King

Homily for the Solemnity of Christ the King, 2010
by Fr. Jet Villarin, SJ

If you’re of this century, I suspect that relating to Jesus Christ “our sovereign king” might not come easy. Admittedly, the image of Christ the King can be quaint and ancient for many. Kings and lords are the stuff of Shrek stories and fairy tales. Others might do better paying homage to Lady Gaga or Lord Voldemort out of adoration or fear.

In today’s Gospel, we are at the outskirts of Jerusalem, outside this place of power which was the very booty of battles waged by David, King of Israel and Judah. On this feast of Christ the King, the Gospel places us outside this central place of worship, where we see a Son of David wearing a crown of thorns as he is enthroned on a cross and executed with two criminals.

On the surface of things, there is nothing regal about him. There is no scepter, no tribute, no power, no allegiance to be found. The first criminal joins the crowd in taunting this “king,” rebuking him to be kingly enough to save them from death and defeat.

The second thief sees more to this unseemliness and recognizes a different sort of conquest taking place. He confesses his own crime, takes responsibility, and accepts the punishment for his sins. He asks only that he be remembered when this king finally comes into his “kingdom.”

If we know Eden to be open again, it is because of what Jesus promises this man: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

At the heart of things, that promise is also God’s ultimate and deepest longing. Soren Kierkegaard has a beautiful parable about the eventual outcome of this divine longing.

Once upon a time there lived in a great castle a king so powerful and wealthy he was adored and feared by all in his kingdom. Alas, for all his omnipotence, this king was smitten with love for a lowly maiden. The king thought hard about the terrible distance that separated them and what he would do to win the heart of his beloved.

At first, he thought of going to her as he was. However, he knew that if he went to her in all his pomp and glory, with “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men,” she would instantly be his for the taking. She would be dazzled by his wealth and power, or she would be intimidated by the horses and men. She would say “yes” out of enchantment or she would not dare say “no” out of fear.

The king knew all these and pondered deeply how love could ever work if love were not free or if love were driven by fear. Love that was merely enchanted was not love, and love that cowered in fear would not last.

And so he thought of another way. He would disguise himself as a lowly man and present himself to her. Coming to her as a poor man, with all the regalia hidden from her, he could be more certain about her love (if she ever came to love him back). If he pretended to be so, he would know if her love was true.

Then again, he thought, if he did just that, he wouldn’t be true to her and to himself. How could love ever thrive if love were founded on a lie?

As the king agonized over the avenues of this courtship, he eventually came to know the one and only way he was ever going to win her heart. And that was for him to remove every manner of pretense and disarm himself of all his kingly wealth and power. The only way was to leave the sanctuary of his castle so he could live and share the life of his beloved. To love her and to live with her happily ever after, he would have to use his power to let go of power.

Today, we remember again the radical choice made by Christ our King to renounce power in exchange for the freedom of our love. When our King takes up our way from manger to cross, what we once thought to be scandal we now know to be redemptive and regal. All that is victorious is to be found in him who has shown us that “love is exultant when it unites equals, but it is triumphant when it makes that which was unequal equal in love” (Kierkegaard).

When we rest our gaze then on the sign of his cross, we see the insignia of true royalty and the very emblem of self-emptying love. May we his beloved be moved to return the nobility of his love with lives that are grateful and just as noble. And with love that is devoted to making all things “unequal equal in love.”

About Jet Villarin, SJ

Fr. Jet is a Filipino Jesuit priest and scientist, who is the university president of Ateneo de Manila University. He received the National Outstanding Young Scientist award in 2000, and the Outstanding Book Award for “Disturbing Climate” in 2002. He is also an active member of several local and international environment and climate committees, such as the United Nations’ Consultative Group of Experts for Developing Countries, and the Inter-Agency Committee on Climate Change, among others.

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