“This is the King of the Jews.” Lk 23:38
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Church adopted many of the trappings we associate with people of power. As a consequence, little by little, the Church began mimicking the dress, titles and palaces of the princes and lords of Europe.
These developments were intended to serve as a constant reminder to secular authorities that the rule of God was more important and more commanding than any human ruling class. The thinking went something like this:
If a king wears a crown, then the pope should wear a triple crown. Hence, the creation of the tiara, which was eventually retired in the late 20th century.
But in the course of making those changes, many in the Church failed to remember the scene so powerfully depicted in today’s gospel.
Here, there is no jeweled tiara. Only a crown of thorns. Here, there is no gold-plated throne. Only a wooden cross. Here, there are no trumpets blaring, no choirs chanting, no drums booming. Only a stark inscription claiming, “This is the King of the Jews.”
And yet, today the Church celebrates the feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.
In doing so, the Church attempts to emphasize the kind of kingship that Jesus represents … a kingship that redefines what true authority in this world really is.
It’s a kingship that eschews lording it over people. It’s a kingship that refuses all of the riches common to leaders of the world. It’s a kingship that uses language like mercy and forgiveness.
It’s a kingship that can be summarized in one word: servanthood.
That virtue of servanthood is on full display in the crucifixion scene as found only in the gospel of Luke. It’s the scene featuring two criminals hanging alongside Jesus. One of the two recognizes that he is in need of forgiveness. He says to Jesus: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus, amidst excruciating agony while undergoing the cruelest and most degrading form of death imaginable, remains true to his identity as the face of God. He not only forgives but embraces the man as one “who will be with me in Paradise.”
The idea of “paradise” is also richer than we usually think. “Paradise” not only refers to a blessed life hereafter, but also to the reality of a God who enters into the pain and hurt and heartache of people suffering throughout the world; a God who embraces a world immersed in the consequences of violence and homelessness and despair of one kind or another.
The other criminal hanging despairingly and bitterly next to Jesus perhaps represents the multitude of people throughout the world who have lost their sense of hope altogether. Paradise is there for them, too – if they can be reached by the power of love so overwhelmingly demonstrated by the God of the cross.
Mercy has been designated as the defining virtue of God by no less than Pope Francis. Mercy, he tells us, is “the name of God; it is his calling card.”
Luke’s gospel is replete with example after example of the boundless nature of God’s mercy and forgiveness. He demonstrates this endearingly again and again, beginning with the beguiling story of Mary who in the poverty of a stable praised God for knocking the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly; to the stories of Jesus healing the sick and raising the dead; to the father who rushes out to welcome his prodigal son; to the feeding of the hungry multitudes; and finally to the cross where Jesus is mocked and spat upon and nailed to a piece of wood.
All of it tells a story with one overarching theme:
Our God is the Lord of the universe – a God who comes to live with us as a merciful and infinitely loving Servant.
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.