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The Cross divides because it demands a choice

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, is a reminder that the cross continues to be a sign of contradiction.

'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 correct misunderstandings, especially from those who thought his rule would be based on 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.


  1. Lately I’ve been reading, prior to sleep, the Ante Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff. The Cross is prominent in the lives of Polycarp and Ignatius. Realizing through my reading the close relationship between the younger Ignatius and the older Polycarp, the great faith both had, their heroic embrace of the Cross of Christ and martyrdom.
    The two great martyrs, witness to the faith exchanged letters, currently reading Ignatius’ missals to Polycarp, the veneration he had for Polycarp, Ignatius’ care for the Church at Antioch requests that Polycarp of Smyrna insure faithful Christians supplement his diocese in Syria during his absence while in chains en route to Rome and martyrdom.
    Having read breviary accounts of Ignatius’ determination to be martyred for the faith [seeming excessive] it wasn’t until I became familiar with the texts both the Gk and the Syriac, the nuances of meaning, the Christlike desire for Ignatius to travel to Rome and death as identical with Christ’s determination to travel to Jerusalem and crucifixion. The letters reveal faith burning with love for Christ, for Ignatius and Polycarp Love itself realized in their lives.
    Author editor of the documents Schaff remarks this great love, passionate desire of these early Church fathers [Polycarp is said to have been a disciple of Paul, a companion of John] is what is missing today.This Christian love of ours is perceived in these martyrs realized in the embrace of the Cross, to endure suffering, perhaps death for our brother’s salvation whether he loves us or hates us. Exactly as Christ endured the Cross for us.

    • A follow up to the divine Martyr. Author Olson underlines Pius XI, who says Christ’s kingdom is diametrically opposed to that of Satan, and Von Balthasar, who adds [in like words] that his kingship is achieved on the wood of the Cross. Raised above all else.
      Significantly, Pius XI served as Supreme Pontiff 1922 to 1939, the entire period during the rise of Adolf Hitler and the start of WWII. Adolf, born Catholic, member of the parish choir, considered the priesthood. Instead turned to the exhilarating musical interpretation of Nordic mythology by Richard Wagner, and a deep quasi mystical interior fervor [according to William Shirer’s account of an intimate friend]. His courage during the Great War earned him the Iron Cross first class. Defeat fired a desire to restore Germany to greatness. His ascendance to Fuehrer of the Third Reich affirmed his sense of an ethereal messiahship, the chosen one of the gods of old [he told a correspondent if you wish to understand Germany listen to Wagner]. The German soldier must be the predator, the fierce hawk who tears and kills, merciless. Truth became whatever confirmed Germany’s superiority and right to conquer, to dominate. All that is antithetical to Christ. He turned to Satan.
      If we, in accord with the thesis of Olson’s essay, wish to understand Catholic Christianity listen to the meek Word impaled to Cross.

  2. The Cross is more than a one-time choice. It looms over our daily life. Our self-life must be denied, and the Cross must be intentionally embraced daily.
    How is this possible? ONLY through a connecting faith in the ONE who did it perfectly every day of His life. Thank you for the reminder.

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