After his arrest, Jesus has been accused before Pilate, the Roman governor, of being opposed to Caesar and of claiming to be the Messiah of God, a king. Now, having been condemned to death under Roman law, Jesus is being crucified along with two criminals. The rulers and the soldiers taunt Jesus and call out that if he is the Messiah and king of the Jews, he should be able to save himself. One of the criminals also reviles Jesus saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” The other criminal, however, recognizing his own crimes and the goodness of Jesus, says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responds, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The rulers, soldiers, and the criminal who taunted Jesus had a definite notion of what it would mean if Jesus had been anointed by God as king. In their minds it would mean that Jesus would be a ruler of an empire—certainly more powerful than Caesar, and most certainly not a helpless victim of Caesar’s power. We too may fall into the trap of projecting our own notions of what it means to honor Jesus as our king. Instead of projecting our own expectations, we must reflect on how Jesus reveals the meaning of authority in the kingdom he came to establish on earth.
Pope Pius XI, in his 1925 encyclical Quas Primas establishing the feast of Christ the King, reminds us of key texts for us to reflect upon today. In response to his disciples who were coveting positions of power, Jesus said that those who are rulers over the Gentiles make their authority over them felt. In his kingdom, however, whoever wishes to be great must be a servant, for he tells them that he himself “did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:35-45). To Jesus, the king anointed by God, all power in heaven and on earth was given; yet he issued no imperial decree to be enforced by the power of the sword. Rather he said to all who would listen, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:28-29). This is a king?
It is on the cross that Jesus ultimately reveals what it means to be king. The supreme power and glory of God that Jesus reveals is love. And in a world under Satan’s reign of evil violence, it must be crucified love. Even though he challenges us to become engaged in the struggle to establish Christ’s kingdom of justice and peace on earth, Pius XI calls us to a choice even more fundamental. In his encyclical, the Pope connects the feast of Christ the King to the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. As king, Jesus gave his heart to us.“Lifted high on the cross, Christ gave his life for us, so much did he love us” (Preface for the feast of the Sacred Heart). He did so asking that we give our hearts to him.
At our Eucharist today we pray that each of us may truly believe that Jesus “the Son of God has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:20). And we ask for the grace to respond to this supreme love by giving ourselves and entrusting our lives to his reign. Perhaps for many of us, we may only be able to repeat the words of the criminal dying on his own cross: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.