Whenever we hear the name of Mark Twain, we usually think of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, or maybe even Joan of Arc, which he said was his best book. Mark Twain wrote prodigiously but today I want to focus on his book called The Prince and the Pauper.
It’s a story about two boys born in England on the very same day. The first boy was born to the royal family and was the direct heir to the throne of England. He was given the title of The Prince of Wales, and eventually he would become King Edward VI. Commenting on his birth, Mark Twain writes, “England had so longed for him, and hoped for him, and prayed to God for him, and now that he was really there, the people went nearly mad for joy. Everybody took a holiday, the high and low, the rich and poor, they feasted and danced and sang.”
Now on the very same day that the prince was born into the royal family in the palace of London, another boy was born, but born to a very poor family in the slums of London. He was given the name of Tom Canty, and eventually he would become a beggar boy. Commenting on his birth, Mark Twain writes, “He was an unwanted boy. Nobody longed for him; nobody hoped for him; nobody prayed to God for him. And now that he was in the world, nobody feasted, nobody danced, and nobody sang.”
Both boys grew up in totally different surroundings. They grew up with totally different views of the world.
Now one day Tom Canty finds himself outside the gates to the royal palace. And he is awestruck by its beauty. As he edges closer to the gates to get a better look, the royal guards charge towards him and brutally throw him to the ground. The young prince happens to see the incident and comes running to Tom’s defense. And then to the surprise of the guards, the prince invites Tom inside to visit the royal palace.
Tom is flabbergasted. He’s never seen anything like this before. And the prince is charmed by the genuineness of his new friend. Now as the prince was showing Tom the huge mirror in his room, the prince notices something, except for Tom’s rags and dirty face, he is a perfect look-alike for himself. He said to Tom the pauper, “You have the same hair, the same eyes, the same voice, and the same face. If we were wearing the same clothes there is none who could say which was you and which was me, the Prince of Wales.” And so they got the idea to switch places and play a trick on everybody. The prince put on Tom’s beggar clothes and wandered off through the slums of London and rubbed elbows with the poor. While Tom put on the prince’s clothes and rubbed elbows with the rich and famous.
After a time, however, the boys tired of their game. And the prince returned to the palace and tried to enter, but the guards seized him, they didn’t recognize him. And when he refused to go away, he was thrown into the palace prison. No amount of persuasion would convince them that he was really the Prince of Wales. Even Tom’s attempts to set things straight failed.
With time the situation resolved itself, but as a result of the “trading places” the prince knew first-hand what it meant to be poor and to be treated harshly. The prince would eventually become king and he became one of the most merciful and best-loved kings ever to reign on the throne. He looked after the poor.
Our Lord, the real King, the King of the Universe, in that Great Exchange, in that greatest of Trading Places, like the prince made himself poor, made himself poor so that we might be made rich in divinity. This Solemnity of Christ the King was given to us in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. It was given to us at a time when certain secular rulers were launching dictatorships which would become vehicles of hate and destruction. Through this solemnity the Pope wanted to reassert the ultimate and universal Kingship of Jesus Christ and his law of love and truth.
On this great Solemnity of Christ the King I offer three points. First: what is a King supposed to do? Second: how does Jesus fulfill this? And Third: what does all this have to do with you and me today?
First, what are kings all about? Many of us probably picture a king as someone clothed in luxury, sitting on a throne, being waited on hand and foot, and not having to really do much of anything. But speaking Biblically, a king has three primary responsibilities: 1. to look out for widows and orphans, 2. to care for the poor, and 3. to go to war to protect his people. Not merely to send troops out to battle, but to lead the battle himself, to be on the front lines, to risk his own life for the lives of his people.
Second point, how does Jesus fulfill all of this? Let me focus on that third responsibility; to do battle for us. The second reading tells us that Jesus, “The ruler of the kings of the earth, loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood and has made us into a kingdom.” Why is Christ the King? He’s the King because He has gone to war for us. He didn’t sit at home in Heaven and send angels to fight for us. To save us from sin to conquer death and to destroy our ancient opponent, the devil. He did it Himself! He came here, born of the Virgin Mary, to do combat for us. It was most fitting that He become man, became one of us, so that He could take up arms against our oppressors; against sin, against death, and against the devil himself. He fought for us in our flesh.
As we know Jesus taught, he told parables, and he performed miracles. But those aren’t the reasons He came. He came to get His hands dirty, to get them bloody! Out of His extraordinary love for you and me he came to do battle for us, to fight for us, to wage war for us. The cross is not the tragic end, but the reason he came. Rescuing us from the stronghold of death and the guilt of sin. And in doing so He has shown us what a real King does: a real king protects, a real king defends, and a real king fights for others, He has His eyes open wide to those around Him who are defenseless, helpless and in most need.
And finally our third point, what does all this have to do with you and me? With baptism all of us have become sharers in Jesus’ Kingship. It means that we, as the Body of Christ, are called to have what the Church often refers to as a “preference for the poor.” We are challenged to ask the Holy Spirit to help us to look out into the world in which we live and with which we interact each day and to see those who are most in need and then to do something for them. It means defending human life and working to promote laws that ensure the protection of every human being, especially those who are most in jeopardy, the unborn, the elderly, and the sick. It means to be involved in efforts to feed the hungry and to cloth the naked. It means getting out of our comfort zones maybe making a phone call to someone who is grieving or to visit a friend in the hospital, a nursing home, a hospice, or even a jail. It means reaching out to the kid in school who doesn’t seem to have many friends, or is struggling somehow. It means, having our focus on the other and their needs and not on me and my needs.
This week, let us ask our Lord to help us see someone who in some way needs to be defended or cared for, this might be at work, in school, or at home. And then let’s pray for the grace to exercise our kingship and to do something for them.
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley