This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 23:35–43:
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.”
Today the church celebrates the Solemnity of Christ the King, and closes out the liturgical year. A year ago, Pope Francis opened the liturgical year as a year of mercy, and called for the holy doors in each diocese to remain open as a symbol of the Lord’s mercy and openness. We have walked through them on a couple of occasions during the past year and hoped to squeeze through them one more time, expecting the doors to close today. Instead, we had an opportunity to witness the ceremony closing the doors and completing the year-long observance.
Just before the doors closed, however, one enterprising man managed to sneak through them — even after the ceremony ended. He literally squeezed his way through the opening, dodging the closing double doors without quite touching them. In doing so, this unknown middle-aged man reminded me about the nature of God’s mercy, and its timelessness — and our own relationship with Him.
Today’s first two readings focus on kingdoms and power. In 2 Samuel, the tribes of Israel anoint David as king, following the will of the Lord who put him in charge of the Israelites even when Saul was still king. The Lord had at the time given David two charges, the second of which was to be “commander of Israel.” The first, however, was to “shepherd my people Israel” — to care for them, to love them, and to serve them. Power serves — it is not served.
We see Paul hint at the same point in his letter to the Colossians. Paul exalts Jesus as “the firstborn of all creation,” declaring that “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Regardless, Jesus did not come to earth to declare a material kingdom of power and might, but came to serve us and save us, “making peace by the blood of his cross through him.” He came to serve rather than be served, and that service extends throughout time.
Throughout history, the concept of a servant king is all but alien to humanity. This is why the crucifixion was intended to utterly discredit Jesus. After all, a true king and Messiah would choose to save himself first, right? If Jesus could not come to His own rescue by using His power to His own benefit, then that power didn’t really exist at all. “If you are the King of the Jews,” the soldiers and the crowd jeer, “save yourself.”
Jesus had a different mission in mind, of course. His first role was the same as David’s — to shepherd the Lord’s people Israel, and the rest of the world as well, and the timeline for this turns out to be all but limitless. At this point, the Lord’s plan of salvation had already unfolded over at least two millennia. Israel was intended to serve as a nation of priests to convert the world to the Lord, but it shortly chose to operate as a political nation-state instead. Between David’s rise to the throne and the Crucifixion, Israel would split into two, and both kingdoms would eventually collapse, be restored, and be defeated again because of the way that the Israelites and Judeans trusted more in their own devices than in the Lord.
Yet time never really ran out — not for the Israelites and Judeans, and not for any of us. Jesus comes to save fallen humanity by redirecting the Lord’s people Israel to become not a nation of priests that will bring all nations to Jerusalem, but a church of priests instead that will bring the eternal Jerusalem to all nations. Rather than raise armies and crush the Romans while gaining material wealth, Jesus chooses to serve in such a way that all can be saved.
Jesus spoke of this in other terms before the Crucifixion. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers two specific beatitudes that He exemplifies in this sacrifice. “Blessed are the meek,” He says. Meek in this sense does not mean powerless; it refers to a choice to refrain from using power in order to benefit others. In another part of the same sermon, Jesus exhorts people to “love their enemies,” saying it is not enough to simply love one’s friends. Jesus demonstrates both in His effort on the cross to complete His sacrifice to save the very people jeering Him, and the very people who nailed Jesus to the cross.
As King, did Jesus have the power to come down from the cross and crush His enemies? Of course. Does He have the authority to declare His disgust at us and toss us aside in our sinfulness? As our King, He most certainly does. But He chooses not to do so, to put aside that power in favor of mercy, in order that all may be saved. Even in the last few and worst moments of His suffering on the cross in this Gospel reading, Jesus succeeds in saving the soul of the repentant thief — a man who had already been condemned for his crimes and suffering the most ignominious execution the Romans could offer.
One might say that the repentant thief snuck in through the doors just as they were closing. But of course, that’s not the case. Jesus’ mercy is endless for those who seek it out. We closed the holy doors as part of our symbolic celebration of this, a finite celebration in time that reminds us of the infinite mercy of Christ. Jesus’ love shepherds us through those doors, opening as we approach, calling out to us to give ourselves to the Lord by choosing to walk through them. His meekness belies His power as King, but Jesus laid that down in order to ensure that all of His flock hear His voice and be comforted by it rather than cower in fear.
We might at times feel as though the doors are closed, trapped in our own sin and shame. If we look closely enough, though, we’ll see them open for us — and like that unnamed gentleman at the cathedral last night, we should not hesitate to pass through them. Our King awaits to greet us with joy and welcome us back to the flock.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.