not yet occurred, and Mark had never seen “one stone shall not rest upon another” destruction of the temple. Mark’s text is an exhortation to be watchful for the Day of the Lord, that deliverance would soon be at hand, a message reinforced in St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.
The statement summary of Jesus’ earthly life in St. Luke’s Gospel this Sunday is quite different from that of the other two evangelists. The text above embodies the full plan of God executed through his Son. The first paragraph describes the total repudiation of the religious officers of his day, the trustees of the patrimony of Israel. It is one thing to disagree or question a man’s intentions, as Nicodemus attempted to do in John’s Gospel when he is perplexed about being “born again.” But it is another thing entirely to heap scorn and to throw into one’s face the belief he lived for. To sharpen the assault, Luke quotes the rulers as using the very terms of Jesus’ identity to assault him. Jesus is taunted as a pseudo “Christ of God” or God’s anointed final prophet. The soldiers, who could only have known of Jesus through his enemies at the cross, amplify the religious insults by scoffing at the title, “King of the Jews.”
One wonders what Luke was feeling and thinking as he wrote these words. Scripture scholars do not believe Luke himself was Jewish by blood. The best guess is that Luke was a Gentile Greek, possibly a “God-fearer” with Jewish sympathies before his own Christian baptism. His Gospel reveals intimate knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and thought, though. Unlike Mark, Luke had heard of the four-year siege of Jerusalem and its destruction. He knew that one temple stone did not rest upon another, and that Jews were now scattering throughout the known world. He, more than most, could see that Jesus’ crucifixion at the hands of his own people was a turning point in salvation history, the last hope for the restoration of Israel’s religious fulfillment violently destroyed in an orgy of blindness, jealousy, and complacency.
But if one era was coming to an end, was another on the doorstep. Yes, and it was more than just on the doorstep. It was in the house already. For in the second paragraph we see, in the last moments of Jesus’ life, that word so pregnant with meaning throughout this Gospel, “today.” Way back in Chapter 4, when Jesus read Isaiah 42 in his synagogue, he rolled up the scroll and said “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Just a few weeks ago, we read Luke 19 where a tax collector slid down a sycamore tree and pledged a renunciation of his sinful ways, to which Jesus replied, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.” Luke’s emphasis is less upon the distant future and more about the present moment; salvation is here for the one who believes and acts upon it.
Up until now Jesus’ focus has been the salvation and restoration of Israel. But in the Good Friday narrative it is visible to all that salvation is a universal gift and possibility for all. A lifelong criminal of no religious identity or practice asks that the innocent Jesus remember him when Jesus came into his kingdom. Jesus’ reply sums up his life’s work, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Zacchaeus may have been a lost son of Abraham, but this thief was a lost son of no one. Or, more correctly, he was a lost son of Adam, father of the human race.
Christ the King is the glorious savior of all. His kingdom cuts through every conceivable human wall created by the hardness of our own hearts. And on top of that, his salvation is here today.