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Christ the King, Exalted by the Cross

On the Readings for Sunday, November 24th, The Feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

'The Crucifixion' by Giovanni Bellini (1501-03)
Detail from "The Crucifixion" (1501-03) by Giovanni Bellini []

• 1 Sam 5:1-3
• Ps 122:1-2, 3-4, 4-5
• Col 1:12-20
• Lk 23:35-43

“Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

Those words were uttered in the mid-second century by St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna and one of the Apostolic Fathers. Polycarp was burned at the stake and pierced with a sword for refusing to burn incense to the Roman emperor. What did those who killed Polycarp think about his final words? Did they stop to wonder, “Who is this king he is willing to die for?” Or to ask, “Where is this king and his armies? Where is his kingdom?”

In Quas Primas, his 1925 encyclical that introduced the Feast of Christ the King, Pope Pius XI reflected on the nature of the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus Christ. His kingdom, the pontiff noted, “is spiritual and is concerned with spiritual things.” In proclaiming the kingdom of God, Jesus often had to strongly correct misunderstandings, especially from those who thought his rule would be based in political and military might, aimed at a violent overthrow of the Romans. When asked by Pilate, “Are you the king of the Jews?”, Jesus replied cryptically, indirectly: “You say so” (Lk. 23:3). He further explained, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight…” (Jn. 18:36).

“This kingdom is opposed to none other than to that of Satan and to the power of darkness,” Pius XI emphasized, “It demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice, and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross.” It is the scandal and the paradox of the Cross that reveals the kingdom, just as making the sign of the cross reveals those who love and worship the king.

The cross is a sign of contradiction; it separates those who sneer, jeer, and revile Jesus from those who behold, embrace, and adore him. Execution on a cross was not only violent and grim, it was a shameful and dishonorable. Yet, as Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, “His enthronement as King will be complete on the Cross … And so he says, ‘Yes, I am a King.’ Not a king within a vanquished world but a King who sits on a throne exalted high above it. Exalted by the Cross.”

The cross divides mankind because it demands a choice, a judgment about the person of Jesus Christ. But having chosen the cross, the division ends and we are brought into union with the King and his divine life; we receive communion, partaking of his body and blood broken for us on the cross. The cross thus unites mankind, and the inner nature of the kingdom is revealed. As St. Paul wrote to the Colossians, in the Son “all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church.” The church is intimately related to the Kingdom: “While it slowly grows, the Church strains toward the completed Kingdom and, with all its strength, hopes and desires to be united in glory with its King” (Lumen Gentium, 5).

The two criminals crucified with Christ personify the two options available to everyone. Both are sinners; both are able to look directly upon the King. But one sees only a fellow criminal—a target for angry, despairing mockery. Yet the other sees an innocent man; even more, he sees a King: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

The true meaning of Christ’s kingship, states the Catechism, “is revealed only when he is raised high on the cross” (par. 440). Yet many will reject the King, enthroning themselves as rulers of their passing lives. Others, such as Polycarp, give themselves completely to the King who never does any injury, but instead delivers us from the power of darkness and transfers us into his eternal kingdom.

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About Carl E. Olson 1220 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

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