Today, the solemnity of Christ the King is the last Sunday of the Church’s year. This solemnity is a relatively new one; it was only instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. It was begun during a time in which certain secular rulers were launching dictatorships which were expressions of hate and destruction. Through this solemnity Pope Pius XI wanted to reassert the ultimate and universal kingship of Jesus Christ and his law of love and truth.
Next Sunday begins Advent, and with it comes the beginning of a new year for the Church. All this year we have been reading from the Gospel of St. Luke and at the very beginning of his Gospel, we find a great promise. A messenger from God tells a very young woman from the village of Nazareth that she is going to conceive a child, a son, whom she is to call Jesus. And the promise goes like this: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Her child is going to be a king. And not just any king, but the great promised Prince of Peace, the Redeemer–King for whom people had been hoping and longing for centuries, the One who would bring to the whole world peace and salvation. But now at the end of the year at the end of Luke’s Gospel we hear what sounds like a mockery. Our Savior has been crucified. His throne is now a Cross his crown is made of thorns and for royal company he has two criminals, one to his right and one to his left. (I don’t have a good segue for this next part)
A while back I was at Borgess Hospital visiting with an older woman by the name of Eugenia who was just waking up from anesthesia and she began to tell me a story that she had heard many times while she was a little girl growing up in Poland. This story is about the child Jesus and his parents Mary and Joseph as they made their way to Egypt escaping Herod’s massacre. At a certain point in their trip the Holy family stopped at an oasis for a much needed rest. Traveling in the desert can make one quite dusty and the baby Jesus was in need of a bath and it just so happened that another young family was close by and they were preparing a bath for their own young son. So the Blessed Virgin Mary approached that young mom and asked if she might use some of that bath water for her baby Jesus. The young woman said, “yes, you can use all the water we have, bathe your baby first and then afterwards I’ll bathe mine.” That young mother who said this and was very generous in giving the Holy Family first use of the water because her own baby was afflicted with a terrible skin disease and she didn’t want any other baby to contract the disease. So Mary bathed Jesus in the offered bath water and afterwards the young mom bathed her own suffering son. And after that bath her son was miraculously cured of his disease, no more suffering. The woman telling me this story from her hospital bed then went on to say, “You know, Fr., pointing her finger at me that baby, cured of his disease and his suffering, would grow up to become the good thief crucified at the right hand of Christ.” After the woman in the hospital finished telling me the story I thanked her and told her I’d repeat her story someday.
This childhood account of Jesus is not part of scripture so we have no way of knowing if it’s true. It did however; bring comfort to a woman who was suffering in a hospital bed and was not so sure of what would happen next. She was comforted by a King who even as a baby was present to someone’s suffering. She was comforted by a king who suffered with her, always there in the midst of her own suffering. And we see this too with the good thief. Jesus suffered right along with this man.
In those few short hours that the good thief endured on the cross next to our dying Savior he made great progress in the spiritual life. He made great progress in faith, hope, and charity. The cross took everything away from him. All he had left was his mind, his voice, and his heart and these he gave totally to our Lord. He turned his heart to Jesus in faith and hope by asking for a place in paradise. And in charity he proclaims the innocence and holiness of Jesus, and even tries to convert the other crucified thief. Our King is a king whose throne is a cross and with the crosses we bear he is always there with us. St. Augustine once said that the Cross is, “A great spectacle: a great jest for the ungodly, but a great mystery to the godly; it’s a great mark of disgrace to the wicked, but a great evidence of faith to the godly; ungodliness, as it looks on, laughs at a king bearing the wood of His punishment instead of His scepter: while the godly behold a king bearing the cross on which He was to be nailed. He is scorned in the eyes of the ungodly for that very thing in which the hearts of the saints would thereafter glory.” We glory in the Cross of our King because it’s our ladder to heaven.
The next time we come into a difficulty, or we suffer, or circumstances seem to be beyond our control let us remember the good thief. Let us remember his faith, hope, and charity. And let us make his words our prayer, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
No power in this world can remove or destroy what our king gives; and that’s eternal life.
Pax et Bonum,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley